Case Files

The Book of the Week is “Case Files, 40 Murders and Mysteries Solved by Science” by Larry Verstraete, published in 2011. This book briefly describes how science played a role in the investigations of various situations, such as homicides, discoveries of human remains, the root cause of an epidemic, astronaut deaths, art forgery, arson and many others.

The topic areas included forensic entomology, archeological anthropology, pathology, DNA fingerprinting, radiocarbon dating, video superimposition, spectroscopy, stable isotope technology, Raman microscopy, xylotomy and others.

When a dead body is found, and certain insects are present, a scientist can learn how many generations and lifespans of that insect elapsed from the time of death until the corpse’s discovery.

The gender, age and size of a murder victim can be discerned, even when the body is badly decomposed, from the bones. The nature of the teeth indicate age, and ethnicity is revealed by the skull’s features. DNA testing of various kinds is a whole other ball of wax.

Read the book to get an overview of the many ways science can provide evidence for reconstructing events to further the causes of justice, improve people’s quality of life and prevent future mishaps.

No Heroes, No Villains

The Book of the Week is “No Heroes, No Villains– The Story of a Murder Trial” by Steven Phillips, published in 1977.

In late June of 1972, an off-duty cop was shot in the Hunts Point subway station in the South Bronx, New York City. If the accused was convicted of all charges against him, he faced the electric chair. However, his lawyer was the famed William Kunstler.

Read the book to learn of the spirit of the times on issues of race, guns, criminal law and jury trials in early 1970’s New York City.

A Death in White Bear Lake

The Book of the Week is “A Death in White Bear Lake” by Barry Siegel, published in 1990. This is a long, suspenseful story about how a case of manslaughter helped spark awareness of deaths of children due to physical abuse in the United States. As book-lengthening filler, the history of White Bear Lake, Minnesota is also contained within.

The story starts when an infertile couple seeks to adopt a child. Through intense scrutiny, the Commissioner of Public Welfare of Scott County, MN learns that the prospective mother has a history of psychiatric problems. In the early 1960’s, the couple are permitted to adopt a child anyway. Some time later, they seek to take in a second child. Trouble ensues, especially on Palm Sunday in 1965.

Read the book to learn: how the American attitude toward physicality with children changed from the tail end of the 1950’s to the late 1980’s; the people and agencies (“the system”) that had enabled the trouble and would continue to do so; and the twists of fate that gave the story its fitting ending.

Side Note: The author gave the impression that the White Bear Lake case was one of the most influential factors that forced the change in attitude. However, prior to the Internet, “The Oprah Winfrey Show” on TV and other communications of Oprah herself were major nationwide publicity vehicles on child abuse discussions. Additionally, another notorious case was that of Joel Steinberg in New York City in 1987.

The Inheritor’s Powder

The Book of the Week is “The Inheritor’s Powder” by Sandra Hemple, published in 2013. This book recounts the advances made in investigating homicide by poisoning in England in the early to mid 1800’s, and describes one 1833 case that shows why killing via arsenic was so common at the time, and why it became even moreso. One reason was that 1840’s popular reading matter, novels and newspapers, piqued readers’ morbid curiosity by featuring stories on poisoning, which could serve as instructions.

In 1754, the founding of the Society of the Arts saw the launching of “… a series of competitions for inventions, discoveries and artistic endeavors with prizes in the form of medals and money.” This prompted chemists and dispensers of medical treatments to engage in research to improve their practices. The year 1814 saw the first extensive textbook on toxicology.

One scientific advance in the mid-1830’s was made by James Marsh, who developed a method to test for arsenic in human organs rather than stomach contents. Hugo Reinsch developed a different test that mixed arsenic with other substances. Both methods had their flaws.

Usually, money was the motive for murder by poisoning. The killer poisoned a member of his or her household and/or family– because he or she stood to inherit and/or collect on an insurance policy. There were many controversial cases that pitted scientists against each other over the toxicology test results. It will never be known how many people were sent to the gallows due to bungled tests.

Read the book to learn of the fate of the prime suspect in the aforesaid 1833 case, and whether the more likely perpetrator– whose past criminal history allegedly included a felony, jailing, illegitimate children and attempted murder, not to mention extortion in later years– was ever brought to justice.

Murder in the Stacks

The Book of the Week is “Murder in the Stacks” by David DeKok, published in 2014.  This book describes the November 1969 murder of Betsy Aardsma– Penn State University graduate student– and provides extensive biographical information on the prime suspect in the case.

In 1969, Penn State was Pennsylvania’s largest public university, with almost 26,000 students. The library where Aardsma died contained the resources required for completing research papers for English classes. It was a sprawling, dark place where anyone off the street could engage in illicit activities involving sex or drugs, and often did. There was no security like there would be nowadays.

Aardsma made serious sacrifices to be somewhat geographically close to her then-boyfriend, a doctor in training. She turned down a Peace Corps tour in Sierra Leone, and applying to medical school, before she decided to become an English teacher instead. She was counseled by her family to get her master’s degree at Penn State because at that time, ironically, there was a serial killer of female students on the loose at the University of Michigan, the school she would have attended.

The murder investigation was a cluster screw-up. The police interviewed thousands of students and professors. The person thought to have committed the crime escaped notice due to the circumstances. If the investigators had done a better job, they would have learned that as a pedophile, he had a history of trouble with the law. However, with regard to past incidents, he got off because the victims or their families failed to call the police, so he had no arrest record for a long time. Additionally, the 1960’s perception of his monstrous behavior was simply a matter of indecency. There was insensitivity with regard to the victims– little thought was given to the traumatic toll of sex crimes on the psyches of the victims.

Read the book to learn many details of the life of the suspect– about whom much more was known than those of the victim– and the outcome of the case.

