Friday, October 29, 2010

Protect your pumpkin

No, this isn't a warning about the controversy du jour regarding helmet-to-helmet hits in college and professional football.  Rather, it is my annual warning about the upswing in gourd-related offenses.  It's already started, and the mailboxes, rear view mirrors and car windows are my chief concern.  If you leave the ammo out on your front stoop, you shouldn't be entirely surprised when the vandals take advantage of it.  But the $50 destruction of your mailbox by a pumpkin tossed from a passing car, or a couple hundred for your rear windshield is another matter.  That's a significant crime. 

The chances of catching a pumpkin flinging Grand Am are slim.  The chances that the juvenile offenders will suffer an appropriate consequence and that the victims will be made whole is even slimmer.  Thus, prevention is the key.  The formula is pretty simple.  Protect your pumpkins.  Not so much from theft, but from use to destroy your neighbor's property.  Pull them inside off the steps for the next few nights as you are double checking your garage door.  While your at it, move your daughter's car from the street into the driveway.  Yes, I know you'll have to move it again so you can get out to go to work in the morning, but please indulge me for just a few days.  You'll be glad you did.

Thursday, October 28, 2010

Many other crimes

Choosing Lincoln's ten most infamous crimes was a challenge.  Although the top two were easy, the picture quickly became clouded.  We tend, of course, to forget our history rather quickly. Many of the crimes I felt were among the most significant are barely remembered today, if not completely forgotten.

Some readers will take issue with my list.  Several comments have mentioned other crimes that were certainly major events in the City.  In choosing ten, here are the others I considered, in no particular order.  They are all murders:

Mary O'Shea
Nancy Parker
Charles Mulholland
Victoria Lamm and Janet Mesner
Martina McMenamin
Regina Bos (presumably murdered)
Patty Webb
Marianne Mitzner

I also thought about the five murder-suicides in which a mother or father killed multiple family members before taking their own life. Though tragic, these crimes did not command the same kind of attention as the others, perhaps because there was no lengthy investigation, no tantalizing whodunit, no stranger-killer, nor any of the details that come out in the coverage of a major trial.

The Sereies:

Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Number 1: Starkweather

The subject of several thinly-disguised movie plots and a Springsteen album, the Starkweather murders are clearly the most infamous crime in Lincoln’s history—so far.  One of the first mass murderers of the mass media age, six of Starkweather’s 11 victims were killed inside the City of Lincoln, and the first was just on the outskirts of town.  I didn’t live in Lincoln at the time, but my wife was a first grader at Riley Elementary School, and has vivid memories of the City gripped by fear in the days between the discovery of the Bartlett murders and Starkweather’s capture in Wyoming.

The case caused quite an uproar.  There was intense criticism of the police department and sheriff’s office for not capturing Starkweather earlier in the week after the discovery of the Bartlett’s robinson reportbodies.  Ultimately, Mayor Bennett Martin, and the County Board of Commissioners retained a retired FBI agent, Harold G. Robinson, to investigate the performance of local law enforcement.  His report essentially exonerated the local law officers, and made a few vanilla recommendations for improving inter-agency communication and training.  A faded copy resides in my desk drawer, passed down through five chiefs.

Now I know that many readers are mumbling to themselves “how obvious.” Hold your horses, though.  It’s not quite as obvious as you might think.  I recently had two experiences that drove this fact home to me.  The first was a visit by a small group of journalism students.  Only one member of the class had any idea, and her idea was pretty vague.  You need to remember that the Starkweather murders were in 1957 and 1958—before the parents of many college students were even born. 

The second experience was a visit by a Cub Scout den.  I was giving the kids a tour of the police station one evening.  We were in the front lobby waiting for everyone to arrive.  As I entertained the boys, I told the moms and dads that they might enjoy a small display in the corner of the Sheriff’s Office display case: the contents of Starkweather’s wallet—discovered a couple years ago locked up in the Lancaster County Sheriff’s Office safe.  After a few minutes, one of the confused fathers asked me who Starkweather was, and why it was significant.  


