TRUE CRIME

TRUE CRIME

Introduction

Circles and cycles. A true story has neither a beginning nor an end. Space-time binds only flesh-and-blood characters. We, the living, may know the dead only through the boundless medium of narrative, and in the attempt may find something approximating truth.

In the autumn of 1973, in the rural northwestern corner of Connecticut, a couple months after I was born and a couple miles up the road, Barbara Gibbons was murdered. Stabbed to death in her dilapidated cabin abutting swamp and woods. On the evening of 28 September, Barbara’s half century of earthly life came to an end that was as abrupt and violent as it was permanent. She left behind overdue library books. She left behind a teenage son.

For everyone outside of our small community — and for local children too young to have known Barbara when she was alive — her story seemed to begin with her death. Books would be written. A movie would be made. Police botched the case. Barbara’s son was wrongfully convicted and later freed. The real killer — or killers — got away.

From my earliest days on this earth I have been haunted by Barbara’s last minutes. Haunted by the very hills and dales of bucolic Litchfield County, which seemed to swallow Barbara’s screams that night. Her neighbors, some twenty yards away, heard nothing. Heard cicadas and frogs, maybe an owl, as Barbara was beaten and slashed.

Growing up in the aftermath shaped my understanding of the place I called home, and it seeded questions that I could not articulate until I was older: questions about intersections of the visible and invisible worlds; about the stories we tell in order to revise the lives we live; about the difference between concrete evidence and captivating theories; about which truths must be hidden away — in the trees, along some quiet stretch of river, in some shady knoll, or maybe buried deep inside the earth — in order to preserve a postcard image of a quaint New England community.

The exact sequence of Barbara’s injuries is unknown; it’s possible that she had no chance to scream. The gashes to her neck deep enough to expose her vocal chords and all but remove her head. The bones of her face, her ribs, even her thighs, shattered. Some of her wounds — such as violent penetration of Barbara’s sexual organs “with an unknown object” — were post-mortem. Her killer was not satisfied by murder alone; he needed to humiliate and desecrate Barbara’s body even in death.

I learned to read and write very early, and although I can’t say for sure — memory being such a malleable thing — I like to believe that A Death in Canaan was the first book I ever read. The authoritative nature of a hardcover, its frightening blood-red title and inverted black-and-white images, all promised a story that would explain, in the words of a professional journalist from New York City, what exactly had happened in my little corner of Connecticut.

Nearly five decades later, however, Barbara’s case remains unsolved. And although we locals like to believe that we know who took her life, the only thing certain is who that person was not.

Joan Barthel’s book was the first, and Donald Connery’s Guilty Until Proven Innocent is the most comprehensive examination of the case.

Barbara’s son, Peter Reilly, age eighteen and attending a local youth group at the time of her attack, had the dire luck of returning home within just minutes of his mother’s death. For the next twenty-four hours, police interrogated the traumatized teen. He had no blood on his clothes and had called paramedics and police and neighbors as soon as he found his mother, but he was polygraphed nonetheless, then told that he had failed. Police told him that he couldn’t remember killing his mother because he’d blacked out. By the end of the interrogation, Peter had “confessed” — complete with “details” of the crime that didn’t actually match the evidence at the scene.

Police had no experience with false confessions at the time, because it was Peter’s case that would bring the phenomenon to national attention. Today Peter’s confession is discussed in every Criminology textbook and class, but in 1973 it was not a study, not a story, not a cautionary tale; it was merely Peter’s life. Despite a room full of alibis, and despite the lack of blood on Peter’s clothes, and despite later evidence pointing to a certain neighbor of his, Peter was tried and convicted in Litchfield Superior Court, home of the oldest law school in the United States.

Peter’s later exoneration was hastened by celebrity involvement and pressure, but only the court system itself can reopen a prisoner’s cell door. Peter was freed only because the State’s prosecutor died of a heart attack and left behind the exculpatory evidence that he had withheld from the defense.

*

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.

*

school-of-satan

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”:

West Memphis Three, Witch Hunters, and the Cult of the Violent Femme

Leaving aside as well the predilections of, and the misinformation supplied by, local newspapers and local authorities in West Memphis, there's no doubt the crime scene was easily interpreted as suggesting a sexual component to the murders. But I would also suggest that the investigation went far afield not because of the sex-crime angle, but because of the perceived homo-sexual violence of the crimes. For the literal-minded/illiterate in West Memphis the fantasy of a consummate breed of homosexual male violence carried at least as much Biblical fear/hatred as that text's injunctions against occult arts, and was every bit as potent as the Satanic Panic among West Memphis jurors in 1993....

