Kicking off our True Crime Podcast – Tantamount: Season One, Episode One

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So this is the start of our first season of Tantamount – a true crime podcast about our most recent book on the Washington DC Freeway Phantom serial killer.

Here’s some of the links to get to it:

Podbean

Spotify

Coming soon to iTune Podcasts

Victoria, my daughter and co-author, and I have been wanting to get into podcasting for a while.  It seemed a perfect fit with the new book coming out.  I didn’t want to do a short one-shot podcast, but one that allowed us to go beyond the book and really dive into this serial killing spree.

When we write a book, we focus on the facts.  Our goal is to present information, not shove our opinions on the reader.  The podcast lets us talk about what we think and feel, things that wouldn’t play well in a book.

There were some parameters for this effort we felt were important:

  • The podcast had to stand on its own.  You didn’t have to buy or read the book to follow it.
  • We wanted it to be the first of a series.  So season one is on the Freeway Phantom.  We have plans for future seasons that will dive into other cases…some we’ve written about, some that we just are intrigued with.
  • It had to be as professional as we could produce on our own.
  • We wouldn’t launch it unless we had at least two episodes in the queue.  Episode #2 will pop sometime in the next few days.
  • We wanted some links to this blog where we could post some things we didn’t put in the book directly – some source material for those that wanted to explore more about the episode.
  • This first episode is about why we undertook this book, investing two years of our lives into the case. I would love to tell you there is some magical formula we use to determine if we are digging into a crime, but in reality, a lot of it is gut-check-level stuff.

We also start with the first victim – Carol Spinks.  I’ve included copies of her police report here.  It gives you an idea of what our starting point was for this – which wasn’t much.

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Carol Spinks – The First Victim

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I am not an audio editor or expert in podcasting. I spent more time editing than anything else. It is a great learning curve for both Victoria and me.  Please be gentle with your comments.

For my BattleTech fans, yes, I want to do something in that space and have started scripting out my first episode – on Snord’s Irregulars.  So far the working titles include:  Old Fart’s BattleTech, Ammo Dump, and All Systems Not Nominal.

So, please subscribe and share our podcast and if you want more information, get out book!

Review of the Film Midway (2019)

Midway

I always cringe when Hollywood says they are going to do a historical war movie. Midway was a good effort, though it glossed over many things that made the battle so remarkable.

First off, I watched the old movie Midway prior to going.  I liked some of it, but hated the mix of Tora, Tora, Tora footage in with actual war documentary footage.  The old movie had flaws all on its own but it was my measuring stick for the new film.

The movie tries hard to cover the battle and the preceding events that led up to it without drifting into the love story that was so horrible with Pearl Harbor.  The attack on December 7th is really outstanding in terms of the CGI.  I loved watching the Doolittle raid take off, but it wanders a little too far into that mission as well. In fact, from a plot standpoint, the film struggles to stay on-course to tell the story of Midway, rather than the first seven months of the war as a whole.

As to the battle itself, the movie does a fair job…not great, but not Battle of the Bulge bad.  I liked what was in the movie.  My biggest complaint were the things that were omitted that should have been in the movie.

First up, the miracle of the USS Yorktown.  The film touches on it, but the fact that the Yorktown is repaired in two days after the Battle of the Coral Sea is important.  Also critical is that the Japanese hit the carrier, setting her ablaze during the battle of Midway, but the ship recovered.  The Japanese attacked it again the next day, eventually leading to her being scuttled.  It deceived them into thinking they had sunk two different carriers and is important.  In the movie, we see the Japanese pilots getting ready to attack and the next scene is the Yorktown ablaze.  It was, to me, the biggest blown opportunity of the film.  It was either bad writing or crappy editing.

The air attacks from Midway were terrifying to the Japanese but fail, in both renditions of this film, to cover them accurately.  The PBY’s launching torpedoes at the Japanese and the slaughter of the Brewster Buffalos were important.

The film also misrepresented the intelligence ploy of transmitting that the water purification plant at Midway (AF) was down.  This act set the stage for the battle, but it is glossed over inaccurately in the movie…for apparently no reason.

Also the faulty arming switches on the dive bombers was important…more important that the fictionalized story that the movie gives between Best and McClusky that attempts to be the heart and soul of this movie. This technological debacle makes the miraculous victory at Midway even greater, but it is ignored.

