Visiting the Crime Scene of the First Colonial Parkway Murders

 

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA
Looking north on the Colonial Parkway from the turnoff where Cathy Thomas’s Honda was found. 

The Colonial Parkway is American’s narrowest national park, a thin ribbon of road snaking through the dense woods, swamps and coastlines of the James and York Rivers, linking Jamestown to Williamsburg and Yorktown.  To the normal tourist the road is serene – it was designed so that signs of modern life were blocked, as if to simulate a road during the Colonial period.  The handful of overpasses are red brick covered in moss in vines, harkening back in time.  We had driven it a half-dozen times before undertaking the book on the Colonial Parkway Murders.  After this book, we would never look at that stretch of road the same way again.

When you are true crime author like Victoria and I, you come to the scenes and drink in everything they can tell you.  Sometimes it is not much, sometimes it is a great deal.

Cathy Thomas’s car was discovered nose down at this site, pushed off of the parking area in a vain attempt to get it into the York River.  The undergrowth and angle of the car merely lodged it upright.  The victims had been strangled with a nylon line and their throats had been cut, in Thomas’s case, a near decapitation.  Additionally, Cathy Thomas suffered a knife wound on her hand – so there had been a struggle with their killer.  Their bodies had been placed in the rear areas of Cathy’s Honda Civic and had been doused with diesel fuel.  At the site there were matches found near the parking area where their murderer had tried to ignite the fuel but had failed.

When you pull off on the site where Cathy Thomas and Rebecca Dowski’s bodies were found, a few things strike you.  One, the space is relatively small.  There are a number of these half-moon shaped pull-offs on the parkway.  They can accommodate less than ten vehicles.  This one overlooks the York River.  When you push through the brush, there is a sheer drop of over ten feet to the water below. Back when their murders happened in October of 1986, there was no curb in the pull-off, nothing to prevent a car from drive off right into the river.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA
The curb was not in place when Cathy’s car was pushed over the embankment into the York River

Victoria Hester – my co-author and daughter, joined me at the site where their car was found at twilight.  To us, it was strange and creepy.  The moment the sun started to set, the parkway seemed to transform.  It became eerie, with long shadows stretching across the road.  The trees lining the roads that had seemed so quaint in the daylight, now formed dark tunnels.  We interviewed a number of people that told us that the visitors on the parkway at night were not the tourists. The parkway becomes seedier at night. Rumors bordering on legends abound of drug sales sites, wild drinking parties, homosexual sex spots, and lover’s lane activities abound with the locals, combined with rumors of stalker park rangers. Any such location was bound to have some local folklore tied to it.

Standing at the pull-off, you’re struck by the noise too.  The Colonial Parkway is paved with a gravel to simulate a dirt road of the period.  As cars drive by they make a low rumbling, almost a growling sound.  You can hear a car coming for almost a half a mile.  There are no lines on the road.  When the darkness comes headlights angle on the gentle curves, exposing the parking areas, casting even more shadows.

I remember saying out loud to Victoria, “This isn’t where the murders took place.”  She was not so sure.  So I made my case there, where their bodies were found.

There would have been a lot of blood soaked into the rich Virginia clay, but there wasn’t any present at the pull off where the Honda was found.  There were signs that Thomas’s car had been pulled off a few yards up the road, before the killer’s tried to set it ablaze, and failing that pushed it over the river embankment.  Killing Cathy and Rebecca took time, there had been a life-and-death struggle with their killer.  Time and risk of being seen are key factors on the parkway.  Murder in this simple pull-off would have placed the killer under the glare of headlights of passing cars.  Someone would have noticed two women tied up, with someone holding a weapon on them.

Thomas Dowski Scene
FBI Crime Scene photograph of the pull off area at the time of the murders.  

We tried to engage the first responders, the Park Rangers, who were called in when a jogger spotted the car.  I wrote them letters, but heard nothing.  After several months I called one of them.  He wouldn’t get on the phone with me, but put his wife on.  Sshe bluntly told me he was never going to speak with me and I should never contact him again.  The second ranger I reached out to, told me that I was to, “stop harassing me.”  A letter and single phone call hardly qualifies as harassment.  One ranger I tracked down, who had given press conferences about the murders, said he didn’t have any memories of the events.  Let’s be clear, murders in National Parks are rare – and on the Colonial Parkway, even rarer.  Giving a press conference about a pair of murders would be one of those things you remember in your career because you may only get to do it once or twice.  Convenient amnesia?  We came to the conclusion that either they were being told to not talk to us or they didn’t want their own mishandling of the cases to be exposed.

As it turns out, both were right.  That is a subject for another blog post.

The Colonial Parkway is a narrow tube – a funnel.  If either victim tried to flee, where could they go?  Up or down the parkway were the best options.  Get off the road and you are in a mire of swamps, creeks, the York River, forest, and confusion.  At night some of the gates are closed and locked, limiting access even more. If the victims were alive there, they were trapped.

