Desperadoes

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.

 

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.

 

Ransoms Never Go Well (2)

Yesterday the news was all about Ayvani Hope Perez, who thank goodness was found safe and sound late in the day. But I wrote then that the whole thing seemed less random than it might appear, and I was right, but I had the wrong person:

Police said two armed men broke into Ayvani’s home early Tuesday and kidnapped her after asking her mother for money and jewelry.

Police said Rodriguez and Jackson are not the same men that were pictured in the sketches investigators released on Tuesday.

They said the men in the sketches are the ones that carried out the abduction, and they remain on the loose.

Um, okay. So they kidnapped the girl and turned her over to Rodriguez and Jackson? In exchange for what? And why? The story is very light on details, probably because the cops are going to track down the two abductors before they release anything further. It’s all speculation: were these guys just somehow stuck with Ayvani and decided that R and J were the two guys best suited to keep hold of her? And as I wrote yesterday, why abduct her in the first place? It’s a lot risk for a very mediocre reward.

The article begins to hint at an answer to the second question:

After digging into both men’s criminal background, Channel 2 Action News learned there was a connection between one of the men arrested and Ayvani’s mother, Maria Corral.

ICE agents confirmed to Channel 2 Action News that Rodriguez was arrested in December 2012 in Henry County under the name of Juan Aberto Contreras-Ramirez, and was charged with trafficking marijuana.

Channel 2’s Erica Byfield confirmed that Ayvani’s mother was also arrested in that same incident.

So Rodriguez and Corral knew each other well enough to get caught in the same house with 500 pounds of weed. And then these two as-yet-anonymous guys kidnap Corral’s daughter and turn her over to Rodriguez? So again, the question is why? Does Rodriguez want Ayvani as a sex toy? She was apparently unmolested. Does he want her as a bargaining chip in his and Corral’s weed business? The charges against both Rodriguez and Corral were dropped after the arrest but before the kidnapping.

So again, what the heck? Imagine Corral being in on it from the start; why does she want her own daughter kidnapped? Even as a professional fabulist, it’s hard to conceive of the level of depravity that would take.

Ransoms Never Go Well

Story of the week here in Atlanta is that of Ayvani Hope Perez, a suburban middle schooler who was kidnapped from her home by two gunmen doing a home invasion. Ayvani remains missing; today, the family says they received a ransom demand:

Suky Guerrero, an aunt of the victim, said Tuesday that family members were trying to get the money together to secure the release of Ayvani Hope Perez. Guerrero said she did not know where the family would get the money but she understood they were still waiting for it to be delivered late Tuesday…

Sources told Channel 2’s Tom Jones authorities were in contact with the suspects, but were limited on what details they wouldrelease.

“At this time, the investigation is fluid and I am not at liberty to discuss all the pertinent information about the investigation,” Richards said.

Okay, this seems like there’s something really wrong with it—something beyond desperadoes kidnapping a teenage girl, which is horrible enough. These guys do a home invasion, which is hugely risky but less so if done very quickly. They stick around long enough to decide to kidnap the daughter. Why? Other than sheer stupidity, I mean. Note that they didn’t wear masks, which supports the “stupidity” theory.

Now, not only have they kidnapped her, but they’re demanding a ransom; and a really, really cheap ransom at that. $10k? This is not real money. And ransom demands, as anyone who’s ever watched television knows, are inherently risky, because somebody has to show up to take the money. Surveillance technology is too good these days for these guys to get away with the money. So again, besides stupidity, what’s going on here?

Disclaimer: this is not in any way to slam Ayvani, who is after all fourteen. But this is a blog about crime *fiction*. I’m writing this story, she has to be involved in some way in what happened to her. These guys are young, as you can see from the sketch. Imagine now if she, wanting to impress older guys, somehow gives up that there’s jewelry in the house. These guys are just dumb enough to do a home invasion on someone they’re even tangentially connected to, and just smart enough to figure out that the girl can finger them. And just sentimental enough not to shoot her, which is the only way to keep her quiet.

So imagine the scene in the shitty apartment where they’re all hiding out. Ayvani is terrified because she’s the smartest (and most naïve) one in the room: she knows what they haven’t figured out yet, which is that her dead is the only path for these two to stay out of jail. The dumber of the two criminals is counting his share of ten whole thousand dollars. The smarter one is in touch with investigators, trying to figure out how to dance away from what happened when he thought he was going to go party with his friend and steal her mom’s jewelry.

