Review of HBO’s: Atlanta’s Missing and Murdered

The Atlanta Child Murders were an American tragedy.  Anytime a serial killer targets small children it is horrific.  What the authorities did after Wayne Williams was convicted of two of the 29 murders was gut-wrenching.  They closed all of the murders – slamming the door on the victim’s families.  If you watched Netflix’s Mindhunter, it isn’t too far off from the reality. 

This short series cracks open the case files as the City of Atlanta starts looking into the cases anew.  I came into it hopeful to get a well-rounded documentary series that would give me a solid sense of the crimes, evidence, and witnesses.  My expectations were not met – despite the stunning production quality. 

It is clear that this series is focused on Wayne William’s being innocent of these crimes, almost the point where they gloss over and downplay the evidence against him.  The producers throw a lot of spaghetti against the wall, hoping some of it sticks with the viewers.  We get everything from Klan informers to pressures allegedly from the White House to smother the investigation because it was bad for Atlanta’s public image.  The producers quickly mention that many of the accounts and alleged killers were cleared by alibi and polygraph, but instead drill in on a web of speculative intrigue that is hard to contemplate.

I wanted something that was balanced, but what I got was something crafted to try and manipulate me.  As a true crime author, I know that pushing an agenda is dangerous. 

Don’t get me wrong.  I strongly doubt that Williams was responsible for all of these murders. That isn’t the same as being innocent.  Three of the witnesses against him admitted that they lied, but there were other witnesses, including family members, who saw Williams with some of his victims. 

The claim that the fiber evidence was tainted by the FBI overlooks the fact that the GBI did their own analysis and could map fibers and hairs from William’s environment to 23 of the victims.  Remember as well that Williams was first on their radar when he was caught on a bridge when a splash was heard in the river, and a body was found a mile downriver days later.  He lied about his reason for being out at 2am on that bridge, just as he lied about his music promotion business being a viable entity.     

Much of this series is William’s defense team making the pitch that he is innocent.  Rather than admit they didn’t do a good job, they point of a vast conspiracy by the prosecution against them and their client.  I get it, that’s their job.  Again, evidence contrary to their theories is disregarded or ignored by the producers. 

Williams revels in the role of victim.  He accepts zero responsibility for any of his crimes.  That is maddening and sick.  Did he kill all 29 victims though?  No.  I doubt it. 

Some of the misdirection presented was obvious.  A person claimed a Klan member said he killed one of the victims who had run into his car with a go-cart.  In reality the victim was at a shopping center with a family member at the time of his abduction, left alone for only a few minutes.  There was no go-cart. No witnesses saw a go-cart.  Rather than point that out the producers chose to ignore the inconsistency to plant the seed that this alleged confession was valid.

Material presented said that another victim had been seen with a known pedophile who was named at or near the time of his disappearance.  That is useful information, but we don’t know why that individual was excluded at the time.  I have spent hundreds of hours of my life reading police reports from that era.  Often times in a murder you will get a half-dozen different witnesses who will point out completely different suspects. Investigators run those things down – they want to solve crimes.  We don’t know why investigators cleared this individual – either the case files were incomplete or the producers simply didn’t say. 

In the middle of all of this is the surviving family members.  Some believe Williams is guilty of some of the murders, others believe he is innocent.  They have been told so many things over the years, sometimes by those in authority, some appear unsure what to believe.  One thing they all share however is the anger and frustration that the authorities arbitrarily closed their cases. 

Reopening the cases is good public relations and long overdue with the family members – but it is unlikely to result in new charges or change anyone’s mind in the end.  The seeds of doubt were planted decades ago and even compelling evidence for or against Williams is going to change most people’s minds.

Having said that, this was a good and compelling documentary series.  You are torn emotionally by the stories and the terrible way that the community and victims’ relatives were treated during all of this.  At the same time you get a sense of frustration on the part of the investigators interviewed because most are quite sure they caught the right man.  As much as I have taken shots at the approach of the series, I still recommend it. 

A Live PD Bingo Game For Your Quarantine Fun (Some True Crime Fun!)

Being a true crime author I am a huge fan of A&E’s LivePD  Things I learned watching Live PD  I figured since everyone is forced to sit and watch TV this weekend, I would provide you a fun little game to add to your viewing pleasure.