Butting up to the Colonial Parkway is the Cheatham Annex, a Navy base that, in 1986, was storage for nuclear warheads.  We reviewed the Navy security logs for the night of the murder, nothing was out of the ordinary.  Also adjoining the Parkway is Camp Peary, better known as the CIA’s “Farm.”  In other words and intelligence training facility where our spies and those of our allies learn their tradecraft. Of course the CIA denies the facility or its purpose.

Stepping away from the emotions that the crime site generates, we pondered the obvious.  If the killer murdered them, how did he get away?  He clearly had driven Cathy’s Honda.  With the Honda pushed down the embankment, did their killer walk several miles along the parkway to get away.  Clearly there had been another vehicle at some point, one carrying diesel fuel, but had the fuel been poured into the interior before it had been brought to the parkway.  That seems unlikely out of fear that the fuel might ignite – the killer clearly didn’t know that diesel fuel has a higher ignition point than gasoline.  Did the killer have a partner that drove him away?  If he did walk out of the parkway at one of the exits, why hasn’t someone come forward who would have seen him?  There’s no appreciable shoulder in many spots of the route.  There are subdivisions and roads that come close to the parkway, but are obscured from sight.  Walking cross-country at night would have been a risky, possibly treacherous undertaking in the dark, covered in blood.

The fact that their bodies were in the rear of the vehicle points to them having been killed somewhere else and Thomas’s car driven there.  There is a larger, more secluded spot that could have been used, the Ringfield Picnic Area, less than a mile north.  It has been abandoned and closed off for years, though recently some clearing was done in that area.  On another visit to the parkway, Bill Thomas, Cathy’s brother, and I waded through the waist deep grass dotted with the remains of picnic tables and garbage cans.  It was surreal, almost post-apocalyptic.  Here, from the road, was a spot of complete seclusion.  This was where lovers could park and do what young people do in cars.  At the same time, here was the kind of place where such a heinous crime could take place and be done out of line of sight with the road.  There were several such places on the parkway.  Then again, we don’t know if Cathy and Rebecca were even alive at any point on the Parkway. They could have been killed almost anywhere.  This was simply where their mortal remains were found.  As much as you tell yourself that over and over, it is still an eerie place at twilight.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA
The closed off entrance to Ringfield.  
OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA
When twilight comes, the Parkway takes on an eerie feeling.  

Victoria and I walked the pull-off end to end then wandered up the road for a distance in both directions, taking it all in, hoping that the ground might tell us something that the investigators overlooked.  As the cars rumbled on by and their headlights hit us, we became convinced that, in this case, with these tragic deaths, the parkway didn’t hold the answers.  The trees still there were gnarled mute witnesses to the disposal of the bodies and the bumbled attempt to burn the Civic, but not of the murders.

The answers we were looking for were not on the parkway.  Not that night.

For more on the Colonial Parkway Murders, check out our upcoming book A Special Kind of Evil

#TrueCrime

#CrimeScene

#ColonialParkwayMurders

Review of Crime Buff’s Guide To Outlaw Los Angeles by Ron Franscell

Outlaw LA

Fair play disclaimer.  I write for WildBlue Press and was provided a digital copy of this book to review at my option. I chose to write this review because, well, I liked the book.

I recently wrote a blog post on people who visit crime scenes.  I was behind the curve – Ron Francell recognized this a long time ago.  His “Outlaw” series of books explore a city or region, unearthing long lost true crime treasures.  These books are a gentle mix of history, true crime, and travel guide – a unique if not compelling combination.  I’ve read two of his books in this series and the new one, Outlaw Los Angeles, was a rollercoaster ride through the sordid and violent history of LA.  As with all of the books in the series, Ron provides GPS coordinates of crime scenes and grave sites for those that want to experience the locale themselves.

I have long maintained that if you want to know the history of a city or its people, look to the crimes that defined them.  Franscell has done an outstanding job of taking us through the eerie and sometimes bizarre past of the City of Angels. I went in looking for the crimes I knew about, the Black Dahlia, for example.  What stunned me were the number of crimes I knew nothing about.  Even with Discovery ID covering so many historical crimes, Franscell has dug up a myriad of intriguing and captivating true crime yarns.

The coverage of cold cases in the book was good, balancing storytelling with facts.  Franscell provides a good overview of them, often outlining the various suspects.  You have to bear in mind with some of these cases the numbers of suspects could be long and tedious.  The author, thankfully, does not delve into every crackpot theory.

None of these are very long, making this a perfect beach read. Ron knows just how deep to take the reader into the subject, without diving down any rabbit holes.  His prose are witting and wry at times, with obvious care to entertain the reader.  I found myself humbled at some of his text in the Manson chapter.  Franscell sets the bar pretty high for those of us in the genre.

It was a smart move to dedicate a chapter to Charles Manson.  To have included it any other fashion would have been a distraction.  With all of the locations he has tagged in the text, you are tricked into realizing the scope of the Manson family’s reign of terror.