The “Other” West Memphis Three (part 4): Attorney Scott Ellington and the New Doomed Generation

Pam Hicks (originally Pam Hobbs) filed suit in June, when West Memphis authorities denied her initial requests to view records and evidence related to the murder of her child, Stevie Branch, nearly 20 years ago -- one of three children murdered in a case made famous by Arkansas’ wrongful conviction of the so-called West Memphis Three – a case that remains, as a result of Arkansas’ botched investigation and prosecution, unsolved. Hicks as well as John Mark Byers, father of murdered Christopher Byers, so far have met with stonewalling from the authorities now being sued in a third, amended version of the original suit: West Memphis Police Chief Donald Oakes; Mayor of West Memphis, William H. Johnson; and Congressional hopeful and current Prosecuting Attorney for the Second Judicial District of Arkansas, Scott Ellington.

Literally Cursed: Marc Perrusquia’s Frightening Two-Decade Obsession with Damien Echols

It appears that Memphis Commercial Appeal journalist Marc Perrusquia is still suffering from The Blood of Innocents, his co-authored mass-market failure from 1995, which had hoped to profit from the State of Arkansas's fictional case against the West Memphis Three. Readers might reasonably expect that Perrusquia would have politely ignored the recent publication of Damien Echols' memoir, Life After Death -- or that Perrusquia might have even used the occasion to apologize for getting the case so wrong. Instead, as if cornered, flying in the face of reason, Perrusquia decided to attack. To take one last swipe at the man who lost 18 years to Perrusquia's satanic fiction, but survived, and then had the gall to write about it.

The “Other” West Memphis Three (part 3): Loser Occult

That which is kept in darkness is occult. The story of three little boys left naked, hogtied, dead in a ditch--remains in darkness. Damien Echols, who suffered half his life on a very real Death Row for the crimes that Atom Egoyan now intends to "fictionalize," is clear on the distinction between Mara Leveritt's 2002 book and the 2013 Hollywood fiction, Tweeting Egoyan's film as "Devil's Knob."

The “Other” West Memphis Three (part 2):The Chosen Few

Among the chosen few who can understand all but one aspect of Pam Hicks’s grief are the parents of the other two boys murdered that night in 1993: Mark Byers, the father of Christopher Byers, and Todd and Dana Moore, the parents of Michael Moore. While Hicks and Byers stopped believing the State’s “official” story years ago, Dana and Todd Moore continued to hold tight, understandably, if heartbreakingly, to the small comfort offered by that fiction. On 19 August 2011, Dana and Todd Moore experienced something beyond their imagining: watching in sickness and horror as the State of Arkansas informed them and the rest of the world that the three men tried, convicted, and imprisoned for the murder of their child and his two friends, were about walk out of prison, free. Moreover, the convicts were being released from prison not because they had served their sentences—which ranged from life in prison to death row—but due to some confusing legal wrangling that even the State found difficult to explain with any accuracy, especially to Dana and Todd. The convicts were being released at the same time that Attorney General Dustin McDaniel, either out of ignorance or contempt for his responsibility to the state he serves, was telling the media that "Since the day of their original convictions, the Attorney General’s Office has been committed to defending the guilty verdicts in this case."

The “Other” West Memphis Three (part 1): Ain’t No Thing

Pam Hicks’ lawsuit is latest evidence of the patience of parents of West Memphis victims in the face of decades-old unsolved murders. The lawsuit does not concern itself with West Memphis and Arkansas authorities’ devastating mishandling of her son’s murder investigation. Pam (Hobbs) Hicks asks only to see her deceased son’s possessions, which were seized as evidence after his murder in 1993, and which remain locked away by West Memphis Police although the case is, according to the State, “closed.”

The “Other” West Memphis Three: Background: West Memphis Today

On August 19, 2011, following numerous appeals, documentaries, books, and a host of celebrity support, Damien, Jason, and Jesse were allowed to enter what is called an Alford Plea, by which the accused may assert their innocence while acknowledging that the State believes it has a case against them. Alford pleas are filed as guilty pleas, however, to satisfy the necessary paperwork for the State. As a result of this plea agreement, the three teenagers, who were now men in their mid- to late- thirties, were re-sentenced to "time served" (19 years, which Damien had spent on Death Row) and were released from prison with the remainder of their sentences suspended. For its part, the State of Arkansas retained the legal (if not moral) ability to point to these convictions and assert that the 1993 triple child-homicide remains a closed case. As a result, West Memphis and Arkansas authorities have, to date, done precisely nothing to find the actual killer(s) of Stevie Branch, Christopher Byers, and Michael Moore.

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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