Just like regular Bingo, you want to get five across.  The first one that does, wins.  I’m providing four game boards, but you can easily make your own.  You can come up with your own prizes, be it shots or cookies — whatever floats your boat.  Simply print and cut these out, use pennies, beans, pickles, or whatever to mark your progress.  Good luck!

Feel free to share this and have some fun watching Live PD while stuck in your house!

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True Crime Series Review – HBO’s McMillion$

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Dipped in awesome sauce!

Okay, this isn’t your typical true crime series – there is only one dead body.  This is about the greatest scam in modern times.  It covers the crimes tied to McDonalds’ Monopoly game and that for years, the game was 100% rigged.

You didn’t know?  I remember bits and pieces of this story, but I never knew the entire story.  A friend turned me onto this HBO series and my wife and I got hooked.  The FBI agent who started the ball rolling made it for me.  I wish everyone in the FBI was a gung ho as this guy.  The undercover sting videos were wonderful!

The series begins with a simple tip – that the McDonald’s games are all rigged by someone called “Uncle Jerry.”  It turns out to be much bigger than that.  The mob is involved, as well as multiple Jerry’s.  There’s a questionable death, shady characters, and some remarkably bizarre twists. The spider web of winners and middlemen in all of this is incredible.

You are left, until the last episode, not knowing just how the pieces got stolen and switched out – or who the informant was.  We were shocked on the last episode, which means the producers did it right.

Some of the winners try desperately to paint themselves as victims which I disliked.  All but one, in my opinion, knew exactly what they were doing as part of this criminal conspiracy.  They paid money to middlemen for the winning tickets.  They knew the game was rigged and were cheating not just McDonalds but everyone who played and thought they had a chance of winning.

We were riveted to each episode, so the pacing is good.  I think if you tune into this you will not be disappointed.  It is a top-notch true crime production.  You’re stuck in the house anyway, so use your social distancing time appropriately and watch this series.

Tantamount Podcast Episode Six – The Mysterious Case of Robert Askins – Supplemental Material

Of all of the suspects in the Washington DC serial killings attributed to the Freeway Phantom, none stand out more than Robert Ellwood Askins.  Episode six is dedicated to him and can be accessed via iTune (search for Tantamount) or via the link below:

Tantamount – Episode 6

Obviously I encourage you to follow our podcast and to share it with your friends.

It was hard to find a photograph of Askins after all of these years.  We did track down a lineup photo of him:

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That’s Robert Ellwood Askins, in the middle.  He would later claim he was identified because he was the only one in the lineup that had a shirt tucked in.  In reality, he was one of four that had their shirts that way.  

Askins was involved with multiple murders in his life, but only convicted of one – and that one, the poisoning of Ruth McDonald, was overturned on a technicality.  He spent most of his early life locked up at St. Elizabeth’s Hospital in Washington DC.  That is important in a future episode of the podcast.

Askins died in prison, but we were able to get copies of most of his prison records via a FOIA request.  It includes his psychiatric evaluations.  I have included a few for those of you who want to dive into the nitty-gritty work of a true crime author.

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Review of the True Crime Book – Blood & Money: The Classic True Story of Murder, Passion, and Power by Thomas Thompson

Blood-Money
This is not a book, it is a journey

Okay, this is an older book but I just got around to reading it.  Thomas Thompson did a masterful job of taking me down roads with so many twists and turns that I was unsure of where I was going to end up.  Just when I thought I was on top of what was happening, I was blindsided with a surprise twist.

Set in the 1960’s, this begins with the murder of Joan Robinson Hill.  Adopted child of a rich Houston oil and land tycoon, you are drawn into the story of Ash Robinson, her father, and of her husband, Dr. John Hill.  Honestly, I can’t tell you much more beyond this without ruining the book.  Suffice it to say, halfway through the book, I was stunned with a twist that Hollywood could not have conceived.

Thompson takes us into the lives of unsavory assassins, prostitutes, the rich, and the demented. It is an American story of power, justice, justice-denied, and startling bravery.  I came away drained, knowing more about Houston of the 1960’s than I could have imagined – a mix of Peyton Place and the TV show Dallas.