This is not the kind of true crime book that breaks new ground, nor does it claim that it does.  Instead it provides a wonderful tapestry of the darker side of Los Angeles in a comprehensive and entertaining format.  Outlaw Los Angeles is a tour guide for every true crime fan that visits the city – written by one of the contemporary masters of the craft.
#TrueCrime

You can follow WildBlue Press at: https://www.facebook.com/wildbluepress/

 

Review of “She is Evil” Madness and Murder in Memphis – By Judith Yates

SheIsEvil_KindleCover

Fair play warning.  While this book is from my publisher, I purchased my own copy of it and was not coerced into a book review.  My opinions are my own. 

Being a true crime junkie, (it’s part of being a true crime author) it’s hard not to get sucked into this book.  It opens with the discovery of a beheaded and mutilated body.  I was not familiar with Ms. Yates work up to this point, but I have to admit, she hooked me like a big dumb fish with that opening.  How could anyone put it down after that kind of intro?

I refuse to spoil the plot, but suffice it to say the murderess lives up to every bit of the title.  This book is not long – or I should more accurately say, I read it fast.  The victim, Ejaz Ahmad, a Pakistani, embodies everything you desire of the American dream.  He came here legally to carve out a new life.  Had working doesn’t sound like enough of a description of him.  In three chapters I found myself liking this man – a testament to Yate’s writing style.

But like all men, his choice in women was flawed…deadly flawed.  His kindheartedness reminds you of a time when every young man meets a woman that takes advantage of him.  You are caught between the love and lust and the betrayals.

Yates portrayal of Ahmad’s killer, Leah Ward, is such that you find no pity for her.  It is as if she stepped off the set of a season of FX’s Fargo.  The author does not make her a cardboard character, but instead twists the reader around the bizarre blend of mental instability, drugs, and horrific behavior.  As a reader, you find yourself squirming in your seat as Yates recreates the events leading up to the murder.  The mix of an innocent completely sympathetic victim and a gnarled and heartless murderess is something that leaves the reader trapped.  You cannot casually put the book down and convince yourself you know the whole story.  Yates compels you to read on.

The only critique I have of the book, albeit a minor one, is that the writing style is more contemporary than my preference.  In other words, Yates writes in short, crisp, easy to devour chapters.  I prefer somewhat longer (and fewer) chapters.  On the plus side, you can easily cruise through three chapters in an evening (if you dare).  This is purely a matter of personal preference and style on my part – and not a criticism of the book at all.

So, is this an addition to your summer reading list?  You betcha!   Kudos to Judith Yates for a great book and a perfect title.  She is Evil

#TrueCrime

https://www.facebook.com/wildbluepress/

The Chronicling of our D&D Campaign: To the Gellesian Fields Part 13

Bor

Bor Boskin

The mapmaker, Grayson, told us where to find Odd Bob’s and The Twang – a bow and arrow maker.  We stopped there and Galinndan tried to ascertain the origins of the obsidian arrows he had found.  The owner, one Tagon Vrill, a lanky elf, offered to buy them but would not tell us what the arrows did. Galinndan demurred at his offer, saving the arrows.  To him, they seemed to be special, perhaps magical.  To me, firing arrows were a coward’s way to fight – from a distance.  Skull Ringer, my new warhammer, now that was the way for a man to fight.  Up close and personal.  If you are going to kill a man, at least look him in the eyes.

We reached Odd Bob’s little shop midafternoon.  From the outside it appeared to be a store that sold oddities and, well, junk.  I mean there was a plain rock on display in the window, along with a strange wooden headdress, a necklace of teeth, and other things.  Inside the shop were shelves filled with knick-knacks and trinkets.  The air smelled of dust and mold to me.  Seated on a high stool looking over a thick leather bound journal that filled his cluttered desktop was a small man with a long nose, beady eyes, and white hair that shot out form his balding head as if he had been hit by lightning.

“Welcome!” he said gleefully.  “I am Robert the White.”

“Why do they call you Odd Bob?” Galinndan asked.

“Because I’m odd I assume,” the man replied with a wry grin.

“We were sent by Matthias Blackshear,” Theren said.

“Ohh.  Matthias has not been here in a long time.  Any friend of his is a friend of mine.  It is a shame, what they did to him, dragging his reputation through the mud that way.  It was no fault of his that the prince lacks the common sense of a squirrel.  He was wrongly forced out of his post in disgrace – the man never did play politics well.”

“Do you sell these goods?” Theren said.

“I do.  Mostly I trade them…for good stories. Stories are what separate men from monsters.”

“Really?”  Theren said crossing his arms.  “Let me tell you of our journey into the Gellesian Fields…” He then went on about the murder of the Gray Rider and our journey into the fields and back.  I noticed that Theren highlighted his role in the affairs, such is the gift of a druid to spin such a yarn.  Odd Bob’s quill flew furiously in his journal, taking down every word I thought…or most of them.

When Theren finished, Bob looked at him.  “You may take any object from the first shelf.”

Theren took a small object, one I could not see.  Odd Bob said, “You mentioned a highwayman.  Who was it?  Tell me more.”

