Nonfiction: Crime

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On an autumn night in 1973, a few months after I was born, and a few miles up the road from my home, Barbara Gibbons was murdered.

It was an exceptionally brutal crime. Barbara was sexually mutilated and nearly decapitated. And like every horror that occurs in a small, rural town, it’s the sort of crime that just doesn’t happen where I lived.

Not only did it happen, however, but the collective backyard of all Litchfield County residents soon became synonymous with the crime, following celebrity involvement and Joan Barthel’s book-turned-TV-movie, A Death in Canaan.

Growing up in its aftermath, Barbara’s murder became a cornerstone in my understanding of where I lived and what sort of things were hidden behind its postcard New England image. Barbara had been beaten and stabbed until her bedroom was literally dripping blood. Her throat had been slashed multiple times, exposing her vocal chords, all but removing her head. Her bones — her face, her ribs, even her thigh bones — had been broken. The medical examiner noted that some of the wounds were post-mortem, including the “deep penetration” of Barbara’s vagina “with an unknown object.”

Joan Barthel’s book is excellent, and I own an original shooting script for A Death in Canaan. That said, however, Barbara Gibbon’s murder, and Peter Reilly’s conviction and exoneration, are most comprehensively explored in Donald Connery’s Guilty Until Proven Innocent.

Barbara’s only child, Peter Reilly, 18, who was the only other household member, and who had the unfortunate luck of returning home to find his mother within twenty minutes of her murder, was promptly arrested for the crime. After more than 24 hours of interrogation in the absence of legal counsel, police even got a confession out of the traumatized teen. Despite his being alibied by dozens of people attending a church meeting with Peter at the time of his mother’s murder, and despite the lack of blood on Peter’s clothes, and despite his calling paramedics to the scene within minutes of her death, Peter was tried and convicted in Litchfield Superior Court.

He would later be exonerated — but only after the State’s prosecutor died of a heart attack, leaving behind the exculpatory evidence that he’d withheld from the defense.

Despite copious evidence found at the scene, Barbara’s murder remains unsolved to this day.

The case continues to haunt me. Partly for the reasons that it haunts all of Barbara’s and Peter’s neighbors, and partly for more personal reasons to which I’ll return in a moment.


Eight years after Barbara’s murder, in 1981, I was molested by a male police officer — our town constable — who lived next door to me.

A budding entrepreneur at the time, and smart enough to capitalize on my cuteness, I spent weekends towing a red wagon around town, out of which I sold pens and stationary and sundry office supplies.

Making money was only half the joy of the endeavor. The other half was the parental license to travel far and wide for hours. I was my own man, as it were, carving out my destiny, making my mark on the world.

Which is why I didn’t bother going to the constable’s house until some months into my business excursions — his house was literally next door; it held no sense of adventure. Also, I saw his wife every day in school. She was the librarian.

Eventually, however, having already bled dry every other neighbor within walking distance, I finally knocked on their door. The librarian answered. She told me to come back at such and such a time — when her husband would be home.

She was the quiet sort, of course, and in hindsight I can only speculate that watching was her thing. The day I returned, she actually baked cookies while her husband, just a few feet away, molested me.

When it was over, I went home with a mild stomach ache and the sense that I’d been party to something that wasn’t right. I wasn’t traumatized; I was baffled. I told my mother what happened. She told me that the constable was a “dirty old man” and that I should stay away, and to this day I remain grateful that she knew better than to involve social services or police.

I told no one else until I was an adult.

Neither the constable nor the school librarian were ever charged with crimes. Their son, who was several years older than me, went on to become a librarian at a nearby college, and was later arrested for possession of child pornography.



The author’s synopsis for his 5th-grade short story: “School of Satan,” which shocked his teacher less for its content and more for requiring her to read over 20 pages (while adding “Satanic Accult” to the lexicon, apparently). Fellow historians of the Panic will note the coincidence of the use of name “Franklin” here, several years _before_ the now-infamous Franklin child prostitution ring allegations. (Note, too: although the author’s story in centered in Kansas rather than Nebraska, the two cornfield states might as well have been the same, in the mind of this Yankee author at age 10.)

Beginning in the 1980s, child sexual abuse became a national media concern, featured in nightly newscasts and on daytime talkshows alike. Prosecutions for “child-sex rings” and “ritual abuse,” even “satanic ritual abuse,” also began to make headlines. Throughout the 1980s and early 1990s, prosecutions for these alleged crimes led to several hundred people being sentenced to lifetimes in prison — and most of them were innocent. [See my essays “The Cost of False Cases of Child Sexual Abuse” and “Believe the Children” for a historical perspective.]