Also Hollywood, at the end of the movie when you indicate the honors bestowed on the real-life heroes, you said they “won” their medals.  You win Participation Trophies – not military honors.  I heard a vet in the theater bemoan this point so it isn’t lost on me.

The movie seemed to rely too much on special effects (which were great) rather than on the substance of the battle itself.

The dialogue leaves you wanting more.  Nimitz saying, “We won,” was just, well, cheap writing. Nothing was done to frame the victory and what it ultimately meant.  I also wish they had focused on a plot.  Delving into the Doolittle Raid so deeply, while nice, distracted from the battle of Midway.

Having bitched about the inaccuracies, I DID enjoy the movie.  It’s not up there with A Bridge Too Far, but it holds its own and doesn’t suck like Pearl Harbor.  I’ll be purchasing it for home viewing and will permanently shelve my copy of the 1970’s Midway.   That, on its own, is not a ringing endorsement.

Epicenter of Evil – St. Elizabeths Hospital, Washington DC – The Freeway Phantom

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My co-author and daughter, Victoria Hester, looking at St. Elizabeths through the fence

Between 1971 and 1972 a serial killer stalked Washington DC.  Dubbed “The Freeway Phantom” he killed up to seven victims, perhaps more.  All were young girls between the ages of 10 and 18; strangled and in one case stabbed, all sexually assaulted.  The murders most likely stopped in 1972, but the quest to bring this killer to justice did not stop.

What I like about writing true crime is that I have to learn things.  When we dove into the Freeway Phantom case for our book, Tantamount, there were two hurdles I had to jump.  One was forensic linguistics – which we were helped by none other hand Jim Fitzgerald, the guy that was behind the apprehension of the Unabomber.  The other was geographic profiling.

Geographic profiling can be complicated…mostly because of the math involved.  I actually purchased the textbook written by the person that did the profiling for the Freeway Phantom case so that I could become at least fluent when I wrote about it.

It is a fascinating field of study but it is math-based, so I had to reacquaint myself with algebra.  See kids, it DOES get used when you are an adult…in my case it simply took five decades.

I prefer to keep things simple.  So think of it this way.  Most serial killers have anchor points in their lives.  These are places where they lure in their victims, where they live, where they work, or where they have a strong and meaningful attachment. Anchor points are important geographic places for a killer.

A “typical” serial killer will not operate (intercept his victims, dump their bodies, etc.) where he is known.  That neighborhood is familiar to him, but there’s too high of a risk of him being seen and identified. This creates a zone or bubble where the killer will not conduct his nefarious affairs.

Outside of that is the typical hunting zone.  Here the killer has a strong familiarity with the area, but is less likely to be identified.  He knows the neighborhood, but is not well-known there.  He knows the streets, the escape routes, etc., but doesn’t live there.

Outside of that sphere is where the killer is not familiar with the geography nor is he known there.  Chances are he will not operate there.  There is too much risk involved for him there.

Geographic profiling crunches in all of the data about a serial killer.  In the case of the Freeway Phantom, it looks at where the victims lived, where they were last seen (their abduction areas) and where their bodies are dumped.  Then the algebra happens.  Traffic patterns, maps, key terrain features, population density are all crunched.

What emerges is the anchor point for the killer – that one special place for them, a place of significance.  Often times it is their home, or where they do their heinous acts.

When the geographic profile was prepared for the Freeway Phantom the model came up with the killer’s anchor point – St. Elizabeths Hospital, a psychiatric facility, in Washington DC.

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The results of the geographic profile, from a 2006 confidental police report

This was where the killer had a strong connection.  He may have been a doctor there, or, more likely, a patient.  For him, St. E’s (as it is known locally) was a place he knew well.  It was an important part of his life.  The Freeway Phantom may have beaten the investigators, but you can’t beat the math.  For the killer, St. Elizabeths was a vital part of his life, either before or during the murder spree.

It makes perfect sense when you look at the murders in retrospect.  Two of the victims were left along I-295, right at the edge of St. Elizabeths grounds.  Another was less than a half mile away from the mental hospital.

Like any profile, you can’t exclude suspects because they don’t fit it, but it does give you a very strong indication of where investigators can focus their efforts.  Unfortunately, the profile didn’t exist during the initial investigations, but decades later.

Several suspects had ties to St. E’s, the strongest being Robert Ellwood Askins, who lived there for decades – committed to the hospital for committing murder. Considered one of the prime suspects for these murders, Askins died in prison a few years back.  Of all of the key suspects, Askins was the only one that spent years at St. Elizabeths, sent there for murder of young women.  More on him in another post.