“Lexa Lyoncroft,” Theren said.  I added, “She bore the mark of the Sisterhood of the Sword on her arm.” I nodded in agreement.  I had seen the tattoo myself.

The old man squirmed at her name.  “Her I have heard of. She was Swordsworn in the Sisterhood at one point, one of their best.  They thought they’d killed her, twice, but she survived, or so the stories say.  She has found a way to cheat death, though none know what it is.  She only plays the role of mercenary to fit her own needs – that is restoring her order and honor and making the Church pay for what it did.  If she is working for anyone in the north, she is only playing them.  Lyoncroft only leave survivors to let the word reach the church that she is alive still – like a threat without speaking the words.  The church has even sent teams of killers from the Priory of the Burning Blade to apprehend her, only to disappear in the Fields.  Word is that she sent their severed heads back to the priory, but I doubt that she would be that brazen.  If my sources are correct, she has quite a reward on her head from the church.  For her to risk the wrath of the Herd by killing a Gray Rider means that she has become even more bold.”  Odd Bob paused for a moment then said, “For your story including her, you may take an item from the second shelf.”   Theren walked over and picked up a twig.  I presume it was a twig.  Of course he did – that’s what druids do.  Maybe the trig spoke to him.  You could never tell with Theren.

I had come to believe that there was a lot more to the story of Lyoncroft than we knew.  She had a reputation and that could be useful, and dangerous.  I had a nagging feeling that I would cross her path again.

We conversed with the strange man for some time then went for our rendezvous at the Copper Horse Inn with Matthias.  We noticed that we were being shadowed by a bald friar of some sort wearing a blue hooded cloak.  He seemed harmless enough, but I kept my eyes on him.  My father had warned me that cities were places of danger. “The more people you have in one place, the greater the chance you come across one to do you harm.”

The inn was true to its name, a green tarnished copper horse hung on the sign.  We entered and were greeted by the innkeeper, a chubby rough looking woman with moles and warts aplenty.  You could toss her in a pond and skim ugly for a week.  Victoria “Momma” Bellrung ordered us up a meal and drinks.  We were cordial despite her lowly looks.

I noticed a man bumping into Galinndan and seemed to pass him some sort of parchment. The rouge said nothing about it but excused himself to go to the Guildhall.  I remember him saying that he was supposed to check in at such establishments upon entering a town or city, but he had been so caught up with all that there was to see and do, he had failed to do so. At the time, I thought it was a minor infraction.  Of course, at the time, I had no way of knowing how important it was.

Matthias joined us during our second round of cool ale.  “Arrangements have been made, but you boys had better be coy.  This isn’t’ easy.”  I have to admit, with an opening like that, I was concerned.

“Krolf Lorraine is the court’s Vizir, and more a dangerous and crafty man will you find in the entire realm.  He controls the real power behind the throne and covets that seat for himself.  You will need to meet with him.  Do not share your message with him, no matter what.  If you do, you will never know if he delivers it or not.  Information is power to such a man, and if there is one thing I know about Lorraine is that he craves power.

“You have to go to him though – that is court protocol.  He will refuse you.  Lorraine hates not having control, and you speaking directly with Lord Sklaver represents a loss of such control.”

“If he will be turning us down, how do we deliver the message?” I asked.

“The Master of the Court – Uthar Danielson,” Blackshear said with confidence.  “He is an old friend of mine and I explained your desire.  The Master of the Court determines who is admitted into court. As a personal favor, he will give you entrance during the open court session.  Lorraine will be furious, but once you are in the court, it is up to you to pull this off.”

We all agreed, that sounded like a plan, though one with some risk.  Making an enemy of a man like this Krolf Lorraine made me feel a bit nervous.  Matthias confirmed for us our meetings.  “You meet with Lorraine at nine-bells tomorrow. At first bell of the afternoon, you will go to the main court and Danielson will let you in.”

“Will you be staying?” Theren asked.

Matthias finished her drink in a single gulp.  “No.  I need to get back to my farm.  You helped me and I have returned the favor.  But know this, we have shed blood in battle together and are friends from this time forward.  Just don’t abuse that right.”  He winked at us then rose.  “Best of luck to you all.”

We finished up for the evening, each paying for a hot bath.  I bunked with Galinndan and we left Arius and Theren in hall on guard duty.  I have to admit, it felt good to sleep on something other than the hard ground.  The bath felt even better and it gave us a chance to wash our clothing and patch up the damage we had.  I drifted off to sleep in a matter of a few heartbeats.

I awoke with a figure looming over me in the dark. Whoever it was grabbed my gear, armor and all, and darted out into the hallway.  I followed, naked as the day I was born.  In the hallway, I saw our “guards” asleep in their chairs.

The thief reached the stairs and I sprinted, catching him there with a vicious punch from behind.  It was a half-orc.  He fell forward, down the stairs, my armor and Skull Ringers crashing down with his body down the stairs.  I came down after him and when I reached him, he threw three small glass marbles on the ground near us.  They exploded, filling the stairwell with as dense acrid smoke that stung at my eyes and nostrils.

