Thursday, November 10, 2011

How I Envy Those Confidence Men

Among certain quarters of academia and the IT world - and even the arts, it seems - it has become almost fashionable to covet a diagnosis of Asperger's Syndrome. Who wouldn't want to have all those geeky gifts, after all? The perfect memory, the lightning math skills, the ease of mastery over an infinite number of subjects. It would make you the center of attention, wouldn't it? And yet to be Aspergery is not the same as full-blown autism. You are still able to function, more or less. You may be a little shakey in the social arena - what with your inability to empathize or your cluelessness about knowing when to shut up - but in the end your gifts will exonerate you and make your flaws seem endearing. You will be able to remain the center of attention without having to take responsibility for your social behavior. Like a narcissist, almost. My Dad was a bit like that. So is my sister.

Sadly for me, I empathize all too well - and I am so good at picking up non-verbal cues from people who want me to shut up that it can render me mute, almost as though as I have been bullied telepathically. Things would be so much simpler if I could project my wants and needs and self-interest onto the world without any self-consciousness. But I can't.

The people I envy most are not the Aspies, but the sociopaths. They not only lack the embarrassing geekiness of the Aspies (or, at least, what would be embarrassing to the Aspies if they could see themselves as others do) - but they are actually smoother, more charming and more seemingly clued in than the rest of us. And yet they get a free pass on empathy and self-consciousness, too. They don't let any consideration or even a sense of shame get between them and what they want. They just don't care! They have the best of both worlds, if total self-centeredness is your thing.

The smoothest of all the creatures in the slithering menagerie of the sociopathic is The Confidence Man. Here is the guy whose face never loses its winning smile, who is never at a loss for words. Whether it's a job interview or a girl he sets his sights on, he never fails to nail it - or her. He's the one I want to be like.

In pursuit of this ideal, I have deliberately faked my answers to Psychopath Tests and snorted gleefully when I scored on the high side. But never high enough, unfortunately, not even with all my attempts as psyching out the testers. I work hard to cultivate ruthless thoughts, so much so that I might one day vote Republican. I have taught myself to lie convincingly - without hemming or hawing, without either shifting my eyes or staring too fixedly. I have grown proud of my ability to lie. I treasure the occasions in my life on which I have cheated in some way - academically, sexually or just playing cards. To remember them makes me feel as comfortably worldly as mulling a glass of single malt whiskey before the fireplace.

And yet the true supreme confidence of the sociopath eludes me still. It surely must be because I am trying too hard. A real sociopath does not get up in the morning and say to himself, "Today I will behave without scruples or empathy". He just does it! Therein lies his secret. To become less self-conscious, I have let the fire of my own violent thoughts and fantasies blaze unchecked. I daydream of murderous payback and gratuitous malice. In my head, I plan out how to obtain a fake ID from China, how to purchase weapons with cash in red state pawn shops, even where to park my car as I scamper up to the house of my high school nemesis in my ninja suit, my Uzi in hand, and knock on his door... The vividness of my fantasies excites me, but do I act on them? No. Worse yet, those fantasies only inflame my anger, which steals away my smile and makes me charmless once again.

Wednesday, November 2, 2011

You Can Tell A Psychopath By How He Talks

According to a recent study conducted by researchers from Cornell and the University of British Columbia, you may be able to identify a psychopath by how he talks. When I first heard this, it sure made sense. Aren't psychopaths supposed to be these silver-tongued characters, like con men - or politicians? In that case, the better a person spoke, the more suspect he became. But, no - that's not it.

Here are the five top tip-offs (along with my annotations):

1) They use words to suggest that their actions "had a logical cause and effect" that justified their goals. Words like "because" and "so that". Authority figures talk like that, especially politicians and business leaders, and it always sounds like they are excusing their actions simply by aggrandizing their own intellectual acumen. But then again narcissism is a trait of psychopaths, too.

2) They enjoy talking about the simple pleasures of life - the tangible things, especially food, as in what they had for dinner last night. I never thought a psychopath might talk like a foodie, but there you have it. The articles suggest that the discussion of food reflects their predatory nature. They talk about drinking and money, too - and also, presumably, sex. Folks like that could come across like any down-to-earth and unpretentious regular guy - or even just your garden variety suburban materialist. I bet they also like to talk about cars, iPhone apps, and mutual funds.

3) They tend to hem and haw, apparently in their attempts to disguise the truth about themselves. This one sounds like a sure give-away for a liar all right, but aren't psychopaths supposed to be smoother than that? Identifying people notorious for their powers of verbal manipulation by their inarticulateness seems counterintuitive. Convicted murderers may talk like that more because of their lack of education than for any other reason. Higher end psychopaths might hem and haw a little less, or a little better.