Today, St. E’s is crumbling one building at a time. Even now, it is eerie, the iron bars on the windows no longer hold occupants.  The crises that must have echoed the hallways are now filled with the flutter of pigeons or the scurry of rats.  The Department of Homeland Security expressed interest in the land and the rumble of demolition equipment during the daytime hours echoes between the tile-roofed buildings.  Chain-link fence surrounds the complex, no longer aimed at keeping patients in, now it is in place to keep homeless people out.

St. E’s as it looks today…still creepy 

Want to dive deeper into this serial killing spree?  Check out our book, Tantamount – The Pursuit of the Freeway Phantom Serial Killer.  

Totally Biased Review of BattleTech: Kell Hounds Ascendant by Michael Stackpole

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I know it’s hard to believe, but I am not just a writer of BattleTech, I’m a fan.  So when these three novellas came out in a compendium, I got a copy.  I wasn’t disappointed.  These are tales of the Kell brothers in the formation of the infamous Kell Hounds mercenary unit.

This takes place during the Third Succession War, back when we could conquer a planet with a company of BattleMechs.  Boy, those were the days. Rumors of lostech prevail, pirate raids are a reality, and you had to make every missile count.  ‘Mechs were patched and cobbled together with binder-twine and a prayer.  Politics was less about what the Archon or Chancellor were thinking, but what happened on a local planet-level.  I miss a lot of that era as a fan because it was so simple and fun.  Mike has done an outstanding job of taking us back to those heady days of yesteryear with these stories.  It is as if he adopted a writing style he used back-in-the-day.  The pacing is brisk with subtle twists and turns.

When I was at the writer’s meeting two months ago I spoke with him about the stories and told him what I really liked best was the dialogue between Morgan and Patrick Kell.  The quips, the intricately crafted barbs, they were fun to read.  Mike pointed out to me that before these novellas, fans had never really seen and heard the brothers together.  For long-time fans, it is a special treat.

Each story stands alone and I won’t spoil any plots here.  I love the characters we get air-time with…Prince Ian Davion, Archon Katrina Steiner…and some of the foundational characters in the Kell Hounds.   It’s the little bits I enjoyed, like baby Melissa Steiner crying in the background of a scene.  These materials are perfect if you are going to run the new MechWarrior RPG because they give you some of the intrigue and challenges of starting up a mercenary unit from scratch.

Personally, I liked the first and third stories the best.  The second one deals with religion, and while masterfully done, I always lean away from religion in BattleTech.  Too many years of ComStar do that to you. Too much, “Hocus Pocus HPG Focus…” makes you shy away from true religious-based stories – though Mike does a great job with his.

This is not one of the spine novels, something universe shattering.  Instead these fill wonderful and entertaining gaps in BattleTech history.  They become more important with some of the events yet to come – so go out and buy this compendium!

Gaming Rip-Off – Minuteman Miniatures – Now Called Miniature You

This little saga started at GenCon 2018.  Minuteman Miniatures had a booth where you could get your head scanned and they would provide you custom miniatures with your head/face on them.  Great idea.  I, along with my son and grandson, started the process with our scans.  In December, I ordered our minis to the tune of around $100.00.

I mentally gave them a few months grace period because I presumed there was a backlog. Then I started to email them.  No response.  I called the owner, Michael Elices, and his voicemail box was full.  Not a good sign.  I kept sending emails, every two weeks to both Mike and their support address, but got no response.

Now, a friend of mine did get his miniature – eight months after he ordered it at Gen Con and it looked great.  So this company is not an entire scam.  I am hopeful still that they would refund my money or, better yet, produce the miniatures we ordered.  At this point I would have settled for a simple “we are working on it,” response.  Instead nothing but silence, which is not good.

They have rebranded themselves as Miniature You and are promising an app as of July of this year to allow you to scan your own face and order custom miniatures from them.  I would strongly advise you to not do so.  This company has 21 Better Business Bureau complaints filed against them, all unresolved.  While I am sure their intent is to provide a service to the gaming community, and yes, some people have gotten their miniatures – there are a lot of people out there that have not.   Anyone handing them money for product is doing so with a great deal of risk.

I fully support game companies, especially start-ups.  But for them to not deliver to so many customers, then spend money to create an app to get more money…without fulfilling their orders…well, that’s borderline criminal behavior.

