Review of the Netflix Series – The Disappearance of Madeleine McCann

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A friend of mine recommended I watch this series about the disappearance of this young three-year-old in Portugal in 2007.  I have to admit, I went in with prejudice. Like most of us, I was fed a steady stream of news reports about Madeleine’s disappearance and it felt to me like the parents were somehow involved.

The series reduced that feeling, but there are some things that still don’t add up for me.  The fact that the series made me question my preconceived notion is a good sign.

The series is, well, slow. It is plodding along, without a sense of tempo or care for the audience.  Having said that, I think it does a very good job of layout out the events.  There are a lot of blind allies the producers take you down.  The whole human trafficking angle is intriguing, but at the same time, lacks any substance…at least from what I saw. Theories are thrown at the wall to see what will stick, which is not a good approach to such a series.

Adding to this were the cast of characters that latched onto the case.  Psychics, dog handlers, private investigators…some seeming to insert themselves into the case for the publicity.  It is a cautionary tale for anyone that loses a loved one in the same manner…be wary of the company you keep.

The authorities were in over their heads from the start of the case.  They fingered people, for legitimate reasons in their minds, but mismanaged every aspect of the investigation.  There is a bombshell (of sorts) about the lead investigator that pops in the middle of the series, something that I was surprised about.

Did I soften my feeling about the parents as suspects?  Yes.  But some of their actions still raise big eyebrows for me.  Their attempt to get their dinner guests to align on their stories, for example, made little sense.  As a parent, I wouldn’t have left my kids in that situation – but I am also not from their culture nor was I there.  Seeds of doubt remain with me.

I give this about a 3.5 out of 5 stars.  It could have been reduced to three or four episodes easily, and would have been more enjoyable.  The constant drone shots of the beach and the city made this far too many episodes long.

Review of the True Crime Podcast – Going West

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My wife and I went to Michigan this weekend to help my mother-in-law move.  She likes podcasts so we listened to several, one in particular, Going West.  This review is based on listening to nine episodes, binge-style, on the Ohio and Pennsylvania Turnpikes.  They did not ask for this review – it is unsolicited.  Nor do I have any relationship with the podcasters.

My daughter and I started our podcast, Tantamount, and agreed up-front on format, style, and tone.  I’m not a fan of those true crime podcasts where drinking or humor is a big component.  It seems disrespectful to the victims and as an author in the genre, I try and avoid those podcasts.  There are a ton of true crime podcasts out there, and Going West proved to be one of the more entertaining and produced.

The format simple – two narrators taking you on a journey through one crime.  Some are solved, some are not.  The narrators have very professional voices and the production quality is top-notch. What my wife and I liked was that there was not a lot of their theories or wild speculations in the episodes.  They present the facts.  When they do tell you what they are thinking, they call that out so you don’t confuse their comments with the facts in the case.  A lot of podcasters could learn from this technique…I know I did.

There is occasional (rare) swearing, but it is well-placed (and often exactly what I was thinking!)

The mix of cases is well-thought-out.  Their research seems fairly solid too, which is critical. Where there are conflicting accounts of events, they let you know.  That is important, trust me.

Going West has a pleasing conversational tone and is paced well.  Some podcasts are like drinking through a firehose, while others go off on so many tangents that you struggle with following the story.  Going West weaves a story without being formulaic.  Sometimes they start with the crime, sometimes they start with the victim…it makes binging their episodes easy to do.

My wife, who only marginally likes podcasts, said that this is now one of her favorites.  That alone is high praise.

There are a ton of podcasts out there and Going West is one of the best I’ve stumbled across.  Easily a five out of five stars.

Podcast Tantamount Episode Two Supplemental Material – Body Count

 

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In our podcast on the Washington DC serial killer, the Freeway Phantom, we dive into the victims.  I wanted to provide listeners with some additional material to augment the podcast.

One of the more disturbing mishandlings of cases is that of Darlenia Johnson.  Her remains spotted by a motorist along I-295, just 15 feet from where Carol Spinks had been found, but the police didn’t recover her for over a week.  Officers were dispatched, but they drove by, not seeing her, rather than get out of their car.  She remained unattended in the hot July sun for days.

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Darlenia Johnson

Brenda Faye Crockett stands out because the Phantom allowed her to call home while she was his prisoner…twice.  Both times she claimed that a white man had driven her to Virginia and would send her home in a taxi.  On the second call, she asked if her mother saw her.  This is important.  Was the Phantom worried that he had been seen with her in his vehicle?  Did personally know Mrs. Crockett and was afraid that she was sending police after him?