4) They don't like to talk about touchy-feely stuff like religion and family and moral values - anything that might trigger shame or guilt. I can see that. But isn't one of the rules of polite conversation that one should never talk about "religion or politics"? If so, how could one tell the difference between a psychopath and that suave fellow at the dinner party you attended last week who talked charmingly (if only) about horses, Jaguars and fine wine? And isn't the expulsion of anything resembling empathy from one's conversation the hallmark of a hard-headed pragmatist? Again we swing back to the businessman, the rationalist, the unsentimental alpha male.

5) They talk in the past tense a lot, explaining what they did (or what they want you to think they did) in a fait accompli kind of way. Certain former bosses of mine used to talk like that - emphasizing what was done, rather than was being done or what could be done, as though they wanted to assure you that you couldn't change any of it - and that you couldn't make them change it either. The article said this effect suggested "detachment", but I'd like to think it represents the desire of the speaker to strip control from the person they're talking to.

How to Spot a Psychopath: Look For Speech Patterns, Scientists Say (Fox News)
Speech patterns: 5 ways to spot a psychopath (The Week Magazine)

Monday, October 31, 2011

The Robin Hood Delusion

Forget the movies. We know what's happened with the Robin Hood movies - they've only gotten worse over time. Errol Flynn was probably the best Robin Hood. Despite his priapic narcissism (or, more likely, because of it), his R.H. knew how to keep his little band of men merry. It was all down hill from there. Kevin Costner's R.H. is a tedious prig - Alan Rickman totally steals the movie as the sheriff of Nottingham. As for Russell Crowe - Christ, who needs a fat depressive in that role? I mean - Jesus! Didn't Frank Sinatra do some movie about Robin and his hoods? Or am I just thinking of, like, Ocean's Eleven - the original Ocean's Eleven, the good one, in which Richard Conte collapses from a heart attack on The Strip, the gang hides their loot in his coffin to get it out of Vegas, and then it all goes up in smoke at his funeral. Very sad. Very suavely ironic. I would opt for Sinatra as a modern Robin Hood, but then again he and his shark-skin-suited Rat Pack always looked a little too well-heeled and too sleekly well-shagged to really have an authentic and desperate need for more cash. Except, of course, to maintain their lifestyles. Besides, Sinatra and his ilk are dead, well on their way to medieval obsolescence themselves.

Ultimately, it is impossible to imagine some dude committing larceny for the greater good, and remaining charismatic in the process. Charisma, among thieves, is notoriously the sign of a sociopath, and sociopaths care for no one but themselves. Uncharismatic dudes who steal for The People evoke instead the specter of a socialist bureaucracy, and we can't have that either. Especially not nowadays. If anything, we cling to the myth of the inner goodness of the charismatic thief. He is, if nothing else, attractive. Tycoons, moguls and other persons of impossibly inflated wealth invariably imagine themselves to have come from "humble beginnings" - even if their Dads were law partners or something. Anything would seem humble compared to their multi-billionaire status. And, because they enrich others beside themselves - even if these others are their equally rich cronies or majority shareholders who share the same delusion of "humble beginnings" - they imagine themselves to actually be sharing what they steal. Because they can never really feel rich enough, they delude themselves into the role of a valiant and resourceful poor man reaping lucre from some faceless moneyed multitude. And they love that image, too - Robin Hood-ism is the icing on their cake. In this sense, we are all like these dudes. If you're a used car salesmen or a crooked building contractor with a wife and three kids, you can justify every lie you tell or corner you cut or palm you grease as your own little way of robbing from the rich and giving to the poor.

This is the Robin Hoodian dichotomy - you and your own, oppressed as you are even if only by your own human imperfection and mortality, are "The Poor", and "The Rich" are simply the rest of the world. Everyone else, to wit. Be you a mafioso, some Old West outlaw or even Whitey freakin' Bulger, that's what you think you are. A righteous avenger against what may be nothing more than the human condition. That is another hallmark of the sociopath - not just charm, but the sureness that one is being persecuted, or put upon or misunderstood.

Robin Hood may be nothing more than the projection of a pathology, the embodiment of how sociopaths see themselves - not what they really are or could ever be. They say that mental institutions are full of people who believe they are Jesus or Napoleon. I suspect there are also more than a few who see themselves as Robin Hood. Maybe Robin Hood is really just the front man for a syndrome that belongs in the next Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders. But then again, the top dudes in psychiatry recently de-pathologized Narcissism (probably because of its embarrassing prevalence among their own) - so good luck with getting Robin Hood-ism on the books. There are lots of powerful people out there with a vested interest in seeing themselves as plucky underdogs.

Monday, October 17, 2011

Mayhem At Musto's

At about 11:00 AM on September 6th, at least three individuals attempted to rob Musto Jewelers. When the local police intervened, one of the robbers shot through a plate glass window, hitting one policeman in the legs. His comrades returned fire, wounding the assailant. Another robber was able to escape into a getaway car driven by a woman. All the robbers were apparently Hispanic. About a week and a half later, the second robber was apprehended - apparently based on the description of a tattoo the fool was sporting. The Woburn police (at least as of September 16th) were still looking for a 1998 Toyota Camry implicated in the crime. Presumably, the Toyota will be incarcerated as well.

