Joe Johnson, crime writer for the Athens Banner-Herald and one of my favorite Georgia crime reporters, picks up on a great story:

For the second time in less than a week, masked gunmen robbed a business in west Athens.

Athens-Clarke County police said they don’t have any evidence to suspect the robbery on Monday at D.R. Green Motors on West Broad Street is related to a Jan. 21 hold-up at an Atlanta Highway convenience store.

In both cases, though, a pair of gunmen wearing full ski masks entered the businesses during the late evening.

Last week’s robbery at Lay’s Food Mart, 4360 Atlanta Highway, occurred at about 10 p.m. and D.R. Green Motors was robbed at about 10:30 p.m. Monday, police said.

In the convenience store robbery, a clerk described the bandits only as black males.

Ignore the cops who of course have every reason to believe the crimes are related, not only for their similarity but also because armed robbery is a terrible way to earn a living. The guys got away with “cash and a cellphone,” so I’m going to guess less than $300 of spendable money. Think of the risk they’re taking, of ending up in jail or shot by cops or store clerks, or other customers, or random motorists—this is, after all, Georgia. And it’s not as if they can do this very often, like there’s $300 waiting for the sufficiently ballsy every single night in Clarke County and environs. They’ve already done it twice, so if they try it again, everyone buying Red Bull and lotto tickets who isn’t already armed will be by the time the two guys get around to target #4.

In other words, these are the kind of people whose forehead tattoo that reads POOR IMPULSE CONTROL is visible to pretty much everyone, even when the rest of their face is covered. I guarantee you that when they’re caught or killed within three weeks, their average birth year will be 1993 or so. They’re young, not bright, and their idea of careful planning is going to turn out to be missing something obvious and critical.

But think of the opportunity cost of armed robbery: what else could they be doing to make 300 bucks? That’s two days’ labor for both of them at minimum wage, after taxes and other deductions. So either they truly are desperados, emphasis on “desperate”, or it’s not the money. It’s the adventure. And that’s what makes them scary.

Though Johnson’s first sentence needed a better thought, because at first read I thought that the article was going to be about the same business being robbed by two different groups of masked gunmen. Which would really make a better story than that of the desperadoes, which will almost certainly turn out to be cruelly banal.

Imagine the perspective of the proprietor of a convenience store: first, he’s relating his experiences to the detectives, then they’re back five days later. Mustapha: “You’ve had a hell of a week, Mr. Ayinde. My partner said you said these were different guys, and I figured the whole thing had kinda traumatized you, you know? Not like I’d blame you. But then I watched those security cams, and yeah, that second pair of guys are taller than the first. Oh, man.”

Now imagine learning how easy it is to buy a gun in Georgia, and putting it solemnly under your counter, managing to ignore the PTSD flashbacks from before you got your wife to the refugee camp. Now imagine two downscale, goofy black guys coming into the store on one of these real cold nights we’ve been having, with their scarves pulled up and their wooly hats down, so you can only see their eyes.


Not So Sloppy Joe

This story’s been making the rounds on a lot of blogs. And it doesn’t even involve murder:

Fulton County school police have arrested a former cafeteria manager suspected of stealing hundreds of dollars every day for at least five years…

Channel 2 Action News broke the story last spring, when a cafeteria worker told us her manager regularly ran a cash-only line for which there were no records.

Now, police charge it was a long-running and extremely profitable theft scheme.

A whistleblower provided video inside the North Springs cafeteria. There were four lines that each had a cash register to keep track of the money.

Standing alone was a blue cart that sold a-la-carte items for cash and never had a register.

Now, stealing is wrong; we all know that. But we ought to hand it to Brenda Watts. She stood right there and openly stole money for 15 years, and the Atlanta Public Schools were so incompetent and corrupt that they never even noticed: in fact, it took a whistleblower to point them to this obvious and blatant theft. And APS fired the whistleblower, so I’m going with “corrupt”. Brenda Watts belongs on Wall Street, not behind bars.

Kendrick Johnson’s Autopsy

This story is deep and weird and very wrong. Kendrick Johnson was a star athlete in a Valdosta high school:

State medical examiners concluded that Johnson suffocated in January after getting stuck in a rolled-up gym mat while reaching for a sneaker. That’s a finding his family has never accepted, and one challenged by the findings of a second autopsy they commissioned.

None of this passed the smell test right from the start. Johnson’s family complained, with some pretty clear justification, that the crime scene was contaminated and the investigation botched. They filed all kinds of freedom-of-information requests and got stonewalled at first, with the local sheriff’s office saying the GBI called the death an accidental suffocation in a rolled-up gym mat. Here’s Ebony magazine’s take on it, which of course is going to view it as partly a racial issue, but lest we forget, this is Valdosta, Georgia. The family finally managed to get their son’s body disinterred, and the results of that second autopsy came out recently:

Dr. Bill Anderson determined the teen died from a blow to the neck, but he also made another discovery: some of Johnson’s organs were missing. His lungs, heart and brain were not there, and the body was stuffed with newspaper.