My reflexes kicked in, along with my legs – delivering a devastating kick to him as he tried to regain his footing.  I sent him flying down the last few stairs, sprawling him unconscious on the floor.

“Momma” Bellrung was behind the bar, washing mugs.  She grabbed an iron skillet from a hook and looked at me.  “Problem?”

“No ma’am,” I replied. “Galinndan, fetch some rope.  Let’s tie this bastard up and fight out what he was doing.”

Galinndan hesitated, but obeyed.  The foggy-headed Arius and Theren joined, as did a barely awake Althalus.  “What happened?” I asked our “guards.”  You two were supposed to watch out for us.  You had one job to do…”

Theren rubbed his eyes, fighting to get awakened.  “He came by and blew smoke from his pipe towards us.  It must have been some sort of drug. We went right to sleep.”

As we tied him the half orc came to.  He glanced at Galinndan who looked strangely embarrassed.  Then I spotted it as did the others in our group.  The half-orc had a tattoo on his arm that matched that Thieves’ Guild, matching the one that Galinndan had.  All eyes turned to our party thief.  “You want to explain?” I demanded, only then becoming aware that I was standing in the closed tavern buck naked. I quickly checked to see Skull Ringer on the floor.  If he didn’t answer to me, he would answer to the cold steel of the hammer.

“Um, well…you see, I was supposed to check in with the guild when I came to town.  They summoned me.  They took my money and asked me if we had anything of value.  I may have mentioned your magic warhammer of yours.” I couldn’t tell if he was embarrassed that he had been caught or afraid.  I also did not care.  My anger rose red on my face.

“You set me up to be robbed?”

Galinndan stammered.  “No one was supposed to be hurt.”

“Not good,” Theren said.  “Not good at all.  You don’t sell out your party.  We are practically brothers.”

“It wasn’t my fault.  The guild demanded it, that or they would remove on of my limbs.”

“Oddly enough,” I said picked up Skull Ringer, “I would be comfortable enough with that.”

“Guys…please.  I made a mistake,” the rogue replied. He did sound sincere, but honestly, I didn’t care at that point.

Arius shattered the calm.  “You don’t get to carry the party treasury anymore,” he said.

“The guild is going to be pissed at me,” Galinndan said.  “They have assassins working for them.”

“That’s your problem,” I said.  “No one touched my warhammer.”  I gathered up my gear and headed for the stairs.  I was confident that Momma would be more than capable of making sure that the half-orc ended up with the right authorities. “And I want a different bunk mate!” I added.

I hope you have enjoyed the saga thus far.  Here are the previous parts if you have missed any installments.  Enjoy!

Part 1

Part 2

Part 3

Part 4

Part 5

Part 6

Part 7

Part 8

Part 9

Part 10

Part 11

Part 12

Character Background Material

My New Campaign

#dungeonsanddragons

The Humorous Real-Life Phases of a Reorganization

Diabolical_plan
Lesson:  Never leave your reorg plan laying around unless it has a funky code name.  

I have spent more of my career being reorganized than I have being organized.  In my day job I work in organizational change management, which is ironic because reorganization is part of the job.  Oddly enough I got my job via a reorganization.  I’d share that story but I think the emotional and physical scars are more than enough of a reminder of what it was like.  Suffice it to say that I have a knack for reorgs, which is a skill that is almost worthless in the real world.

As always, my proviso is that this has NOTHING to do with the organization that I am currently employed by.  This is simply a humorous look organizations in general.  Any resemblance to any person or legal corporate entity, living or dead, is purely coincidental. Disclaimer mode now disabled…

Reorganizations are often dubbed as transformative and they are.  They are change in its most pure corporate form.  There are two overarching models for reorganization that outline the phases of a reorg.  One is the traditional change management model, or a variation of it, John Kotter-isms, a melting iceberg and penguins, blah blah blah.

The second and less known are the real-life phases that the employees actually go through during this process.  This has not been documented until now because the truth hurts and most organizations don’t want to admit this is what they inflict on their people regularly.

Depending on the reorg, you may go through these phases in the course of hours, days, weeks, or months; dependent on your level of mental stability.  They are perfectly natural reactions.  Your results may vary.

So, with tongue firmly planted in cheek, I present to you, the real-life phases of a reorg:

Good…I’m glad this happening.  This place was pretty screwed up phase.  The announcement of the structured chaos to come is made.  Hey, let’s be honest; we all know that our organizations could be improved upon, some more than others.  Much of the problems the staff have been coping with were the result of the last reorg.  Maybe this change will fix some of the problems?  It could happen…right?  Right?  This phase usually is pretty short-lived because it takes very little time for management to crush employee optimism into a fine powder to sprinkle on their mocha lattes.