My remarks are as follows:

1) The robbery took place in a part of Woburn called Four Corners, where Lexington Street not only intersects with Route 3, but splits in two at the same time, spawning another road called Russell Street. For this and other reasons, this intersection can be a bitch to drive through, particularly if you're coming from the west along Lexington Street and want to turn left onto Route 3. I used to have to do that all the time during my daily commute a few years ago. Always made me afraid of being broadsided. Only idiot criminals would choose to stage a heist where the traffic patterns are so fucked-up.

2) As NECN notes, jewelry store robberies are part of an "alarming trend", in which miscreants are going for the gold rather than settling for mere cash, as gold prices have skyrocketed during The Great Recession. Yet again does "the economy" shape crime.

3) What idiot with a tattoo distinctive enough to be identified by it would commit a robbery without covering up his trademark? Jeez - grow a brain, amigo!

4) The perps were Hispanic, as they tend to be more and more these days, in keeping with their increasing demographic presence in Greater Boston. This is perhaps another "alarming trend" that does not get mentioned as it would not be politically correct to do so.

5) As always, it is exciting to learn of crimes committed on the grounds of one's old haunts. I'm just glad I wasn't driving through at the time, as all the confusion would have made that freakin' intersection worse than ever. Especially since I also drive a '98 Toyota.

Cop shot in Woburn during jewelry heist (Boston Herald)
One suspect in custody, another injured in robbery that led to Woburn officer's shooting (Wicked Local)
Brazen robbery of Musto Jewelers is part of alarming trend (NECN)
Release of tattoos helps authorities identify suspect (Daily Times Chronicle)

Thursday, October 13, 2011

Anybody Wanna Buy The Head Of A Banker?

Yesterday evening, I dropped in on Occupy Boston on my way home from my cover job as a hitman pretending to be something else. I nosed around a bit, reminded the leering cops who kept blowing kisses at me that, "You're supporting the people who would cut your pension in a heartbeat if it meant an extra Ferrari in their garages." They ignored me, and that pissed me off. I turned my eyes from the monolithic Federal Reserve building to the box-like Fidelity Investments edifice on the other side of Summer Street. Expensively tailored finance types were streaming out of the building. I said to myself, "What the hell..." and started tailing one. He crossed Atlantic Avenue and Surface Road at one point and made a beeline to a bar on Oliver Street, just a few blocks from Faneuil Hall Marketplace. I followed him into the bar, and watched him guzzle down three dirty martinis, the extra olives in which serving as his supper. I quaffed only ginger ale, as is my wont these days, and waited for him to finish his last drink.

When he was done, I followed him out of the bar. He was a slight guy, maybe about five-eight and a hundred and thirty pounds, but he was swaying like a flagpole in a strong wind. I maneuvered him into the alley by repeatedly accosting him with the question, "You got any change?" Once he was diverted, I bopped around him from the other side and accosted him again. I was sort of like a Border Collie nipping at the shins of a sheep to guide it into a pen. Once I got him into the alley, I withdrew my Stanley box-cutter, cried, "Downsize this!" and before he knew it, his head was lying on the pavement. During the kill, I made sure to wear a pair of my gun moll's latex gloves, which she uses to clean the cat box, so I wouldn't leave any prints behind. But I did take the head. I put it into a gym bag and took it home. Now it's in a freezer in my basement (next to the safe).

What am I going to do with the head of some junior investment banker? Good question... Actually, I thought I'd sell it. I read an article (at the link below) about that perverted German scientist, Gunther von Hagens, who plasticizes human cadavers. At first, he did it out of scientific curiosity, and then for art's sake - and, now, apparently, he's doing it for profit. According to the article, he "plans to sell bodies for some $97,000, torsos for $79,000 and human heads for $31,000." And he's going to do this through some kind of e-commerce website. Well, more power to him. I think I will do the same.

How much would a plasticized banker head go for? Consider the magnificent brains they once contained. Not to mention their expensive coiffures. I think $40,000 would be a good starting price. I wouldn't even need my own website. I could do it all through eBay. If my startup does well, maybe I could present a business plan to some other bankers and they could wangle me some venture capital. Hell, some of them might even become my customers.

Seriously, though. I didn't really decapitate a banker. I have utmost respect for such shining exemplars of our glorious meritocracy. I would only sell facsimile banker heads instead.

(P.S.: Do you think it's a coincidence that the makers of Breaking Bad blew off Gus Fring's face just three weeks before Halloween? It would make a great mask. I'll have to google "gus fring masks" to see if any are already available.)