The Sereies:

Monday, October 25, 2010

Number 2: Lincoln National Bank

On the morning of September 17, 1930 a dark blue Buick carrying six men pulled up in front of the Lincoln National Bank at the northwest corner of 12th and O Street.  Five of the men entered the bank while a sixth stood outside by the Buick, cradling a machine gun.  Observing the unusual events, a passerby called the police.  The officer who responded, Forrest Shappaugh, was casually instructed by the machine gun toting lookout to just keep going, which he wisely did.   Returning with reinforcements, the robbers had already made good on their getaway, netting $2.7 million in cash and negotiable securities. 

gus_winklerUltimately, three of the six suspects were arrested. Tommy O’Connor and Howard Lee were convicted and sentenced. Jack Britt was tried twice but not convicted by a hung jury. Gus Winkeler, a member of Al Capone’s gang, winged a deal with County Attorney Max Towle to avoid prosecution in exchange for orchestrating the recovery of $600,000 in bearer bonds.  The following year, Winkeler was murdered in Chicago, the victim of a gangland slaying. The final two robbers were never identified.

The Lincoln National Bank robbery stood as the largest cash bank robbery in the United States for many decades.  It precipitated major changes at the Lincoln Police Department.  Chief Peter Johnstone was rapidly “retired” after the robbery, the department’s fleet was upgraded to add the first official patrol cars, the full force was armed, and a shotgun squad was organized.  Forty four years later when I was hired at LPD, the echo of the Lincoln National Bank robbery was still evident in daily bank opening details, and in the Thomspon submachine guns and Reising rifles that detectives grabbed whenever the robbery alarm sounded at headquarters.

The Sereies:

Thursday, October 21, 2010

Number 3: The Last Posse

My first inkling about this crime came about 20 years ago, when I was the chief deputy sheriff.  One of my interns, a young man named Ron Boden (now a veteran deputy sheriff), had been doing some research on Lancaster County’s only known lynching, in 1884.  I came across a reference in the biography of the sheriff at the time, Sam Melick, to the murder of the Nebraska Penitentiary warden, and subsequent prison break.  Melick had been appointed interim warden after the murder, and instituted several reforms.

Several years later, a colleague, Sgt. Geoff Marti, loaned me a great book, Gale Christianson’s Last Posse, that told the story of the 1912 prison break in gory, haunting, and glorious detail. 

To make a long story short, convict Shorty Gray and his co-conspirators shot and killed Warden James Delahunty, a deputy warden, and a guard on Wednesday, March 13, 1912.  They then made their break—right into the teeth of a brutal Nebraska spring blizzard.  Over the course to the next few days, a posse pursued.  During the pursuit, the escapees carjacked a young farmer with his team and wagon.  As the posse closed in, a gunfight broke out and the hostage was shot and killed in the exchange, along with two of the three escapees.

There was plenty of anger among the locals in the Gretna-Springfield vicinity about the death of their native son, and a controversy raged over the law enforcement tactics that brought about his demise.  Lancaster County Sheriff Gus Hyers was not unsullied by the inquiry, although it appears from my prospect a century later that the fog of war led to the tragedy.  Hindsight was still 20-20 a century ago.

Christianson, a professor of history at Indiana State University who died earlier this year, notes the following on the flyleaf:
“For anyone living west of the Mississippi in 1912, the biggest news that fateful year was a violent escape from the Nebraska state penitentiary planned and carried out by a trio of notorious robbers and safe blowers.”
Bigger news on half the continent than the sinking of the Titanic during the same year would certainly qualify this murder-escape as one of the most infamous Lincoln crimes in history.

The Sereies:

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

Number 4: Rock Island wreck

The August 10, 1894 wreck of a Rock Island train on the southwest outskirts of Lincoln was almost lost in the mist of time, until it was resurrected in the public consciousness by author Joel Williamsen, who came across the story while conducting research for his historical novel, Barrelhouse Boys

The wreck was determined to be the result of sabotage to the tracks, perhaps an attempt to derail the train as a prelude to robbery.  Eleven people died in the crash and ensuing fire, making this a mass murder, to be sure.  G. W. Davis was arrested and convicted of the crime, but later received a full pardon.  The story was told in greater detail earlier this year by the Lincoln Journal Star

I snapped this photo of the new historical marker on a beautiful fall afternoon a couple weeks ago.  The marker is along the Rock Island Trail, in Wilderness Park, accessible only by foot or bike from the nearest trail access points about a half mile away at Old Cheney Road on the north, or 14th Street on the south. 