This book has easily become one of my favorite true crime books and sets a bar in terms of investigative journalism.  I was enthralled with the book, but it took a long time to get there.  This book is a journey and one that is well-worth the trip.  Easily five-out-of-five stars for me.

Tips – One of the Chief Reasons I Write True Crime

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I am not a police officer nor do I play one on TV.

People ask why I write about cold cases.  The last few weeks brought the issue to the forefront and I thought I’d share.

In the last few weeks I have had two tips come in on two different serial murder cases I have written about.  I get tips at least monthly, if not more often.  They seem to come in batches, which begs some sort of scientific study.  When I get tips I pass them onto the authorities.  I do this because I’m not one of the Scooby Doo Gang out solving mysteries.  The crimes get solved and go to trial when the authorities do their job and investigate.

I don’t share names or even what the tips are with the public so please, don’t ask.  Again, that’s for the investigators to do. You have to remember that with some of these tips, people feel their lives might be in danger. They may be right, it is difficult to say.  While most of the cases my daughter and I write about are old, that doesn’t mean that the killer(s) want it resolved. I protect my sources, but at the same time, if you call me, I will pass on the info to the police.

One tip, I finally heard from, was a dead end.  It is pretty rare that the authorities tell me if it is a good tip or a dud.  It was very nice that they followed up with me.   I think for the person that reached out to me, and her family, it was welcome news.

The other person with a tip not only contacted me but the authorities and it sounded promising…very promising.  Time will tell.

Someone asked if I ever felt I was putting my life at risk.  The short answer is yes.  I am sure that most murderers don’t want attention drawn to their cases…and that’s what we do as writers.  My daughter/co-author and I do take photos of the crowds at our speaking events because there’s a chance that the killer is sitting in the audience.  I’ve even shared some with law enforcement, because you never know…   I have had one person we outted as a suspect show up at a book signing once, though he didn’t have the nerve to come up to us and confront us.  I recently had someone threaten me over the phone.

Remember though, we tend to write about crimes from the 1960’s-1980’s.  That means that a 25+ year old killer then would be in his 60’s now.  So while there are times I am reminded that I could be in danger, I am picturing someone trying to chase me down driving a Rascal or with a walker.

There have been times when cars have parked in front of our house for hours at a time, only to speed off when I approach them.  There have also been some plain white-panel vans with government plates that have parked out there…so I presume the good guys are nearby.

People that cover true crime; authors, podcasters, bloggers, reporters, we all take a calculated risk when we start poking into cases.  It’s not glamorous by a long shot.  Still, we do it because we can help the authorities with new tips and leads that might lead to a conviction.

Review of Netflix’s: The Confession Killer

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Liar, liar, pants on fire…

This is one of those stories that resonated with me as a true crime writer because I’ve seen it with my own eyes on a case.  More on that later.

The Confession Killer is the story of Henry Lee Lucas, a man that confessed to upwards of 300 (or more) murders in the 1980’s.  He was a killer.  He had murdered his mother and spent time in prison for that crime. Early on in his confessions, he led authorities to the remains of two victims…only their killer could have done that.

The local sheriff and the Texas Rangers had a person in Lucas who was willing to confess to countless crimes, all for a strawberry shake and some cigarettes.  He provided details that only the killers could know, or so it seemed.  Police from all over the country lined up for 20 minute sessions with Lucas where he would confess to crimes in their jurisdictions and allow them to close the cases.  It gave dozens of families closure finally.

Lucas loved the attention and the limelight.  He basked in it. For one time in his life, he had importance.

Then a dogged reporter started actually digging into Lucas and discovered proof that with many of his confessions, Lucas was not able to have committed the crimes – he was in other parts of the country.  The local sheriff and the Rangers ignored the evidence.  I have to say, at first, I thought that the reporter was the real hero of this true crime saga.

If this had been the crux of the story, it would have been a very good documentary.  But wait, there’s more!

A young and determined Waco prosecutor spotted the same errors and opened a grand jury investigation into the Lucas task force.  The Rangers, the FBI, and the IRS were brought to bear on him, framing him for bribery.  Lucas’s information disappeared from law enforcement computers.  A massive cover-up was eventually exposed, complete with law enforcement manipulating the media to go after the prosecutor.

