Monday, September 17, 2012

Criminal Investigation - Chronology is King

While I spend a good part of my day writing crime books, I spend another part attending college as a criminal justice major. It's true most of the people in my class expect to be a cop of some sort when they graduate, but I am more interested in the art of investigations. In fact, I'm taking a criminal investigations class this semester! The stuff I have learned so far, definitely helps me be a better crime writer.

What does one learn in a criminal investigation class? A lot. We have covered forensic stuff like how to recognize basic fingerprint types – arch, loop and whorl. How to take fingerprints. We have also covered what type of evidence is most likely to contain DNA. (drinking glasses, underwear, bloody rags) We have learned that a single strand of hair can inform one of gender, race, age, true hair color, and general health. We have also learned that the definition of homicide is the killing of one human by another human and that murder is the unlawful killing of another human without justification or excuse. We know that murders are always homicides but homicides are not always murders.

The most important thing I have learned, however, in terms of both writing and investigating: is that chronology is king. That is to say, when trying to piece together an investigation, one must do it in chronological order. Even though this may seem self-evident, there is a big tendency (myself included) to jump back and forth in time while stepping through the crime. My advice is: don't do it. It's too confusing for the reader (and an investigations process). I have found that if everything is put in precise time order, the reader doesn't have to think so hard. They can just enjoy the read.

For instance, this week my class was given the assignment to review the Jon Benet Ramsey case and list the things that were done wrong by the Boulder Colorado Police and then list what the police should have done. The general facts of the case are that on the morning of December 26, 1996, a six year old girl was found missing by her mother who simultaneously discovered a ransom note on the stairs. The mother called 911, the police came and about seven hours later the child was found by her father. She was discovered in the basement of her own house - murdered. The crime was never solved and the parents were (and still are by many) considered the prime suspects.

The first thing I did was make a time line of events for the initial 24 hours. Once I did that, many mistakes were obvious. Here is a the first few entries in my time line. Can you see with this time line, even without professional training, some of the things that were done wrong?

1. 2 AM neighbor hears scream.

2. 5:45 JBR found missing by mom

3. 5:48 mom finds kidnapper's ransom note on stairs

4. 5:52 mom calls police - 911

5. 5:55 JBR parents call two sets of family friends to come over to the house

6. 5:59 police arrive – Officer French - 1st to arrive

7. 6 AM Officer French makes a quick search of the house with dad, John Ramsey, then looks for entry/exit points. He sees no sign of struggle. Did not search “wine cellar room” in basement because it was “locked”.

8. 6:03 am - “friends” arrive including Fleet White

9. 6:20 am Fleet White searches basement. Mr White sees lights on in the basement and “wine cellar” door open. Mr White sees broken window in the basement and a suitcase along with a broken shard of glass under the window. (Note: later he did not remember if the window was open or closed.) Mr White opens the wine cellar door but doesn't see anything because he can't find the light switch.

10. 6:25 Officer French seals off JBR's bedroom only

11. 6:45 Three more BPD arrive

12. 7 am Burke (JBR's brother) awakened

Based on only the above facts, did mistakes jump out at you? Some of the things I saw was: the first officer on the scene (who was the Boulder Police Chief) did not secure the entire house as a crime scene, the parents and their friends were allowed to remain in the house and roam freely, thus contaminating evidence. The police officer, when searching the house initially, did not open a locked door in the basement. This is where the body was eventually found. There is no mention of experts like the FBI being called in immediately. (They weren't called until three hours later). The brother, who slept on the same floor of the house as the sister was not awakened and questioned for an hour.

Obviously, There was a mountain of mistakes in this case and many books have been written discussing these mistakes. But in this case, like any other case, the easiest way to begin to understand the crime and to find discrepancies, is to put the events in time order. I recommend when writing about crime, be it true crime or crime fiction, always put the sequences in chronological order, do not jump around in time. It builds tension naturally and makes it easier for the reader to follow and to possibly solve the crime.

Wednesday, September 5, 2012

Crime Doesn't Pay but the Perks aren't so Bad

Poor old Doug Vaughn got his prison sentence today. Twelve years. So sad, so sad. KOB gives you the details of the crime and the sentencing.
He did get the gig he wanted though. Federal minimum security as opposed to State medium security where all the regular criminals are . . . murderers and rapists and such. The judge was told that it would cost about $40,000 per year to keep 65 year old Vaughn locked up. If he lives all 12 years of his sentence, it will cost the taxpayers about $500,000. Guess we showed him how not to swindle us out of our money.

I worked at the Vaughn company every so briefly when I first moved to Albuquerque. I wanted to give real estate a go and after getting my license, I took a seat at the Vaughn company. The qualifying broker, when hiring me, told me that they didn't hire "just anybody" that walked in. But I'm pretty sure that they did. Why? Not because they thought any particular newbie was going to sell any real estate. That was doubtful. They wanted your desk fee. I think it was about $45 per month to have a chair at a desk with a phone - crammed in with about 60 other desks with phones.
I was also given the opportunity to work "floor duty." That is where I answered Vaughn's incoming phone calls for free. As in no compensation. The idea was, it was supposed to generate leads for me. That didn't happen. I was also supposed to be mentored by the qualifying broker while at the "office" working floor duty. That didn't happen either. Any questions that I asked the qualifying broker were brushed off, with him saying he didn't have time for me.. He was too busy cherry picking all of the real leads that came in.

And every now and then, I saw Doug Vaughn. Any conversation with Doug Vaughn was one way. The message was always the same: 1. Doug Vaughn is a real estate god. 2. Try to emulate him as best you can but know that you have no chance. 3. Pay your monthly desk fees on time or Doug Vaughn will take you to collections. What a pity this wonderful man ended up in prison.