Here’s the big question that remains unanswered: was there really significant evidence to prove that George Washington Davis committed the crime, or was he just a convenient scapegoat?  The fact that he received a gubernatorial pardon ten years later leads me to believe that the evidence must have been unusually weak.  If he was railroaded, then my second question is this: who really pried loose the tracks with the 40 lb. crowbar found at the scene?

The Sereies:

Monday, October 18, 2010

Number 5: Commonwealth

On November 1, 1983, the doors to Nebraska’s largest industrial savings and loan company were closed, as Commonwealth was declared insolvent.  The 6,700 depositors with $65 million dollars at stake would never be fully compensated for their loss, ultimately receiving about 59 cents on the dollar for their deposits, which they all mistakenly believed were insured up to $30,000 through the Nebraska Depository Insurance Guaranty Corporation, which actually was essentially an insurance pool with assets of only $3 million. 

The case dominated Nebraska news for months.  The case and investigation ultimately led to the conviction of three members of the prominent Lincoln family that owned the institution, the resignation of the Director of the State Department of Banking, and the impeachment of the Nebraska Attorney General and the suspension of his license to practice law.  State and Federal ligitagion arising from the failure of Commonwealth drug on for years.

Here at the police department, the Commonwealth failure led to the formation of a specialized white-collar crime detail, now known as the Technical Investigations Unit. At the time, municipal police departments in the United States had virtually no capacity for investigating financial crime and fraud of this magnitude, and we quickly became well known for our expertise in this area.  The early experience served LPD very well in the ensuring years.

The Sereies:

Thursday, October 14, 2010

Number 6: Another nightmare

Number 6: Candice Harms

Candi Harms never came home from visiting her boyfriend on September 22, 1992. Her parents reported her as a missing person the following morning, and her car was found abandoned in a corn field north of Lincoln later in the day. Weeks went by before her remains were found southeast of Lincoln.

Scott Barney and Roger Bjorklund were convicted in her abduction and murder. Barney is in prison serving a life term. Bjorklund died in prison in 2001. Intense media attention surrounded the lengthy trial of Roger Bjorklund, for which a jury was brought in from Cheyenne County--as an alternative to a change of venue.  I have no doubt that the trail was a life changing event for a group of good citizens from Sidney, Nebraska who did their civic duty.

I was the Lancaster County Sheriff at the time, involved both in the investigation and in the trial security.  It was at about this time that the cellular telephone was becoming a consumer product, and I have often thought that this brutal crime probably spurred a lot of purchases. During my career, this is probably the second most prominent Lincoln crime in terms of the sheer volume of media coverage.

The Sereies:

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

Number 7: Worst nightmare

7. Jon Simpson and Jacob Surber

A parent’s worst nightmare unfolded in September, 1975 when these two boys, ages 12 and 13, failed to return from the Nebraska State Fair. The boys were the victims of abduction and murder. The case was similar to a string of other murders of young boys in the midwest, and many thought that these cases were related--the work of a serial killer.  Although an arrest was made in the case here in Lincoln, the charges were eventually dismissed, William Guatney was released, and has since died.

The Sereies:

Monday, October 11, 2010

Number 8: Shady Sheedy

8. John Sheedy

Saloon and gambling house owner John Sheedy was gunned down outside his home at 1211 P Street in January, 1891. Prominent in Lincoln’s demiworld, Sheedy’s case became the talk of the town when his wife, Mary, and her alleged lover and accomplice, Monday McFarland, were arrested. Both were acquitted at trail. The Sheedy murder is chronicled in a great interactive multi-media web site, Gilded Age Plains City, an online version that builds upon an article published in 2001 by Dr. Timothy Mahoney of the University of Nebraska.

The Sereies:

Thursday, October 7, 2010

Number 9: Midwest crime spree

The next in my list of Lincoln's most infamous crimes.

9. Patricia McGarry and Catherine Brooks

The bodies of these two friends were found in a Northeast Lincoln duplex in August, 1977. Their murderer, Robert E. Williams, was the subject of a massive midwest manhunt during the following week. Before his capture he committed a third murder in Sioux Rapids, Iowa; and raped, shot and left a for dead a victim who survived in Minnesota. He is the last man to be executed in Nebraska, sent to the electric chair in 1997.