So how did he do it?  Officers fed him information, led him to crime scenes, gave him photographs of crime scenes and pictures of the victims.  Lucas had an uncanny ability to read his audience and give them what they wanted, confessions.  They were able to overlook errors he made, or they even corrected him when he made mistakes.

Henry Lee Lucas played them like a cheap fiddle.

As a sidebar:  My daughter and I witnessed this ourselves when writing The Murder of Maggie Hume. Michael Ronning had confessed to her murder but it was, most likely a false confession.  We watched videos of them taking Ronning to crime scenes and it was eerily similar to what Lucas did.  When officers took him out to another murder site that he claimed credit for (Patricia Rosansky) along the river, Ronning didn’t point out the area where they should turn off.  One officer we heard on the tape said, “Michael, doesn’t that area over there look familiar to you?” as he pointed to it. Another officer off camera can be heard saying, “Damn it Denny, why don’t you just get out and show him where the body was?”

There are officers that swear to this day that Ronning’s confessions were solid, despite errors that cannot be overlooked.  Why?  Because they want Ronning to be a serial killer, they wanted to be the officers that closed cases involving such a murderer. That notoriety, of being involved with a serial killer is like winning the Super Bowl for law enforcement.

Which is how Henry Lee Lucas played authorities.

I really enjoyed this short series by Netflix.  A solid five out of five stars, perfect for your winter binge watching needs.

Review of The Killer Inside: The Mind of Aaron Hernandez on Netflix

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I know this will stun some folks but I don’t watch football.  It’s just not my thing.  What I knew about this case was limited.  New England Patriot’s player Aaron Hernandez, a man at the top of his game professionally, had been convicted of murder then had hanged himself.  That was what I knew going into this mini-series on Netflix.

The series is very good and well produced.  There’s some hopping around that takes place but they make great use of a timeline to help you keep track of what is happening.  What emerges is a very complex story.  It is a strange cocktail of sorts to watch.  Hernandez apparently, from what was shown, was gay, which may have led to some emotional conflict in his life.  He had a drug problem in that he vigorously chain-smoked marijuana.  Anyone saying that pot smoking is harmless needs to see it in the context of the person doing the smoking – and in this case, Hernandez lived his later years high.  He is portrayed as a young man that had a strained relationship with his mother.  Hernandez surrounded himself with horrible people which led to not just one murder, but several.  His family members covered up for him, which in the end, only made matters worse.

You get a story that is purely American with some almost neo-gothic twists.  The New England Patriots tried to fill a void in his life in terms of discipline, but failed miserably.  They knew he was emotionally immature, but he became immersed in a lifestyle that allowed him whatever he wanted.  There were no boundaries with him, and that led to a spectacular downfall.

Was he the victim of repeated concussions?  Certainly that case is made at the end of the series, but you realize that even with his head trauma, there was something else at play…a lack of moral compass or control. When I was done watching it I felt that his downfall was inevitable and was destined to be spectacular.  Hernandez is an American tragedy and one we have not learned from.  You are left wondering how many others are out there just like him.

It is notable that his wife and family didn’t take part in the series, nor did the Patriots.  So you are left wondering if there was even more to this story that we have yet to see.

Overall, I give this four out of five stars.  Good true crime.  I’m sure football fans will rate it much higher.

 

The Grindr Killing – The Murder of Kevin Bacon This Christmas Eve

This is a special posting for fans of Crime Café.  I usually don’t write about current crimes, my preference is writing about cold cases or older crimes.  This case is worthy of special attention on several levels.  I am also doing a contest for a copy of A Special Kind of Evil – our book on the Colonial Parkway Serial Murders.  Follow this blog on WordPress and send me an email at bpardoe870@aol.com to qualify.

Now, onto my special blog post for fans of Crime Café.

When you write true crime like me, certain crimes do grab you.  This one came to me as a result of my son who was visiting us for the holidays.  The victim had gone missing before Christmas and my son knew him because he wanted to shadow him at the hair salon my son owns in Ferndale, Michigan.  My son, Alex, really isn’t a true crime buff like his sister (and my co-author) but this one hit close to home with him…so Alex, this one’s for you.

We talked about the crime all through the holidays.  It was one of those that could and should have been averted.  There was almost a Jeffrey Dahmer vibe to it.