The Georgia Bureau of Investigation claims Johnson’s organs were placed back in his body after the first autopsy, but the Valdosta funeral home that enbalmed him said the organs were discarded before the body was sent to them.

So obviously someone’s totally corrupt here. There’s actually security cam footage—this article doesn’t talk about it—but the school has so far refused to release it. Someone murdered this poor kid, and if the security footage can’t tell who, the evidence the sheriff’s department missed probably can.


Paralyzed Shooting Victim Shoots Home Invaders

Normally, I think guns make things worse. But here’s a good counterexample.

FAIRBURN, Ga. -A man paralyzed from the waist down by a previous shooting gets into a gun battle with the armed robbers during an early morning home invasion in south Fulton County.

The victim, 39-year-old Dennis Thomas, spoke with FOX 5 News by phone from his hospital bed at Grady Memorial Hospital. He says he was asleep when the gunman entered his home. He says he sleeps with a loaded gun under his pillow and used it when armed robbers confronted him.

“He said, ‘Roll over. I’m like, ‘Man, I’m in a wheelchair. Come on.’ When I rolled over, I hide my gun under my pillow.  He started shooting, I started shooting too,” said Thomas.

Now THIS makes a great story. Here you’ve got this guy paralyzed in a previous shooting. The article gives no details about the previous shooting: was Thomas the shooter or the victim? Or was it a gunfight? Dennis Thomas is just too common a name to find out quickly what might have happened. Thomas knows he’s a target, so he prepares himself. And these fools, who we must remember are victimizing him because he’s in a wheelchair, let themselves show a little humanity, and get blasted for it. The ironies abound.

In the story, the fact that Thomas is in a wheelchair because of a previous shooting can’t get revealed right away. For all the reader knows, he’s simply a victim. That way, when it comes out that this is to some extent payback, it’s a little more effective.


Gettin’ a Little Faulkner in Here (3)

Here’s a charming story from really rural Georgia:

Authorities in northwest Georgia have identified a 59-year-old man who died after a shootout with his son.

Polk County Police chief Kenny Dodd says Robert Donald May and his 33-year-old son got in a fight Monday night at the house they share in Cedartown, which is about 20 miles southwest of Rome.

Dodd told the Rome News Tribune ( ) investigators are unsure of what led to the fight, but both men fired at each other. Dodd says May’s son was wounded in his arm and has been treated and released from a local hospital.

Here you are, sharing a house with your adult son, and I’m going to take a wild guess and say that drinking was involved. There’s all this accumulated tension, because you don’t really want your kid living with you (or because you’re running a meth lab together and he isn’t sharing the profits right), but because he’s your son, you can’t just be confrontational about how you want him out. Things grow more and more tense, and then one night you’re fighting.

In a sane country, this would result in bruises, plus reconciliation and/or a change of domicile. Maybe a talking-to by sheriff’s deputies. But because this is the USA, both of these guys a) own pistols, b) have them lying around, and c) think them a fine way to resolve disputes. And now Robert May is dead and his son is a parricide. But, freedom.

Mental Illness and Firearms

This story has been the crime of the week here in Atlanta. A blended family led by Angelina Benton opened their suburban house to Robert Bell and his wife, who were evidently temporarily homeless. Benton, her boyfriend and two teens went on a trip in Bell’s car, then when they returned Bell was waiting with multiple weapons, with which he shot all of them and killed everyone but Benton’s BF. Then somehow he couldn’t find the car keys, so he ran. Now he’s on the loose and rewards are being set up.

None of this makes a lot of sense unless you think of Bell as being mentally ill—and of course in Georgia, firearms are actually handed to people once they’re diagnosed with mental illnesses. The crime has the combination of planning and gross incompetence that only smart sick people are capable of.

The news has quite enough about this crime, which on the surface is lurid but not really all that interesting from the point of view of writing crime fiction. Imagine yourself as happy-go-lucky Benton, figuring, “Sure, you can stay here while you get on your feet; can we borrow your car and go to the beach?” and then coming back and dying in a hail of bullets. Not really all that dramatic.