Corpse Meister to Sell Bodies Online (Newser)

Wednesday, October 12, 2011

Gloomy Gus

This has nothing to do with Boston crime, but I couldn't resist posting it. As anyone who watches Breaking Bad knows, here is the last shot of the ruthless and inscrutable Gustavo Fring before he drops dead. Walter White, the chemist extraordinaire and sociopathic mensch who used to cook meth for Gus, has just blown him up with a wheelchair-bomb. Go "On Demand" via your local cable provider to see the episode for yourself. Breaking Bad is the ultimate crime-world fantasy for smart people, or at least for people who think they're smart. The New York Times thinks Breaking Bad has become so popular because it conjures the zeitgeist of a desperate economy and the moral turpitude that people will endure (or even revel in, e.g., Wall Street) to keep the bucks rolling in. All I can say is that I can readily identify.

In the scene shown above, Gus Fring has managed to step away from a bomb that has just killed his right-hand thug and an old nemesis from his Mexican drug cartel days who has been for years incapacitated by a stroke. Fring, who has been shrewd to the point of clairvoyance throughout the entire series, has never been out-foxed until now. He seems in denial as much about this as about his imminent death. He nattily adjusts his tie, either because he thinks (for a moment) that he can return to business as usual - or because he imagines (laughably) that he'll be able to leave behind a beautiful corpse if he just neatens up a bit.

I have no idea how long a person can survive with so much of his face blown away, but I hope I never have to find out. I would guess that your system would go into shock almost immediately and you wouldn't feel much pain. That is, until you looked in a mirror. My gun moll, a theater person who once designed gory prosthetics for a Marine exercise at Camp Lejeune, claims she watched the episode two more times after I went to bed - just to admire the "no-face" make-up on poor old Gus. I ain't the only one in the family with a screw loose, let me tell ya.

Breaking Bad - Gus Fring Dies (YouTube)

Friday, October 7, 2011

Steve Jobs And The Erosion Of Situational Awareness

Steve Jobs has died, but I feel little compulsion to buy an Apple product in tribute to the man. Not that I'm any Luddite. I have a laptop at work (Dell) and a tower-style PC at home (also Dell), and between the two I already commit obscene portions of my waking hours to email, blogging, web site maintenance, word processing, software development, web surfing, social networking and much else. I need some space between work and home in which I can just be myself, wandering through the environment unburdened by the temptations presented by electronic devices. Just as nature intended. Cro-Magnon-ilke, I don't even own a cell phone. However - also Cro-Magnon-like - I am able to remain alert to my environment, ever ready (if not always willing) to plunge my spear into prey or some hairy-backed dude from an enemy tribe. And that is also what nature intended.

Last week I blogged about the science of being streetwise, which boils down to something called "situational awareness". I first encountered this term in a discussion about the differences between Nerds and Jocks. The author had observed that Nerds tended to be focused on their own private worlds, and were often clueless about changes in either their physical or their social environment. Jocks, on the other hand, were always on guard for a ball to catch, a girl to impress, a rival to overtake or a dollar to be made. That is "situational awareness", and it seems to be the main advantage of those guys so annoyingly classed by the pick-up gurus as "alpha males". It allows would-be entrepreneurs to sense "opportunity", athletes to score, and soldiers and policemen to do their jobs. Even if you're a nondescript pedestrian, situational awareness will keep you from getting mugged or run over or even just from falling into an open manhole. I prefer to think that I'm like that.

Most people, these days, aren't. One reason I don't feel a need to buy an Apple product is because I see them everywhere. Their utter ubiquity precludes any curiosity I might have had about them. On the T, on the streets - all around me I see people with iPods plugged into their ears, reading things on their iPads, clamping their iPhones to their faces - or, more often than not - just checking their email on the damn things with flicks of their soft little fingers or diddling with some infantile computer game. And I see them doing all this while they are dodging traffic, stumbling down alleyways and shuffling past shady-looking strangers (like, indeed, me). A lot of these folks are young, I know, and I've heard it said that the youngest among us are better at multi-tasking. But anyone should be able to do any task better if they pay full attention to that task while they're doing it. Instead, the young have turned themselves into an entire generation of blinkered Nerds.

A few weeks ago a young woman was assaulted at an inner city Orange Line station. Apparently, she was strolling along fiddling with some electronic device, and some dude came up on her and... You can imagine the rest. The news team reporting this item put a damper on their happy talk for a moment to warn the public about Paying Attention To Their Surroundings. Especially after dark, if you're a nubile young lady, in not the best of Boston neighborhoods. At least she wasn't driving - another venue where "situational awareness" has been eroded right and left by a biblical plague of electronic devices.

Violent crime is not as bad these days as it had sometimes been in previous decades, so sacrificing vigilance to the pleasure of being perpetually wired may not be as costly as it could be. But times change, and eventually the need for vigilance will return. All those people with their precious senses glued to their Jobs-ian iProducts, barely aware of where they're going - much less of what might stand in their way - will suddenly become vulnerable again. Their plight will give new meaning to the phrase "Electric Sheep" as a horde of unplugged-in wolves descends on them.