Clearly the references to a “white man” and “Virginia” were deception.  No serial killer would allow his victim to give out actual useful clues to the family and authorities.  If anything, this should have helped investigators narrow their search to not include white suspects or residents in Virginia.  But at the time, the concept of a serial killer was unknown.  You had repeat offenders, but the phrase “serial killer” was years away from these crimes.

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Brenda Crockett.  Her two phone calls home were clearly out of fear on the part of the Phantom.

Nenomoshia Yates was only 12 years old when she was abducted, raped, and strangled by the killer.  She was found the day after her abduction on Route 50 in Prince George’s County Maryland.  She was just 3/10’s of a mile over the border from the District of Columbia.  So had the killer put here there to muddy the investigation by bringing in another agency?  Why not leave her along I-295 as he had his other victims?  What was so different with her or the road that night that compelled him to leave her elsewhere?

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Young Miss Yates.  
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The road where Nenomoshia Yates was found

For those of you that want to know more, you can buy our book Tantamount or you can follow our podcast on Podbean, Spotify, and iTunes.   Episode 2 – Body Count

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!

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.  

Tantamount – The Pursuit of the Freeway Phantom Serial Killer, is now available

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There is a strange sense of relief for an author when a new book is released.  This book is no different.  There will be pundits and critics, there always are.  I’m also fairly sure that the Washington Metropolitan Police and the Prince George’s County Police are not going to be elated.  We are releasing a lot of new information on this string of serial murders.  I anticipate them complaining about the book (if they say anything at all.)  We tried to work with them, to speak with investigators, to confirm sources, to let them know what material we had…but were stonewalled or outright ignored. The Washington MPD and mayor’s office spent more resources telling us why they refused to work with us than it would have taken them to actually cooperate.  They have good reasons to cover things up, which we will present in detail in the book.  There may be cries that this muddies their ability to investigate and prosecute the cases.

To which, I cry, “Bullshit.”

The Freeway Phantom cases have been open since 1971.  Trust me when I say our book does not impede the speedy investigation of these cases.  For almost 600 days the Freeway Phantom struck at the nation’s capital, stalking, kidnapping, raping, and murdering young girls aged between 10 and 18 years old.  He taunted authorities working the cases.  As mysteriously as he started, the Phantom stopped.

Or did he?

There’s some serious questions about other cases that occurred in the same neighborhoods that may be linked to the Freeway Phantom.  It is one of the things we pry open in Tantamount.  Some other items you will find made public for the first time:

  • A detailed exploration of the Green Vega Gang, some of whose members confessed to these crimes.
  • Dissecting key suspects never made public before, including an in-depth investigation of one of the prime suspects, Robert Askins.
  • Details about the crimes that have never been made public before, including a bizarre pattern of how the killer bathed his victims.
  • A listing of other possible related victims – including those that might have gotten away from the killer.
  • The confidential FBI profile of the killer.
  • New analysis by renowned FBI expert on linguistic forensics, Jim Fitzgerald, of Unabomber fame, of the note left by the killer on one of his victims.

We look forward to you joining us on this journey as we delve into the Freeway Phantom crimes.  Who knows, maybe one of you holds the secret to identifying this mysterious killer.

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Tantamount – The Pursuit of the Freeway Phantom Serial Killer Available for Pre-Sale

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I write true crime books with my daughter Victoria.  Needless to say, we are not your typical father-daughter in terms of hobbies we share.  It’s complicated and cool both at the same time.

We are pleased to say that our most recent book, Tanatmount, The Pursuit of the Freeway Phantom Serial Killer, is available for pre-order in Kindle format.  The paperback will be available around the time the Kindle version releases.  Tantmount Pre-Order

We have been working on this for a year and a half, if not longer.  I want to say that this is the story of the deaths of seven young girls in Washington DC in 1971-72 and the arrest and conviction of the killer.  That isn’t the case.  This serial murder string is unsolved.  If you are looking for a trial and conviction, this isn’t a book for you.  This is about the pursuit of the murderers, following the investigation and where it went both right and horribly wrong.  (Previous Post on Tantamount)

There are a lot of urban myths and legends, some perpetuated by law enforcement, regarding the Freeway Phantom.  My co-author and I tackle these head-on.  We give you the suspects, how they ended up on that list, etc.  We go down the rabbit holes and come back up again. This is a book about horrific crimes and how investigators struggled to balance giving the families closure and making sure they got the right person.