Raw, unadulterated panic phase. When the leadership and staff realize that things are about to change and it could (will) happen to them.  This panic often stems from the mental acknowledgement that the people driving the reorganization don’t really understand how your organization functions in the first place (usually because they are in charge.)  In fairness, you don’t totally understand it either – but that does not quell the panic.  The sheer terror comes from the thought that someone with the mentality of a fourth grader might be setting the course on your career and future.  Buy new sheets, you’ll have a lot of night sweats and screaming.

Beat these bastards to the punch phase. There’s always some closet-Einstein-wannabe that thinks believes they know what the problems are and will reorganize or dramatically change processes before the formal reorganization in an attempt to stave it off.  “If you knew it was broken, why didn’t you fix it a long time ago?”  This knee-jerk reaction generally sows even more seeds of chaos and forces people to undergo two or more reorganizations; or as I call it, “Fun on a bun!” No one is smart enough to guess what the fourth grader is planning, so just please, don’t try.

Trying to read the tea-leaves phase.  This is the search for information and attempts to interpret what little is leaking out.  People troll for information from job posting boards to Linkedin.  Management does not give the staff the credit we so richly deserve in this area in terms of trying to piece together what is coming. Self-proclaimed savants or Long Island Mediums, make predictions based on the soup of the day in the cafeteria.  Even a mere dullard becomes creative in attempting to ferret out information.  Any information gleaned is subject to random and wild interpretation, guesses, or leaps of logic.  In other words, it’s mostly worthless.

Attempting to stake out territory phase.  Like dogs marking their yard, mid-level and senior managers begin posturing during this phase of the reorg.  This could be the “puff your chest-out” phase as well.  Leaders (and I use that word loosely) suddenly proclaim from on-high that they are in charge of a team, a body of work, a process, or anything to make them seem more important.  While entertaining, this rarely instills confidence in your leadership. Right now you are picturing your manager taking a pee in the yard – admit it.

Jockeying for position phase.  Reorganizations generate meetings.  Often these covert off-site affairs, held with pentagrams on the floor, hooded cloaks for the participants and black candles for effect. These covens (yes, I used that word) are where management tries to position themselves in the new org structure.  They come before whoever is leading the reorganization and plead their case as to why they are awesome and deserve to continue on with minimal impact.  They will barter with their teams, often crushing other people’s careers to preserve a proverbial seat at the big-kids-table.  This is a clash of egos vs. what is right for the organization and that clash often wracks up a body count. Those not invited to the meetings will hang out in the hallway outside, hoping that being seen will trigger some sort of positive reaction with those bartering their staff’s souls/careers.

Leadership feeds on itself phase.  Cue the Star Trek fight music please.  Da-da-da-da-dah-dah-da-dum!  The more opportunistic leaders begin to undermine their colleagues.  I guess the thinking is that they make themselves look better by making their peers like worse.  The level of backstabbing could make for an entire season of Game of Thrones, sans the nudity.  Snide, off-handed comments (or outright lies – dealer’s choice)  aimed at eroding fellow leader’s characters mark this stage of the reorganization.

Reorg kirk
Last one of us standing gets the IT Department to report to them!  

The “I no longer give a flying fu*k at the rolling-doughnut,” phase.  Reorganizations have a tendency to drag out, for a variety of reasons (chiefly being that you can’t reorganize something that was never organized in the first place.)  When this phase happens the staff reach a point of “just give us the new org charts so we can get on with our lives.”  When you place people in limbo long enough, they cease to care about the end-game.  You could hand them a turd on a piece of paper and they would be happy simply because this time-wasting, angst-fueling process would be over.  All hail the new turd!

The apathy phase.  Every reorganization that has ever been announced misses its own artificial deadlines.  There is a point where the staff just throw their hands up in the air and work grinds to a halt.  Leadership usually has no clue this is going on – they are attending reorg meetings after all.

Final bloodletting phase.  This is the actual announcement of the new organization structure (or target operation model – TOM) itself.  The final winners and losers are known.  Remember Gladiator – “Are you not entertained?!”  There’s no time for mourning.  Leadership wants return on investment for the time it took to put the new structure together. The formal announcement often leaves folks agreeing with some parts of the change, and puzzled by others. Fortunately the apathy overwhelms the last vestiges of staff resistance.

The run up the flag and declare victory phase.  “Suck it up bro.”  There should be a lot of change management activities to help the staff adopt the new operating model/structure.  These are generally tossed out of the window.  It’s time to get back to “BAU – business as usual…or is that unusual?”  Despite all of the planning, there are huge gaps that are created in almost every reorganization that leave the staff confused as to how to proceed.

The new resistance is born phase.  Leaders who were losers but not terminated begin to undermine the new organization.  People entrench in their ways of working.  The more delusional pretend the new organization doesn’t exist (crazy, right?)  Revenge is a dish best served in a filthy kitchenette I guess.  People begin to build organizational friction between teams, processes that inflict harm on others, all to spur on another reorganization and a chance for those hurt in this reorg to rise to the top again.  Go forward in time a year and start at the top of the list!

If you liked this, check our my snarky book:  Business Rules. 