In reality, of course, these are just two dumb, dumb young men who are going to end up dead or in a cage at the taxpayers’ expense.

 

Conspiracy is the Proof of Stupidity

Every story I read like this just confirms it:

Lee County[AL] investigators say the young wife of a Waverly man, her stepbrother and friend plotted to kill her husband then successfully carried out the crime this weekend.

Sunday afternoon inside home on Lee Road 649 in Waverly, 59-year-old Carl Dickinson was shot several times in the face, head and neck.

Investigators say well before the fatal shots were fired, Dickinson’s wife, Angela, had plotted with her step brother, Jake Barlett and a family friend Paul Phillips to kill her husband.

Never, ever conspire. There’s always a weak link: the cops are going to get your dumbest partner in a room and he’ll sing like a canary. You’re the wife, so you’re an obvious suspect, so the cops are going to troll your phone records, because if you’re dumb enough to conspire with your much younger ne’er-do-well stepbrother and the 45yo dumb enough to hang out with you both, you’re dumb enough to use your regular phone. And somebody sings.

I want to start writing fiction about the rules of murder, but don’t want to be perceived as actually writing a how-to book. As the obvious suspect, Angela has to not only destroy evidence, but also provide a persuasive alibi—and she made an epic fail at both.

But the article has one of the best kickers ever:

Investigators confirm she had very recently had a child with another man, but declined to say if her child’s father was somehow involved in the plot to kill her husband. They did say more arrests are possible.

A Surge in Crappy Policiing

I’ve blogged time and again about violence in gentrifying neighborhoods, which is one of the chief themes of crime in Atlanta. East Atlanta has been the center of this in recent months—see the second of those two links for specifics—and recently, the police held a press conference where they talked about how they were stepping up patrols in an effort to catch some of the perpetrators.

Now we have some of the results of this surge, and they’re superficially pretty:

DeKalb County’s police chief says his department is taking action against a recent string of crime in the area. Chief Cedric Alexander says the department is seeing results from a recent surge of police activity… In eight days, DeKalb police say the teams have made 75 arrests and written 105 citations. In all, crime in the area had been reduced by 42 percent.

Well, that sounds great: let’s get these punks off the streets. It’s well-attested, though probably rather exaggerated, that crime goes up in the summertime, because teenage punks are out of school and bored.

But upon closer examination, it’s unclear whether we’re any safer:

“For me as a police chief, it’s very troubling. For me as a citizen of the county, it’s very troubling. For myself as a psychologist, it’s very troubling,” Alexander said. “So on a very number of veins, I find it very and I’m very much concerned because these are young kids that are out there unsupervised that we arrest over and over and over. And we find ourselves re-arresting them and find ourselves sending them back the street sometime before we get back out there.”

Kind of cool that the police chief is a psychologist: this might make for interesting fiction. But read what the man says: if his cops are arresting the same kids over and over, then what they aren’t doing is arresting the kids for anything important. If these kids were guilty of, or even chargeable with, major crimes like murder or strong-arm robberies, even as kids they wouldn’t be released to be rearrested—they’d be in custody.

So what we know is that these kids aren’t doing anything really harmful. I’m going to guess traffic issues, maybe as far as suspended or nonexistent licenses; graffiti; underage drinking; maybe some minor weapon possession like jackknives. And, of course, weed. Black kids (and in this part of DeKalb County, it’s a certainty that the kids are black) smoke weed at about the same level as their white peers, but are much, much more likely to be arrested for it, and much more likely to be treated as criminals instead of good kids in trouble.

So this “surge” resulted in some probably pretty high percentage of 75 arrests being for weed, and into the system those kids go, up until now just bored, and now essentially barred from meaningful employment, which in my more cynical moments I feel is the primary purpose of the War on Some Drugs. And are we safer? Get real. These cops can’t even find the criminals who are so dumb they get caught on camera:

Decatur police hope new surveillance pictures will help solve one recent robbery and perhaps others.

Investigators are scrambling to solve a string of crimes in the area this month.

Police say the two men seen in the photos are suspects in a July 6 robbery on New Street in Decatur.

According to investigators, the two drove away in a stolen Mercedes after confronting a woman while she worked in a building, stealing her purse and a laptop computer.

Police believe the two men and a third suspect are tied to other robberies in DeKalb County.