We reveal new facts, new evidence, new details, that have never been made public before about these murders.  Even if you think you know things about this case, we reveal more.  One investigator we interviewed read the draft manuscript and said, “There’s things in here I didn’t know.”  That is the highest praise we can get as investigative journalists/authors.

We encourage you to order the book – and we encourage you to read the information and form your own conclusions about this incredible serial murder spree.  Follow this blog for more information on these crimes…

Review of Mindhunter Season Two on Netflix

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One of the cooler scenes this season 

When we left off in season one, Agent Holden was having a panic/anxiety attack.  It was a compelling cliffhanger, that much was for sure.  What we saw was how much the serial killers he was interviewing had managed to get into his head.

Season two picks up soon thereafter.  The cause of Holden’s second anxiety incident is a stunner that made the entire episode for me. Where the first season focused on Holden, this was more about Agent Tench and the issues he is facing. The shift of character was a good one and artfully executed.  Bill has problems, his son becomes entangled in the murder of a young boy, a crime that tears at his family past the point of breaking.

Things have changed for the entire team.  Their boss was fired and replaced with someone that solidly backs the unit and sees the value of it.  Intertwined in this is their ongoing interviews with serial killers, the BTK case, and the case that makes the unit finally accepted – The Atlanta Child Killer.

The beginning of most of the episodes drops little hints of a serial killer, BTK.  The unit is digging into this case but getting nowhere.  That’s okay, we all know it will take years to bring this one to conclusion.

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We haven’t seen the end of this…

The character that is shorted in this is Dr. Wendy Carr.  We explore her lifestyle and the conflicts she has between what people say and what is real.  Unfortunately the way this season is structured, we miss the chemistry of the three main characters throughout.  While Holden and Tench are working the Atlanta Child Killer cases, she is more or less sidelined.

For me, there were two serial killer interviews that popped.  One was with the Son of Sam, the other was with Charles Manson.  I don’t ruin this for you, but they are not only well written, but excellently cast.  The Berkowitz character comes across as so close to reality, you wonder if they are interviewing the real killer.  Manson comes across as very authentic to interviews I’ve seen.  Kudos to the folks in casting.

There was a lot of accuracy to the entire Atlanta Child Killer case which was both disturbing and compelling. It does not portray the Atlanta PD in a positive light.

What makes this series sizzle for me is the settings and props from the early 1980’s.  As someone who lived in that era, it is pretty dead-on accurate.

I enjoyed this season a great deal, but miss the trio of key characters working together.  Now we have to wait for Netflix to get around to working on season three.  A solid five out of five stars.

Review of The Romanovs: The Final Chapter by Robert Massie

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When I was a kid my mom took me to see the movie Nicholas and Alexandra at the Bijou Theater in Battle Creek, MI.  She knew my love of history and the story fascinated her, especially Rasputin and Anastasia.  At the end of the movie she covered my eyes when the royal family was shot.  For some reason that has always stuck in my head.

Robert Massie is, well, a giant in terms of historical writers.  I actually wore out my copy of Castles of Steel, it is that good. This book falls somewhere between a history book and a true crime saga.  After all, the Romanov family was never tried for crimes, they were brutally murdered.  When I saw this book on my Amazon feed, I knew I had to pick it up.

It starts with the crime itself, which pulls you in.  The strange, if not bizarre treatment of the bodies was compelling as well.  Massie is masterful at giving you the historical context that is do desperately needed to understand the events.

Slowly what emerges is how the bodies were eventually found and recovered, and the impact of the Cold War and petty academics that played a part in identifying the remains.  This was a story that the public knew very little about.

Suddenly the book takes a hard turn into the rumors of the survivors, namely Anastasia.  I was surprised to learn that one woman claiming to be the princess lived out her years near me, in Charlottesville, Virginia.  The courtroom battles over her DNA were long, but entirely necessary.  Having read Massie’s other books, I knew that he was taking me as a reader on a long journey – and that parts of it were convoluted.  I was surprised that there were so many members of the Romanov family that were spared the violence of the Red Revolution.

As a true crime book, this is pretty intriguing to read but you may find the parts on “Anastasia” lacking, since it feels her only crime was lying about who she was.  As a history book, it is outstanding.  This book is solidly researched and well worth picking up.  Five out of five stars.

Now I need to go to the Netflix series, The Last Czars.  Curse you Robert Massie – you are making me explore this more.