Visiting Crime Scenes

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA
Ragged Island Refuge – where Robin Edwards and David Knobling were murdered.  The map of the refuge has been blasted with a shotgun, an indication of how creepy and dangerous some of these locales are.  

As a true crime author, I visit crime scenes.  I feel obligated to do so.  The only way you can really appreciate or even describe a place is to stand there and look at it yourself.  I’m not looking for clues, but for the kind of subtle nuances that you cannot pick up when you pull up a place on Google Earth.

I primarily write about cold cases.  I’m not looking for any evidence or something that will change the case.  I just try and get a feel for the locations.  You wish the trees or the road could talk though.  They bore witness to horrific acts and stood mute as the crimes unfolded.  If only…

I was talking with my publisher, Steve Jackson, and we both relayed stories of how we have found there are true crime readers that make pilgrimages to these locations.  Steve actually was driving by one such locale in Colorado and spotted a woman walking in the snow, carrying a copy of his book.  Both he and the fan were a little surprised when he approached her in the frigid snow.

Ron Franscell, an outstanding true crime author, goes so far in his Outlaw series (the latest being Outlaw Los Angeles which you should go purchase) to include GPS coordinates for the key locations.  Ron clearly is ahead of the curve on this topic and gives his fans what they want – a physical connection to his written words.

I encountered this with every true crime book I’ve written.  Readers go to these spots to see them for themselves.  I remember after writing about the murder of Daisy Zick (Murder in Battle Creek) the owners of her house told me that they had been unaware of the murder that took place in their home.  They noticed right after the book came out that there was a steady stream of cars on their little dead-end road, all slowing as they drove by.  People went to Jono Drive to see the home where Mrs. Zick died.

Zick Home
The former Zick home in Battle Creek, from my own convert visit.  

Similarly I get people asking me online where the Tasty Café was in Marshall Michigan, the subject of my book, Secret Witness.  I understand the curiosity.  For me as a writer, the location is important.  It is a stage where heinous acts took place.  It is a setting, a tangible link to a crime.

On one instance, for the book, The Murder of Maggie Hume, my daughter (and co-author) went with me to compare the confession of Michael Ronning with the physical placement of the apartments.  It proved important.  From where Ronning said he saw Maggie in the window, it was physically impossible to have done so because of the angle of the building.   We retraced her steps as best we could that night, even grabbing a bite at the Ritzee in Battle Creek, where she had been before her murder.  Distances and travel time become important for us to try and replicate.

As an author, I don’t advocate or recommend that people go to the sites I write about.  In some cases, they are downright creepy, if not dangerous.  I don’t recommend it – but I know people do it anyway.

For our upcoming book, A Special Kind of Evil, The Colonial Parkway Serial Killings, I will be doing a number of blog posts in the coming weeks talking about the crime scenes we visited and our observations and some photos we were unable to include in the book.

Victoria Hester and I spent time at all of the spots, so that we could get it right in the book. There are problems we faced with the visits, as well as some weird stories along the way.  In the case of one of the murders, David Knobling and Robin Edwards, the exact spot where the bodies were found has long since eroded away, the victim of storms over the decades.  In the case of Keith Call and Cassandra Hailey we can only visit where Keith’s car was abandoned.  There has not been any physical evidence they were actually on the parkway.  With Cathy Thomas and Rebecca Dowski; we visited where their bodies were found, but again, there is no evidence they were killed in that spot.  Only in the case of Annamaria Phelps and Daniel Lauer can we be relatively sure they were killed at or very near where they were found.

For those of you that visit the sites, I offer this advice – be careful.  Some locales attract bad people.  #TrueCrime  #ASpecialKindofEvil

 

Workplace Humor…Real-Life Work Skills/Competencies

office space
It bothers me that you would ask.  

I know it’s coming, looming like a dull summer storm – my annual goal setting process.  I rate the entire experience right up there with root canal and ingrown toenails (not the fun ones, but the pus-oozing kind).

What skills will you develop?  What competencies will you improve upon?  Blah blah blah.  That got me thinking – what are the real-life skills and competencies that we all recognize?  Here is my suggested list:

Timing a work break for when leftover food from meetings is put out for the taking.

Toggling between Facebook and work product before your manager sees what you are really doing.

Convert leadership ambiguity to tangible actions.

Getting that guy or gal that constantly late for meetings up to speed in two minutes or less.

Pretending (convincingly) to give a damn.

Ability to ignore incessant whining and grumbling from colleagues.

Writing annual goals that sound impressive but are really everyday tasks that can be documented as accomplished in the first month of the fiscal year.

Disinfecting shared workspace. Eww…

Optimizing the theft of office supplies based on value rather than need.

Laughter suppression.  I hear a lot of stuff every day that is batshit fuc*ing crazy.

Apprehension of the office refrigerator thief.  Bob, I don’t care if you take my food, but you touch my Diet Mountain Dew again, and they will be outlining your body on chalk in the kitchenette.

Anticipating leadership whims and changes of direction before they become full-blown crisis’s.