Here’s the scant facts that we know at this point:

  • The victim in this case is Kevin Bacon.  No, not the actor, but the name similarity even brought that actor to share his outrage at this crime.
  • Kevin Bacon was told his roommate, Michelle Myers, that he was leaving Christmas Eve to meet a man he found on the dating app Grindr.  He was last seen at 5:23 p.m.  He lived in Swartz Creek just outside of Flint, Michigan.  He was a big guy, six-two, 250 lbs, so whoever took control of him had to have used some sort of means (a gun, or knife) to do so.  He has the look of a kind, gentle young man, which makes this crime seem even more horrible.
  • At 6:12 p.m. he sent a text to his roommate saying he was out for a while, he was having a good time and did not know when he’d be back.
  • Bacon’s car was found abandoned with his clothing, wallet, and cell phone in it.
  • As of now, Mark Latunski, a 50 year old Shiawassee County resident has been arrested for the murder and mutilation of Mr. Bacon.  This was not his first clash with the law.  Two times in 2013 he was arrested for custodial kidnapping, namely the abduction of two of his four children that he had with his wife Emily.  He was found incompetent to stand trial and was ordered to undergo outpatient treatment.  Eventually the charges were dropped by the victim.
  • In the autumn of 2019, the State Police were called to Latunski’s house in Bennington Township with reports of a partially clothed man running outside of his home, allegedly with handcuffs on.  Latunski claimed that the man was there consensually and had become, “spooked.”  Latunski claimed he was chancing the man because he was wearing his clothing, namely a leather kilt.  Both men claimed the incident was consensual, so Latunski dodged the proverbial bullet of the law.  This is eerily similar to the Jeffrey Dahmer’s attack on Tracy Edwards.

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Mark Latunski

  • Latunski has a record of going off his medication for mental problems.  He has been diagnosed for major depression, paranoid schizophrenia and displaying traits of a personality disorder.
  • Latunski was charged in the past for failure to pay child support.
  • Latunski was married to Jamie Arnold for just over three years according to records I was able to track down.
  • Bacon’s father relayed some posts by his son on Facebook that led them to turn their attention to Latunski.
  • On December 28 the police searched the home of Latunski and found the mutilated remains of Bacon in his house at around 1am the day of the search.
  • When arraigned, Latunski claimed that he was Edger Thomas Hill and that Latunski was his “nephew.”
  • Initial reports by several agencies reported his name as Matt Latunski.  These have been corrected to his name, Mark.  A Mark Latunski is shown to work at Dow Chemical but there has been no confirmation that this is the same person.

I will tell you, as someone that privately investigates crimes as an author, there is a reason that the authorities are not releasing information on this case.  This is someone with a history of kidnapping, mental illness, and picking up strange men.  It is entirely possible that he has killed before.  There are a number of missing gay men in and around Flint. Trust me, this case is worth following.

Tantamount Podcast Episode Three Supplemental Material

Master Map

This material augments the information provided in the podcast Tantamount about Washington DC’s serial killer, The Freeway Phantom. Obviously we encourage you to listen to the episode. Here’s a link to this episode:  Tantamount Catch me if you can! 

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The Freeway Phantom finishes his murder spree with the deaths of Brenda Woodard, Diane Williams, and, we learn, Teara Ann Bryant.  The FBI and some officers who worked the case believe Teara was part of the Freeway Phantom’s list of victims, while the Washington MPD and Prince George’s County Police do not.  If not, the question remains, who killed Teara Ann Bryant?

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Where Brenda’s Body was found

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Brenda’s wig, tossed there by the killer

Perhaps the most bizarre aspect of the final killings was the note left on the body of Brenda Woodard.  Written in her own hand, at the order of his killer, the Freeway Phantom used the note to taunt authorities.

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The note left by the killer on Brenda’s body

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Diane Williams

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Brenda Woodard 

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Teara Ann Bryant – Our research shows that she too was a victim of the Freeway Phantom

The murders stop with the death of Ms. Bryant…leaving us all to wonder why?  Was the killer jailed, dead, or had he moved on?

If you want to know more, subscribe to our podcast or read our book:  Tantamount – The Pursuit of the Freeway Phantom Serial Killer.