Butterfly in the Rain

The Book of the Week is “Butterfly in the Rain, The 1927 Abduction and Murder of Marion Parker” by James L. Neibaur, published in 2016. This short ebook recounts a gruesome crime and the aftermath, that occurred in late 1927 in Los Angeles, California.

The fame of this sensational case was comparable to that of O.J. Simpson’s. However, the newspaper, rather than television, was the medium through which the nation was riveted by the unfolding story. The case involved a child and plenty of controversy. Read the book to learn the details.

Digital Gold

The Book of the Week is “Digital Gold– Bitcoin and the Inside Story of the Misfits and Millionaires Trying to Reinvent Money” by Nathaniel Popper, published in 2015.

This ebook is about Bitcoin, a bookkeeping system used on various websites that distributes, records and stores the value of units called Bitcoins.

The system was created in 2009 by a computer geek who called himself Satoshi Nakamoto. His vision was to create a worldwide means-of-exchange to be used online that would be:

  • a decentralized network of users so that no one central authority has the majority of power over the system– unlike the current situations in the world; in other words, place power in the hands of the users, rather than the economic royalists. (Nevertheless, the irony is that Bitcoin has largely stayed in the realm of the wealthy computer geeks- so there has bascially been redistribution of wealth among the wealthy);
  • created and maintained by users of the system on a consensus basis rather than by the powers-that-be, whose political campaigns are funded by financial institutions, and who stay in power by doing their will;
  • anonymous (like cash– no third parties acquire the information of buyers and sellers);
  • secure (no one point of failure would mean vulnerability for the whole system, plus have protections against identity theft, malware, counterfeiting etc.); and
  • offered at a lesser cost than the current system (avoiding financial institutions with their fees).

However, no utopian vision is perfect. Various tech-startups around the world have been created to store and exchange Bitcoins. That is all well and good. In the last seven years or so, a “remarkably engaged online community” has sprung up to discuss the ideology and all the different issues attendant to the new system. Even the major American financial institutions, fearing competition, have begun to rethink the security of their online dealings, and so have assembled task forces to research how to harness Bitcoin’s loss-prevention technology.

Bitcoins are acquired by computer users who log on to a specific site on the Internet. The users get the virtual “coins” for free, but might have to pay to store them elsewhere to keep them secure.

Bitcoins are more like a security than a means of exchange like cash because:

  • The system distributing Bitcoins is like a combination slot machine and a financial market where instruments are bought and sold, and the value of Bitcoins fluctuates.
  • There’s an inherent unfairness in the system in that– technologically astute users of the system have banded together to create devices that mine Bitcoins at a significantly faster rate than individual users.
  • People can acquire a national currency such as the American dollar in many more ways than they can Bitcoins, most of them honestly– earning, borrowing, begging or stealing.

Anyway, the purpose of Bitcoins as a means of exchange has yet to catch on among mainstream consumers of industrialized countries. There is no sufficiently compelling reason for consumers to start to buy things online with Bitcoins rather than credit cards. “Why should they trust a digital code that had nothing backing it but the computers of some libertarian nerds?”

Argentina is one country where Bitcoins have been useful. The super-speedy inflation of the peso there has meant people must spend their Argentinian money the minute they acquire it or risk the inability to buy anything because they wouldn’t be able to afford it– even food. In China, Bitcoin is popular because the government regulates the yuan exchange rate in order to stem “capital flight” and sell more of its own goods to the world.

As with all human-created systems that rely on the honor system, ALL users must act ethically. One American Bitcoin-processor in particular created a drug-distribution entity called Silk Road that was deemed illegal according to U.S. law.

Another bad actor hacked into a company called Mt. Gox in Japan. All users of that service suffered. “Bitcoin users eventually went to government authorities that Bitcoin had been designed, at least partly, to obviate.”

Besides, the Treasury Department’s Financial Crimes Enforcement Network has been examining the legal aspects of Bitcoin as a virtual currency. Homeland Security is concerned about the fact that Bitcoins could be anonymously sent to terrorist cells overseas.

Read the book to learn much more about the good and bad consequences of the creation of Bitcoin.

High

The Book of the Week is “High” by Brian O’Dea, published in 2006. This book describes the adventures of an international drug-smuggling participant and addict between the 1970’s and the very early 1990’s.

O’Dea was the son of a brewery owner in Newfoundland, Canada. In the mid-1970’s, he and his smuggling partners secreted cocaine “… in false-bottomed suitcases at the factory in Bogota (Colombia) and muled to Kingston (Jamaica) via Lufthansa…” and unloaded the drug at Montego Bay. Other partners “… would be getting strapped up with the product on their thighs and stomachs and backs. Each person would carry between two and four kilos, worth between $100,000 and $200,000.”

Read the book to learn of the author’s Jamaica trials and tribulations with airplane mishaps, romantic subplots, prison and addiction experiences, his role in an elaborate three-continent marijuana distribution concern, and what finally became of him.

The Rabbi and the Hitman

The Book of the Week is “The Rabbi and the Hitman” by Arthur J. Magida, published in 2003. This is the true story of a murder that occurred in Cherry Hill (southern) New Jersey in autumn 1994.

What made the case tabloid fodder is that the crime scene’s neighborhood is a posh suburb, the chief suspect was a prominent rabbi in the community, and the victim was his wife– who had standing in her own right as a small business owner.

The Reformed rabbi, Fred Neulander, co-founded the large temple where he conducted services and taught classes. It is typical for rabbis to experience burnout about twenty years into their careers, and the suspect was no exception. However, Neulander’s hubris syndrome led him to behave in ways that made him the world’s biggest hypocrite. Read the book to learn what transpired when his double life was revealed, and whether the mystery of his wife’s murder was solved.