At the time these cases were unfolding, few people in the U.S. questioned either the media reports or the prosecutions they covered. An era glibly referred to now as the “Satanic Panic,” these dark days were indeed my formative years as a writer, influencing my work (see 5th-grade story synopsis in photo) both then and now.

Despite my own victimization as a child, I am more interested in wrongful prosecutions for child sexual assault, most of which use variations on the same methods that were effective in the 1980s. Today prosecutors are less likely to invoke the specter of diabolism, specifically, but they are also less likely to need to do so. What was “shocking” about child-sex crimes in the 1980s is now taken for granted: juries today have little trouble believing that every school principal, every priest, every Scout leader, is a secret pedophile, despite the statistical rarity of pedophilia; just as television would have us believe that child abduction and murder is a near daily occurrence in the U.S., despite the fact any given child here is approximately as likely to be struck and killed by lightning.


In 2003, out of fear their incestuous household would be exposed, a family in Sharon, Connecticut, claimed that a neighbor, seventeen-year-old Jeremy Barney, had beaten, tortured, and raped all three of their children (as well as their family pets) over a period of several years. Although the State’s own forensic medical examinations contradicted these claims — while corroborating incestuous molestation — the prosecution had already committed themselves to the family’s fabrications. As frequently happens in wrongful cases, the prosecution simply refused to admit they had gotten the case all wrong. Rather than investigating factual incest in the _X_ home, they chose to pursue a fictional monster. As a result, in 2005 Jeremy Barney was sentenced to twenty years in maximum-security prison, where he remains.


Jeremy Barney, it so happens, is my sister’s only son, and my only nephew.

It so happens, too, that Jeremy’s case and the Gibbons / Reilly case of 1973 share remarkable similarities. In addition to unfolding exactly thirty years apart, both cases were investigated by the same small police department, and in each case, detectives botched the job by focusing on one suspect alone, despite all evidence pointing elsewhere. In each case, the suspect was a gentle, skinny, bespectacled white male in his senior year at Housatonic Valley Regional High School. Both suspects had little-to-no money to mount a defense, and each was interrogated and polygraphed in the absence of an attorney.

Both wrongful cases were tried successfully in Superior Court in Litchfield, Connecticut, home of the oldest law school in the United States.

In each case, the prosecution withheld exculpatory evidence but was nonetheless certain they had the right man — or, rather, the right kid.

To this day, in fact — despite Peter Reilly’s exoneration by the same judge who’d convicted him, admitting a “grave injustice” — the official stance of the Connecticut State Police is that they caught the right man kid in 1973. [See this article, coincidentally written just days after Jeremy’s arrest.]


These incidents have helped to shape much of my research and writing in the last decade. The fruits of which are my forthcoming novel, Angela’s Story, primarily, along with a handful of essays on crime in general, and specifically sex crimes.

Below are a selection of posts regarding various cases, both active and historical. Of special note is the alleged molestation case against Robert Adams, which all but destroyed the defendant and his family at the same time that it shut down a beloved, 35-year-old private gradeschool. Behind this, too, is the larger issue of corruption in law enforcement and the District Attorney’s Office in Sacramento, CA.

More information on Jeremy Barney and Angela’s Story can be found at their respective links.

Posts marked “Crime”:

Sacramento County DA Jan Scully: Homicide OK, but workers’ comp. fraud a felony

Although Sacramento County District Attorney Jan Scully appears resolutely unmoved when officers gun down even mentally-ill persons, and although she continues to stand by her decision to no longer investigate any officer-involved deaths whatsoever, Scully announced on June 8 that "felony workers' compensation insurance fraud" and "attempted perjury" had moved her to file felony charges against retired Officer Brian Christopher Hansen.

DA’s Office Gives Police the OK to Shoot and Kill Anyone, Anytime, for Any Reason

The Sacramento County, CA, District Attorney’s Office announces it will no longer review officer-involved shootings — at the same time that the county Sheriff’s Department reduces firearm training. Fourteen officer-involved shootings follow. In the first weeks of 2012 alone, police shootings break records for prior years: six in total; two dead and three injured. The most recent victim, Lamont Harmon, was unarmed, walking to his mother’s house.

The Murder of Troy Davis

Troy Davis is on death row in Georgia, facing execution at 7pm tonight, for the 1991 murder of police officer Mark MacPhail. Since Davis’s conviction, however, seven of the nine witnesses who testified against him have [...]

The Hope of a Generation: Freeing the West Memphis Three

All signs indicate that today, 19 August 2011, is a day more than eighteen years in the making. The so-called West Memphis Three -- Jason Baldwin, Damien Echols, and Jessie Misskelley -- will finally go home, after serving more than eighteen years in prison for crimes they did not commit.

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