The Sereies:

Wednesday, October 6, 2010

Number 10: On the bench

This is the second post in a series "Crimes of the Times"--my opinion on the ten most significant crimes in Lincoln's history.
10. Judge William M. Morning
District Court Judge Morning was murdered in February, 1924. He was shot on the bench by an unhappy litigant in a divorce case. His court reporter, Minor Bacon, was also shot, but a notebook in his breast pocket deflected the bullet and saved his life.

The Sereies:

Tuesday, October 5, 2010

Crimes of the times

For the next couple of weeks, I am going to write a series of blog posts about the most significant crimes that have occurred in Lincoln’s history.  This is simply one man’s perspective from the early 21st century.  I had to make a decision about crimes that occurred at locations that are inside the city today, but were outside our corporate limits at the time they occurred.  I chose the later.

I will be identifying the top 10 most significant crimes in reverse order, saving the biggest for the end.  This, of course, is just based on my own perception.  Before beginning, though, I have to deal with three crimes that stand apart: the murders of three police officers in Lincoln.  I’m not quite sure how to place them in a list.  They all had huge impacts on the community, and on the police department in particular.  Because these are my colleagues, I deal with them separately and in chronological order. Later this week, my top 10 list will begin.

Patrolman Marion Francis Marshall
Shot in the shadow of the new Nebraska State Capital.  Governor Charles Bryan came to his aide and summoned assistance. 

Lt. Frank Soukup
Since Marion Marshall was technically not a Lincoln police officer, Lt. Soukup was actually the first Lincoln police officer murdered on duty.  One of his collegues who were present at the motel and involved in the gun battle, Paul Jacobsen, went on to enjoy a long career and command rank at LPD, where they both influenced many young charges (like me) and left his mark on the culture of the agency.

Lt. Paul Whitehead
In the space of a few months, three LPD officers died in the line of duty.  Frank Soukup had been murdered, George Welter had died in a motorcycle crash.  Paul Whitehead's partner, Paul Merritt, went on to command rank, and like Paul Jacobsen left an indelible mark at LPD, its current chief, and the community.

The Series:

Friday, October 1, 2010

Problem based learning

A couple of years ago at the Problem-Oriented Policing Conference in Bellevue, WA, I attended a breakout session on PTO programs: Police Training Officer.  PTO is a model of experiential training that differs from the widespread Field Training Officer (FTO) programs, in that it incorporates the principals of something called problem-based learning (PBL). 

Without naming it, I have been an amateur dabbler in problem-based learning all along.  I used this approach quite successfully during the years I taught Criminal Justice 403, Criminal Justice Organization and Administration, at the University of Nebraska—although I was missing one key element.  In the LPD academy, I have used bits of this approach for the most significant class I personally teach, Information Resources

As I’ve learned more about PBL, however, I have improved.  This year, I strongarmed the training staff into providing me a second full day, which is devoted to problem-oriented policing using a format that leans on problem-based learning principles:  problem solving by students working collaboratively on challenging and somewhat open-ended problems.  The second day really builds on the first day’s focus on using the information resource tools.

After a short primer on problem-oriented policing and the SARA model, the bulk of the day was active and student-centered.  Six students worked on formulating approaches to crime and disorder problems I posed as the facilitator.  I asked them these questions about each problem:

  1. What more do you need to know about this problem?
  2. Where can you find that information?
  3. What strategies did you consider, which did you select, and why?
  4. How will you determine if it is working?

Not only was I pleased with the students work, I also got the strong sense that the level of learning had jumped up to a new plateau.  This seemed to me to be a huge improvement over “death by PowerPoint,” and I was impressed with our recruits’ performance.  I will get better at using this approach next time.  I think the principles of PBL can be incorporated into almost everything we do in training new recruits.  I am convinced that students learn more and that the training is more engaging for everyone involved—student and instructor—when it is based on principals of adult learning.

Here are the problems the students worked on:

  • Daytime residential burglaries seem to be increasing on your beat.
  • Several indecent exposures have occurred in parking lots of apartment complexes on your team area.
  • There have been a number of construction site thefts on your beat.
  • A series of cases have been investigated in which iPods have been stolen from school lockers.
  • A small group home for the developmentally disabled on your beat has been the site of a large number of police dispatches this year.
  • Three businesses on your beat have been the site of 5 or more false burglary alarms so far this year.
  • There has been a large increase in graffiti vandalism citywide