Thursday, October 6, 2011

Boston Murder Map - On Our Way To 64K

It's "killings" that I mean by "K", not "kilobytes". Attached is a Boston Globe link that lists the 48 that have taken place in our fair city thus far this year. Considering that only about three quarters of the year have elapsed, and that 48 is neatly divisible by 3, it's as easy as pie to conclude that the count will reach 64 by the year's end.

Far and away the largest plurality (if not the majority) of the victims appear to have been young black males between the ages of 16 and 34. They were killed, with depressing regularity, in inner city neighborhoods like Roxbury, Dorchester and Mattapan - and the murder weapon was overwhelmingly a "Gun". The identities of some of the victims are actually "unknown". It's one thing to have the identity of the murderer remain "unknown" - which I'm sure it has in many of the cases here - but quite another to have the victim remain that way as well. The poor continue to bear the brunt of violent death, just as they continue to bear the brunt of our failed economy - and the 50 percent employment rate among inner city youth is only making matters worse. Remember that old saying that "Idle hands are the devil's workshop"?

The page for the Boston 2011 Murders also provides links to similar pages for 2008, 2009 and 2010. (The map displayed above is from 2010.)

Reviewing the list, I was surprised to learn that a 30-year old "Unknown Female" was slain at an address I walk past almost everyday on my way to (or from) work. And, no, she was not one of my hits.

Murders in Boston during 2011 (Boston Globe)

Wednesday, October 5, 2011

Civil Disobedience - The Best Sort Of Boston Crime

Let's forget about bank robbers and murderers for a while, and consider instead another great tradition of Bay State crime - civil disobedience. Our own Henry David Thoreau, native of Concord and the illustrious author of Walden, wrote an essay by that name in 1849. He argued "that individuals should not permit governments to overrule or atrophy their consciences, and that they have a duty to avoid allowing such acquiescence to enable the government to make them the agents of injustice." He practiced what he preached. He was a tax evader with a difference, refusing to pay poll taxes for six years running not because he needed to buy a second Lamborghini - but because he did not support either the imperialistic war in Mexico or the U.S. government's tolerance of slavery. He was also a squatter of no mean commitment, living off in the woods by himself in a tiny house for which he hadn't even gotten a mortgage. No bank would love him today, that's for sure.

I saw something of Thoreau's spirit in Boston this Monday, as I dutifully came into town to fix one of my own legal lapses. My driver's license had expired several weeks ago, you see, and I needed to renew it. On my way to the Motor Vehicle Registry in Chinatown, I swung by the intersection of Summer Street and Atlantic Avenue. Here a kind of shanty town had been erected - a latterday Hooverville almost - by the demonstrators of Occupy Boston. They had pitched their sorry tents in the shadow of the spotless and towering Federal Reserve building, and it was here that they began their siege on corporate greed. Like so many other Americans, they were fed up with a sociopathic financial system that flourishes in direct proportion to the number of human lives it stunts. They were tired of being downsized, outsourced and overworked as stockbrokers and investment bankers and C-level executives line their pockets with the would-be pay packets of the never-to-be-hired and the freshly laid-off. They were angry that not only were the moral crimes of the corporations perfectly legal, but also that the laws that shielded tham had been bought with cash, the product of legislators which themselves had been purchased like so much shiny new merchandise. (And, yes, Scott Brown, I'm thinking of Gigolos of The Body Politic just like you.)

These supposed disturbers of the peace, many them unemployed or in debt, outed themselves as representatives of the 99 percent of American society that has not prospered in our modern era, in which the top one percent get all the wealth. I heard no commotion and saw no violence. In fact, their counterparts in New York City - the Occupy Wall Streeters - did not even resist the police who arrested them, but merely reminded them that they were fighting for the rights of the police themselves to retain their own pensions as much as for any other cause. If these people are criminals, they are truly my kind of criminal.

I felt tempted to join them. Or, if not that, to walk amongst them, poke my face into their tents, shake their hands and volunteer to sign every petition they had available. But I did not. It was a moment of moral hesitation that I regret. It reminded me of the time I was in Rome, and I was walking up toward St. Peter's with the intention of visiting the Vatican, of seeing the Sistine Chapel. Beggars lined the street like it was their own little Via Dolorosa. Some - most even - you could disregard. Except for one. There was a kid in his early twenties who seemed to be holding his hands up for a hand-out - until I saw that he had no hands at all. I tried not to look at him. All I had in my wallet was a twenty euro note, and I was pathetically unwilling to give him that. As I passed, he held up the stumps of his wrists to his face in despair. I don't care if he had a nice warm room in some halfway house somewhere, and was just trying to play me. Being a young guy with no hands has to be a hard row to hoe no matter how cynically you respond to it. When I finally broke that twenty euro note, I hurried back to give the kid some cash - but he was gone. The Vatican guard had chased him away. Anything not to disturb the tourists with any pleas for Christian charity.