Technically, Decatur, while in DeKalb County, has its own police force. But the point remains: police “surges” catch a lot of little fish, but it takes real work to catch the ones who really do us some harm.

 

Moral Decay v. Environment

I grew up in an upper-class environment: everyone was the 4 or 5 percent, everyone was white except for one kid of each ethnicity (their dads were immigrant doctors), everyone’s parents were Republicans, almost everyone had two parents, good nutrition, solid schooling and pro-education home environments, etc. And while teens in my school wrecked cars and went to coke rehab (it was the ’80s), nobody committed violent felonies—though many of their parents probably participated in white-collar crime.

After coming of age, I lived in some really, really dire neighborhoods, where street crime was a regular event. And I always thought back to my peers in high school, whose parents all would have said something like “those people are poor because they can’t govern themselves”. And there was certainly no shortage of poor impulse control among the inhabitants of those neighborhoods.

But the reality of the relationship between poverty and crime is much more complex. Let’s take as a very illustrative example the story of David Mack Collins, a 22yo father of two, who died ten days ago in the sort of crime so stupid that at first blush it makes for terrible crime fiction:

Athens-Clarke police said Collins and his buddy, 23-year-old Anthony Gray Coleman Jr., were both shot by a man whom they had set up for an armed robbery on the pretext of selling him drugs… Collins’s life ended in a way similar to that of many other local teens and young men who came before him.

Nobody I grew up with would do something this dumb, because they were raised in households that taught that (blue-collar) crime didn’t pay, and because they had other options in life. But Collins didn’t have that kind of support network:

Each sibling had a different father, and David Collins didn’t know who his was. Because their mother was a drug addict, their grandmother in Monroe was given custody of the siblings, Betty Collins said.

In spite of such circumstances, Collins tried to live a normal life.

“My brother grew up in the church (and) sang in the church choir,” Collins said. “He wasn’t made for the streets because he had a different kind of heart. He just ran into it.”

According to Collins, things started going downhill when her brother had a girlfriend in high school who introduced him to alcohol. He got in trouble when found at school with some liquor the girl had brought him.

Now I knew tons of kids who went to coke rehab in high school (again, it was the ’80s). But none of them ever got expelled, or even put into the legal system, because after all they were good kids from good families. But Collins was a kid with no dad and a drug-addict mom, and even if he’d had even one parent, he was still a ghetto black kid, and therefore subject to the strictest possible punishment for infractions that would get a white kid a talking-to.

Even so, Collins tried to get his life together. I won’t quote the rest of the story, which is by Athens reporter Joe Johnson, a guy whose work I’ve admired for a long time. Read it; it’s worth your time and attention. Long story short, Collins can’t find work, but wants to support his family, so getting into street crime was pretty much his ONLY option. And this is where my former peers would stop understanding.

This is what crime fiction is really all about; not the what, but the WHY. Johnson does a great job of opening up to us the series of events that led to Collins taking a bullet, and helps us understand how we can see this as just as much environment as moral decay.

 

The Comments Say it All

The article is pretty much useless:

There have been three homicides in east Atlanta in as many months, and now people who live in this historic part of Atlanta are fed up.

Hundreds gathered at the ARC Auditorium at Zoo Atlanta to learn how they can protect themselves and their community.

Atlanta police, along with DeKalb County police officers, were there to answer questions and give advice on how to fight crime.

Not everyone thought the meeting made a difference and left shaking their heads. One man who did not want to be identified said the people who held the crime meeting were “just blowing a bunch of smoke.”

There was a meeting; that’s all the article says. The local blog is far superior journalism, though this should hardly be surprising.

In response to a slew of recent residential burglaries, armed robberies and at least one shooting, DeKalb County’s top cop pledged a “surge” of 20 to 25 police officers will be reassigned to the unincorporated areas of the county.

Police Chief Cedric L. Alexander made the promise Wednesday night at a meeting of residents from several Atlanta neighborhoods and unincorporated DeKalb.

The main issue, the article goes on to explain, is jurisdictional: East Atlanta partly belongs to the city and partly to DeKalb County, which has a population of about 700k and whose government is a disaster, with one sheriff murdering another, a school board so fractious and corrupt that the (equally corrupt) governor felt compelled to step in and be the white Republican dismissing a bunch of black elected officials, and a CEO who’s under indictment for strong-arming campaign contributions.