Staying awake in meetings that you clearly shouldn’t have been invited to.

Creating PowerPoint decks that meet company graphic standards and are still oddly useful.

Rapidly scanning a rambling, jumbled email to ascertain what is actually important.

Holding my bladder of bowels during long meetings where they don’t stop for bio-breaks..

Listening to an unqualified someone tell me how to do my job when and suppress the urge to kill them.

Suppressing audible farts in meetings or other public spaces (especially elevators).

Active anger control.  There are some people that wouldn’t be with us today if I had not demonstrated this competency.

Calculating my time to retirement (days/weeks/hours/minutes)

Finding the right graphic for my PowerPoint deck.

Selecting the right category and dollar amount to avoid having my expense report audited.

Tactfully pointing out that the meeting is running long without adding, “because you can’t manage a damn meeting you moron!”

Creating the illusion that I care about feedback. Lots of head-nodding here.

Putting together a budget based on reality that still accounts for my manager’s bizarre pet projects.

Not reacting to the new “crisis” until I determine if it is, indeed, a crisis.

Shifting blame to a more guilty party than myself.

Minimal achievement of dress code.

Selecting the right charge code for my timesheet.

Not sacrificing productivity during a reorganization.

Pretending I care about my career, my current assignment, my company, etc.

Artful doodling when I should be paying attention.

Plotting the exotic deaths of annoying coworkers. I’ll bet if I push that laser printer out of the window when you leave – it will crush you.

Taking brilliant items and distilling them into meaningless (bland) bullet points on a PowerPoint slide.

Moving files to the right folder in Sharepoint.  I cannot express my hatred of SharePoint enough in a mere blog post.

Putting things in Excel that should never be in Excel.  Likewise working on things in Excel that should have been done in another application.

Updating my Linkedin profile so that I appear quasi-competent yet joyfully ambivalent.

Writing candid feedback for employees I barely knew, but for some reason, they requested my input. What project were we on together?

Decoding often pointless and confusing/contradictory messages from leadership.

Being responsible for my own actions.  “Not only did I do it…if given the same opportunity, I’d do it again!”

Following standards that make little sense or don’t apply to me.

Attending anniversary or farewell parties for peers I don’t like or don’t care about.

Attending team building activities after hours and not show my contempt for taking away precious hours from my private life.

Dodging douchbaggery and the douchbags that spread it.  Yes – I made up the word douchbaggery.

Succinctly summarizing and pointing out the obvious to people who would not recognize it if it kick them in the nutsack.

Rearranging my life around people who cannot use the calendaring function in Outlook, or who have no concept of different time zones and working hours.

Extinguishing fires that lesser people have set.

Resume’ updating because I feel my job is being threatened…again…still.

Stepping up to the plate rather than attempting to deflecting work.

Demonstrating more technical skills than the help desk when troubleshooting my problems.

Faking a positive attitude as my career is under siege.

Rubbing someone’s nose in their own mistake(s) without using the phrase, “I told you so.”

Providing professional consultation that is completely disregarded and/or ignored.

Going to mute on the first hint of a bark from my dog while working at home.

Fixing other people’s mistakes.

Coming up with funny nicknames for coworkers “Here comes Captain Kickback and Queen Clusterfu*k.”

Providing concise feedback on messages and communications that is completely disregarded or ignored.

Suppressing laughter at completely inappropriate moments.

Congratulating people on promotions that they clearly didn’t deserve or earn.

Attending training off-hours because “we’re global.”

Offering my professional experience and expertise and smiling while it is blatantly ignored.

Savoring the sweet drinking container filled with caffeine first thing in the morning.

Not demonstrating my outright revulsion our nausea when the annual promotion list is issued. “Are you out of your fu*king minds?”

Comprehending which stupid request can be ignored, and which ones have to be acted on immediately.

Advanced listening…especially when people are whining about how horrible this place can be at times.

Moving my more mundane and pointless work to others.

Use of perfectly timed profanity based on stakeholder audience.

Accepting blame for things my superiors screwed up or outright ignored my corrective suggestions about.

Diagnose and troubleshoot Skype connectivity issues during the first three minutes of every single damn conference call I’m on.

Digesting what is served in the guise of “lunch” in the cafeteria.

Suppression of laughter when the new person tells us how they are going to “fix all of our obvious problems.”

Taking complex technical solutions and breaking them down into things that are understandable by normal people.

Applying an ample dose of humor at just the right time to shatter tension.

Knowing when to apply a process, and when to toss it out the window.

Detection and acknowledgement of good sarcasm in the workplace.

Quick understanding of what is a real crisis and what is a made-up-blown-out-of-proportion-panic.

Demonstrating a lack of self-awareness while placing my career at risk over some corporate cause du jour.

Unwillingness to compromise my principles and values despite daily pressures to do so.

Perform minor miracles with decimated budgets, lack of manpower, and conflicting directions from leadership.

Ability to pile on in a conversation so that I appear more engaged.

stress

Did I miss any?