So what to do? Make it so that Benton’s BF or one of the kids manages to clock Bell’s hidden illness and pleads with Mom not to let him in. Have Benton have ulterior motives; she’s actually planning on stealing the car from Bell. Have Benton not want to let Bell in, but her BF’s real-church mentality makes him convince her to do it, and now he has to deal with the guilt. Better still, make it so that the reader gets to clock Bell’s illness while the four characters remain clueless. Imagine Benton with her blended family, finally enjoying a week on the beach while someone’s there to watch their diabetic dog or whatever, and the daily phone calls back keep getting subtly weirder.

The question I want to ask is where’s Bell’s wife in all this? I can’t seem to find a mention of her giving any kind of statement, which may very well be because she’s trying hard to avoid getting prosecuted for knowing her husband was up to something. This makes me want to write the story from her point of view: her husband has gone mad so slowly that she hasn’t been able (or willing) to admit that there’s something wrong, and when she decides to do something about it, the Bentons are due back the next day, so she figures she’ll wait for the car and use it to seek help.

Isolated Afternoon Thundershowers (4)

Parts 1, 2, 3:


Coming up after the news on All Things Considered, the latest developments in the Israeli/Palestinian peace process. Adam groaned and switched the damn thing off, then got to inch forward all of half a car length. He punched the phone again. This time, to his surprise, Claire picked right up. “Just got off the plane. How’s Sweetie Pie?”

“Still at school. I’m on the Downtown Connector, stopped dead. It’s pouring. Again. All the skyscrapers are lost in clouds. At this rate, I’m gonna be most of an hour late. I shoulda taken Piedmont. How pissed off do they get if you’re late?”

She laughed. “They don’t. Because you have to pay the teacher. Three bucks a minute.”


She laughed again. “Keeps you on time.”

“This is going to cost me a hundred bucks. There’s no exception for stuck in traffic?”

“This is Atlanta: when are you not stuck in traffic? Call ahead, though, so Simon doesn’t worry.”

“Um, I don’t think I even have the number. Oh, no; I do, but the card is in my briefcase.”

“I’ll do it. Kiss him for me!” and she rang off, to leave him staring at the back of a white pickup covered in Ron Paul stickers, all beaded with the endless rain, each drop reflecting an ocean of brake lights in the premature dusk brought on by the storm.


Simon looked up as Mr. Darius came back in the room. “Audrey’s mom came and got her,” he said as he added another brick to his Lego tower.

“I just saw them. And your mom called: she said your dad was coming to get you?”

“Yeah, Mom’s on a trip. Dad’s going to take me for pizza.”

“That is awesome. But he’s going to be late: he’s stuck in traffic. So it’s just you and me for a while here, big guy. You want a book, or you want some more Lego time?”

“Um, Legos is good. Can you show me how to make the bricks over…?”

“Hunh? Oh, overlap. Of course. But in a few minutes you’re going to have to hang out in the lobby while I make sure the rest of the place is locked up tight.”

But Mr. Darius took forever back there. Simon could hear him, on the phone, but not loud enough to know what he was saying. Outside the front door, it was pouring rain, which was why they missed playground time again this afternoon. Lots of cars were on the street outside. A bus pulled up to the shelter across the street and a lady got in. After the bus drove away, there were no cars. And he saw it: a kitty, a black one, standing under the seat of the bus shelter. He was hunched over, with his fur sticking out, so he was all wet. Simon really wanted a kitty. But Mom has allergies.

“Mr. D?” He called. No answer. Simon went back to find him, but the halls were dark and now he couldn’t hear Mr. Darius’s voice. He looked back, forth, back, then went to the front door. This time he got to press the button to open it because Mom wasn’t there to tell him no.

Once outside, the rain hit him like the shower at the outdoor pool, only it didn’t smell like the pool. He walked to the curb and stood there, watching the kitty from between all the cars that were zooming by. But the cars never stopped. He could only see the kitty if all the cars lined up just right. He sighed. He’d get in so much trouble if he crossed the street. It was jaywalking, the police lady told his class.

He went to go back inside, but now the door was locked. And pressing the button didn’t work because you need to slide a card first. He, knocked again, called for Mr. D, but nobody came. And he could see on the bench inside the lobby his Spiderman backpack, with the emergency phone in it. He started to cry, but made himself stop: either Mr. D would–

“Dad!” he shouted as the car came to a stop. But it was the right car and the wrong dad: this man wasn’t bald. “Sorry,” he said. “I thought you were my dad. He drives the same kind of car.”

“Well, you’re soaked to the bone,” said the man. “Hop on in, and I’ll give you a ride.”

“Okay,” said Simon. Then he paused and remembered the police lady. “I’m not supposed to get in a car with strangers.”

“I’m not a stranger,” said the man. “I’m your dad’s friend from work.” Simon slumped back against the door, not knowing what to think. The man looked back and forth. Somebody else honked their horn. “Okay,” the guy said, and drove away.