I will be pursuing legal remedies shortly with them.  I wanted to warn gamers out there to beware of this company though.

BattleTech Nose Art Project

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I retired a week ago and decided to tackle an arts and crafts project for the game room in our new house we are having built.  There will be a BattleTech theme, because, my wife is awesome.

I have always been intrigued with WWI and WWII aircraft art, or nose art.  The WWII bomber images were often of buxom women and they had a cool vibe to them.  I began to contemplate that we would have the same things in BattleTech as well.  It made sense.  You probably won’t see them at miniature scale, but it would be hard to believe that we wouldn’t have them.  So I decided to create my own and do it for a character from my work – Colonel Rhonda Snord.

I wanted a statement piece (that statement being, “I’m a geek!”) so I opted for three foot by five foot.  I got a ¼ inch sanded piece of plywood for the backing and cut the “ribs” so that there was some curve.  The cutting wasn’t tricky, but I wanted the same angle which took some hand-plaining to get it right.

I wanted a little pattern in the cross-members, so I went with some creative spacing.  These two had to be planed for the eventual curve of the metal.

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The ribs

The metal was from Home Depot, you get it in three-foot-square pieces, so I had trimmed some for experimentation purposes with the paint.

I used a nail gun to nail the ribs and supports to the plywood, along with some glue.  This gave me the frame for the metal.  The key is to make a diagram with accurate measurements of where the ribs are so that when you “rivet” them you know where to drive the brad/rivet.

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That’s right, Endo Steel is really just plywood from Home Depot

 

I laid the metal out and realized (duh) that the curve of the ribs meant my metal wouldn’t cover all of the ribs.  No problem, I decided to leave the exposed part at the top, as you can see.

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Nice eh?

To rivet these, you use an awl and tap a small hole.  I did mine at about one and one-half inches apart.  Using some needle nose plyers, I used some large aluminum thumbtacks and pounded them in.  I learned that at some the ends of the curve the thumbtacks weren’t long enough and popped up, so I sunk in a few screws mixed in with the tacks and glued them in just to be sure.  Next time I am getting longer brads so they will hold better.

Imperfections are okay, remember, this is outer skin for ferro-fibrous armor we are talking about.  Some imperfections are to be expected.  I think the few I have give the piece character.  I liked the aluminum skin so much I was tempted to leave it as-is and put the art on it. But we don’t see too many bare metal ‘Mechs out there, so I went to paint.

It took exactly one can of spay paint to cover this.  For the colors, I referred to my own book, Call of Duty, which described Rhonda Snord’s ‘Mech as a dull green with the Buffalo Nickel, Elvis’s TCB lightning bolt.  Her callsign was Jailhouse Rocker – but I took the liberty of trimming that down.  The nickel, well, it just looked like crap no matter what I did. I assumed this was so big on the ‘Mech that it might not apply with what I was doing. I was going to do the TCB (Taking Care of Business) lightning bolt, but decided against that.  Let’s just assume that was on the other side of her cockpit.  I only bring it up here because I know some fan boy will be convulsing that was not 100% accurate.  Well, bear in mind, ‘Mechs get painted and repainted a LOT.  Deal with it junior.

I was going to hand stencil the letters but my tests on the scrap metal left me worried that, given my lack of artistic ability, I would screw it up.  So I ordered the stencil work, and her artwork logo (Jailhouse Rock) from https://doityourselflettering.com.  The cost was around $50 but was worth it compared to the price of me messing up such a large project.

 

For Rhonda, I went to cover of the scenario set and scanned her.  Three fans jumped in and helped me crop her out perfectly.  I then went to Fat Head’s web site and ordered up Rhonda.  https://www.fathead.com/custom does custom vinyl’s – just upload and rock. The cost was $35.  Strangely enough they sent me two of them.

Total cost of the project, including purchasing of metal cutters, and awl, etc., was around $200.00 total.  I’m not a carpenter or very skilled, but the time involved was around 15 hours or so – with the majority of that being putting the rivets in.

Alright, truth be told, I used my time machine, went to the future, found this replacement cockpit side for her Highlander in a junk pile, grabbed it, and came back.  All of us BattleTech authors have a time machine because all of this stuff is REAL.

You may not like it.  You may think the proportions are off and stuff, but I love it and can’t want for us to get the house built so I can hang it in the game room.

I have a three foot piece of plywood left and am contemplating doing a Black Window one too.