That's how I feel sometimes about America. Rich patriots revel in the flag and the dollar and their own meritocratic magnificence, but when it comes to the idea every American should have an equal chance - well, let us just say that these grandees do not respond in the spirit of democracy, much less that of Christian charity - and yet they claim to be such fervent God-lovers too, at least some of them. The Vatican guard of the American state wants to chase away the disadvantaged and the unlucky so that its more fortunate citizens can luxuriate in the chapel of the wealthy, for they are the only ones that matter - the only ones who have "earned it".

Me, I'm not as good a person as the folks of Occupy Boston and Occupy Wall Street. My instinct is to counter economic violence with actual violence - or at least to fantasize about it. (Thus my indulgence in this "crime blog".) But the resistance against the gilded sociopaths of the Wealth-Industrial Complex may not stay non-violent forever.

Friday, September 30, 2011

The Science Of Being Streetwise

In 2005, Malcolm Gladwell published a book called Blink, in which he examined the surprising effectiveness of what most of us call "snap judgments", but which he re-dubbed as "thin slicing" with his usual pseudo-scientific trendiness. It turns out that quick takes on people, things and situations can be quite accurate. Common sense dictates that if a few seconds or minutes can tell you a lot, then a few hours, days, months or whatever can tell us even more - but that's not a cost-effective way of doing things. And cost-effectiveness is one of Gladwell's goals. Although Gladwell purports to write for popular science fans, he's really writing for businessmen, and all his initially fresh and exotic insights into things ultimately boil down to how you can use those things in advertising or something similarly mercenary and shallow. I think the main value Gladwell (and his followers in the corporate world) see in "thin slicing" is that you get the biggest bang for the buck in the smallest amount of time - and time, as they say, is money. Even if you are able to refine your insights into something or someone over time, your efforts will inevitably result in diminishing returns - and, besides, you might have to act quickly on what you see anyway. God knows, business bozos do like to make quick decisions in every venue from job candidate interviews to board meetings. Reflection and "deep thinking" are not so much bad, in their eyes, as simply uneconomical. The other way in which snap judgments are useful to business is in how they can be engineered in other people - in, say, customers. That's where those Madison Avenue dudes come into the picture.

However, business is not the only domain that relies on snap judgments. Early in the book, Gladwell talks about how policemen use snap judgments to identify who is lying, who is telling the truth, who has just committed a crime and who is likely to commit one in the near future. He focuses on one detective in particular who was so sharp he was practically clairvoyant, like that dude in The Mentalist. Gladwell also discusses the value of quick thinking - or, more properly, thinking without actually stopping to think - when police have to engage suspects in shootouts and the like. Snap judgments are a necessary element of what many call "situational awareness". They are also the essence of what it means to be streetwise.

Anti-intellectual folks - in sports, in business, in life in general - tend to caricature the difference beween "book smarts" and "street smarts". Academically bright people are thought to be distracted, woolly-headed creatures unaware of the social dynamics of the world around them. They can't "think on their feet", as the saying goes. Those with "street smarts", on the other hand, can. Such people, even if they have never read a book in their lives, are masters at reading people - and of taking control of any social situation. We live in an age that reveres such individuals. Be they entrepreneurs, pick-up artists, action heroes, super-salesmen or political manipulators, we worship anyone who knows instinctively how to thrive "in the moment" and to take advantage of the rest of us. Many criminals - especially con men - fall into the same category.

In truth, there is no impermeable barrier between "book smarts" and "street smarts". Smart is smart, whatever the context, and a lot of people are good at both - or good at neither.

Are you streetwise? Am I? I'd like to think at least that my "criminal radar" is okay. This power would sort of be like gay-dar, but it would help me identify crooks rather than gays. I met a few people during my pub-crawling days that struck me as psychopaths, and boy did I stay away from them. I mean, I'm still alive, aren't I? I remember when I lived in North Carolina, and my wife and I visited our favorite coffee place one Sunday morning on the main street of the town (actually, Port City Java on Front Street in Wilmington, NC). I saw some young black dude, who was sitting on a bench in front of the shop, rise up a little to shake hands with a beefy white biker dude before we went inside. I thought nothing of it then. About five minutes later, when my wife and I were sipping coffee beside the window, I saw that same black dude rise up again and shake some other guy's hand. I figured that nobody who's not mentally defective is that compulsively friendly, so I said, "Look at that guy. He's dealing..." "What?" asked my wife. "He's dealing drugs," I said. "He reaches out with the drugs, pretends to shake hands, and pulls back his hand with the money in it." "Oh," said my wife. But I know I was right. I was proud to be able to identify miscreants on the streets of our town. Pleased as freakin' punch to "out" those outlaws.

There was another time, years ago, when I was drunkenly trolling the Combat Zone for hookers. I was a deranged priapism wandering the streets of Boston. I caught sight of some Chinese chick, supposedly a pro, asking folks if they wanted "a date". About six or seven yards to her left, some guy was lurking in an alcove. A young white guy in a windbreaker, with healthy-looking skin and neatly cut hair. He was sure as hell no pimp. He seemed to fidget a little when he saw me watching him. I nodded at him as I passed, and said, "Evening, officer..." He stood stock still after that. If it wasn't so dark, I believe I would have seen him blush.