So it’s probably not difficult to understand that the response time to white hipsters’ homes at the very edge of the county is lousy, and that the general levels of incompetence, corruption and cooperation between city and DeKalb police forces are pretty low. Various articles have both forces mentioning that the group of thugs believed responsible for many of these crimes keeps crossing jurisdictional lines, as if this should matter. But, at least they’re attempting to placate residents; though it’s much easier for them and lucrative for their respective jurisdictions to set up speed traps to ticket hipsters than it is to investigate murders and robberies so stupid as to defy ordinary detective procedures.

But the real reason I linked the original article is because of the comments good citizens have left behind. I’ve written before about the duality of gentrifying neighborhoods, and nowhere is the gap in understanding more clear than what people have to say on the internet under cover of anonymity.

A Tale of Two Counties

Clayton County is immediately south of Atlanta. Its stereotype used to be lower/middle white flight: the auto parts store where John Wesley Morgan shot his father down is nearby. But over the last ten years, like a lot of suburban Atlanta, it’s become much more ethnically mixed. Its local government is notoriously dysfunctional even for metro Atlanta. Last night, a violent stalker story ended the way we’d prefer:

A shootout on the streets of Clayton County on Friday night sends a police officer to the hospital and leaves a suspect dead.

The incident happened in the area of Upper Riverdale Road and Tara Boulevard around 10:15 p.m. Investigators tell FOX 5 News that it all started when a minivan slammed into the back of a patrol car driven by Officer Melvin Snell while stopped at the light. They say the woman driving that minivan was involved in a “rolling domestic dispute” with a man following her in another car. That third vehicle ended up crashing into the back of the woman’s vehicle all stopped at the light.

Man tries to fight cop, pulls gun on cop and shoots him, second cop rolls up and kills the stalker. Let’s hope Officer Snell makes a full recovery, and that the woman can get her life back together.

We can then move on to Cobb County, northwest of Atlanta, whose stereotype used to be upper/middle class white flight but which also has become somewhat more diverse. Though it’s remained very politically “red”: the good residents of Cobb County will be the last to accept a passenger rail link to the city that is their reason for living in Georgia. East Cobb is suburban Whiteopia; West Cobb is more middle class. But nothing really changes:

Authorities say an officer shot and killed a man in Cobb County on Friday evening.

The incident took place around 8:10 p.m. in the 3500 block of Dallas Acworth Highway near Acworth.

The officer was responding to a domestic disturbance call when he heard shots fired and saw a man in the yard. That man allegedly did not comply to the officer’s commands to put his firearm down.

“The officer had to use deadly force to stop the threat because the officer’s life was, he believed, in danger,” said Officer Michael Bowman of the Cobb County Police Department.  “We do have a deceased victim at the residence, and as of right now, the officer is being talked to by detectives as the scene is being investigated at this point.”

There are fewer details on this one, but another domestic disturbance, another man with a gun, another death. That’s how pervasive violence between intimate partners really is. Murder over a car debt or a lotto ticket? Upper-class white people don’t do it. Mortgage fraud? Lower-class black people don’t do it—they’re the victims. But stalker/killer patterns make no distinction for class nor race; everywhere out there, there’s a person, nearly always a woman, at risk from someone, nearly always a man, whom she used to love or maybe still does or maybe just fears. But he stalks her, and underpaid cops have to shoot him. Sometimes, we get lucky and the cops shoot him before he kills her. But more often than not, we don’t.

New Twist on the Restraining Order

This gas station murder happened the other day and has been all over the news. But there’s a great story underneath a simple crime:

Hours after being denied a permanent restraining order against Roger Clark, Gregory Walker was approached by the man at a Clayton County gas station, Walker’s attorney said Thursday. Clark had already threatened to kill him over an unpaid debt, and Walker wasn’t taking any chances, Averick Walker, his attorney and cousin, told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution.

Clark sold Walker a car; Walker couldn’t pay it off in a timely manner. Walker got sick of the threats, got a temporary restraining order, and for whatever reason was turned down when he applied for a permanent protective order. So when Clark shows up and starts threatening him again, Walker kills him and is now claiming self-defense. Which, if I were on the jury, I’d be tempted to agree. Walker tried to go the legal route and the system wouldn’t work for him.

But then watch: it’ll come out that Clark was angry but not actually violently threatening Walker, and Walker was trying to use the system as a shield from being held accountable for not paying his debts.