Blink (Wikipedia)
What is Blink about? (Gladwell.com)

Wednesday, September 28, 2011

The Fate Of An Accomplice, After The Fact

When fur salesman Charles "Chuck" Stuart murdered his pregnant wife Carol in 1989, a furor erupted not merely over the crime itself, but over the lies Stuart told in his attempt to get away with it. On the night of October 23rd, Stuart drove his wife to Mission Hill, one of the Roxbury neighborhoods closest to downtown Boston. He parked the car, shot his wife once in the head, and then shot himself in the abdomen. Seriously injured by this self-inflicted wound, he called up his 23-year old brother Matthew and had him swing by and pick up the gun. Then he called 911, informing the police that he and his wife had been robbed and shot by a black man. This promptly led police on a grim wild goose chase to find the inner city tough who had dared to assault this up-and-coming young golden couple from the suburbs. They even apprehended a suspect, a hapless fellow by the name of Willie Bennett.

One has to understand the context of this event to understand how heinous Stuart's accusations were. 1989 was only a year after Michael Dukakis was clobbered in the 1988 presidential election, in large part due to an infamous campaign ad that held Dukakis responsible for the actions of one Willie Horton. Willie Horton, who was serving a life sentence for the vicious murder of a Bay State gas station attendant in 1974, was released on furlough in 1986 - and soon after absconded to Maryland, where he brutally raped a woman. The ad, possibly concocted by Karl Rove's mentor, Lee Atwater (who later died of a brain tumor for his sins), introduced the strategy of race-baiting to the 1988 campaign - a strategy that, unfortunately, worked all too well and swept the charisma-challenged George Bush The Elder into office. The Willie Horton scandal not only sunk Dukakis. It also smeared Massachusetts as soft on crime and a breeding ground for sinister black criminals. Stuart's ruse exploited that reputation, and for a while only made it worse.

Trained in the culinary arts, but blessed with good looks and the gift of gab, Stuart had left the kitchen for the glamor of selling fur coats on high-toned Newbury Street in Boston's Back Bay. Married to a lawyer named Carol DiMaiti, the 29-year old Stuart apparently grew distant from his wife when she became pregnant. He started staying out late, and even began to fantasize about a new relationship with a young Brown University grad who worked alongside him at Kakas Furs. One might say the lad was overreaching, but such behavior certainly exemplifies the delusions of grandeur to which sociopaths are prone. At any rate, Stuart eventually decided that his wife (and their unborn child) would have to die. At first, he actually seemed to be getting away with it. But when his brother Matthew confessed to his part in the slaying, attention shifted to Stuart and he knew that he was doomed. Already afflicted with a colostomy in the wake of his rather stupidly aimed self-injury, Stuart leaped to his death off Tobin Bridge. Not the site I would have chosen for such a thing, but hey.

The idea of some felonious white suburbanite blaming the murder of a loved one on a Black Man rapidly became a toxic meme in the American psyche. There were a number of copy cat cases, including the very high profile example of Susan Smith, who murdered her own children by drowning them in a lake in South Carolina, and then pointed a finger at the local bloods. There was even a movie made about Charles Stuart, starring Thirtysomething's Ken Olin - who, incidentally, was a classic example of bad casting as Olin was a gloomy Gus who couldn't charm his way out of a paper bag, much less sell anything. Variations of the Stuart and Smith cases found their way into crime novels like Robert B. Parker's Small Vices and Richard Price's Freedomland.

More importantly, the case inflamed racial tension nationwide, perhaps helping to ramp up the tenor of black outrage over the treatment of Rodney King barely a year and a half later, which led to the catastrophic L.A. riots of 1992.

Matthew Stuart was never charged with murder for his part in the crime, but he was convicted of conspiracy, insurance fraud and the illegal possession of a firearm in 1992, and served three years. On parole in 1997, he was arrested for dealing cocaine, but this charge was later dropped. Regardless of how little time he served, the crime ruined his life. His time in prison may well have been harder than most. Although prison is never a paradise for any good-looking white kid, there must always have been the additional threat of vengeance from black inmates who hated his brother for his racist lies. Matthew continued to have a troubled life on the outside, and died of a drug overdose in the bathroom of a Cambridge homeless shelter earlier this month.

Charles (Chuck) Stuart (Wikipedia)
Matthew Stuart dies, helped brother cover up killing (Associated Press)
Stuart found dead in shelter (Boston Globe)
Charles Stuart’s brother found dead (Boston Herald)

Tuesday, September 27, 2011

My Friend, The (Borderline) Sociopath

When I lived in Providence, my closest friend was something of a con man. I first met him in the boardinghouse we shared with some other folks - e.g., parolees, recovering alcoholics, former mental patients (among them a future girlfriend of mine), a young journalist who would later die of cancer at the age of 34, several starving artists from RISD (my future girlfriend was also included among this crowd, along with some dude who joked about his "one-eyed snake" in the communal restroom and declared David Smith the greatest American sculptor) and - let me not forget - one terrified old woman who was a concentration camp survivor. My friend, whom I will refer to only as Mr. P___, and I were as nutty as anyone else, but Mr. P___ was unusually charismatic. He arrived in Providence full of bluster, six-foot-five, humorously folksy and sonorously baritone, boasting to anyone who would listen that he was going to start a newspaper. Even the Providence Journal got curious, and wrote an article about him under the headline "Who Is Mr. P___?"

I was working as a PR flack for a chemical firm then, in my waywardly aspiring youth, and we got to know each other. We used to gallivant about town in his VW van, as he introduced himself to folks left and right, spreading his charm and his plans for the future. It can be great fun to attach oneself to such an extrovert. He brought me in to write a book review for an alternate weekly, which I did - but which he promptly stole, along with other editorial material, when he hauled off and started his own rag. I wrote some more book reviews for that, and did the weekly crossword. He rarely paid me. He rarely paid anyone. In fact, it took all his willpower to produce any newspaper at all. He spent most of his days driving around Southeastern Mass., drumming up advertising sales, but dragged his feet when it came to putting out the actual paper. He borrowed 500 bucks from me when things got tough, but never paid it back. The paper eventually folded. I don't know if he reneged on his advertising customers, but I do know the "partners" whom he'd convinced to buy an electronic typesetting machine eventually sued him. He convinced his girlfriend of the time to put 25 grand into yet another publication project, then piddled away his (and her) time until that folded, too. I don't know if she sued him, but she certainly wasn't his girlfriend anymore. I hired him to print my company's newsletter (for which I did the text, the photos and the layout) - at least until he started to charge more and more money while working slower and slower, and eventually even I had to cut him loose.

He was in Providence because his ex-wife (his second ex-wife of two) was raising their three kids, and he wanted to be a hands-on Dad. After his newspaper-advertising-printing business failed, he stayed in the area. He vacated his original apartment, which I took over, and moved into a dilapidated social club in a tricky part of town. He became the manager of an equipment rental shop, and often borrowed the merchandise for his own renovations. I had met my girlfriend by then, through him, because they were friends. But not lovers (although my petite little honey once confided to me that she had been afraid for a while that he would rape her). I got the girl, so to speak, but all three of us hung out. He would serve us plates of chili, and after dinner we would play hearts at his huge oak dining room table while smoking Vantages and guzzling cheap Lambrusco. The two of us got drunk on banana daiquiris one scurrilous evening, and he brought out his .22 caliber pistol, which he proceeded to point at me repeatedly. Unknown to me, he still had a copy of the key to the apartment that I took over, and one afternoon I came home to find that my week's pay - which I'd cashed the night before and had left on my coffee table - was gone. On another occasion, my girlfriend and I left him alone in her apartment to go out to dinner, and a month later several hundred dollars in long-distance calls he had made without telling her showed up on her telephone bill. I stored my furniture with him after I left the Providence job, and when I passed through on my way to a new job in New York, I made an appointment to stop by and pick it up. Was he there when I arrived? No. For all I know, he still has my furniture even now.

Mr. P___ continued to make promises to people that he never made good on. He continued to charm folks and use them until they turned their backs on him and walked away. A few years ago I googled him to see what he was up to. I found an online document from the Providence court that said he had been sentenced to five years in the Rhode Island ACI for defaulting on his child support. I could only shake my head when I saw that. Something like that was bound to happen. And his kids were the ones he loved the most.

Thursday, September 22, 2011

My Take (So To Speak) On "The Brink's Job"

I saw this movie on one of the Encore cable channels over the weekend. It was an oldie-but-goodie about a Boston crime that was itself an oldie-but-goodie, the notorious Brink's robbery of January 1950 in which the perps made off with $2,775,395. I'm pretty certain there have been way bigger robberies since, but imagine what nearly three million in 1950 simoleons would be worth now, if we adjusted for inflation. The eight principal players in the robbery were nabbed in 1956, and thereafter sent to jail, but they were all paroled by 1971 - and only $58,000 of the loot was ever recovered. The implication - and the madcap note of optimism on which the movie ends - is that the perps retired on the dough after prison and lived "comfortably" for the rest of their lives. Which could not have been forever really, as most of these guys were in their forties when they committed the crime.

William Friedkin, of French Connection fame, directed the movie and the cast was stellar. Peter Falk, whom I thought until his obituary came out was some kind of Irish-Italian mix, was actually a Jewish guy from Chicago who made a living playing Italian dudes - sort of the way James Woods, who is himself an Irish Catholic born in Pawtucket, has made a living playing Jewish guys. But here, too, Falk plays an Italian - an immigrant from Sicily named Tony Pino. The incomparable Warren Oates plays Specs O'Keefe, the demolition expert whose 1955 arrest in Springfield, Mass. on a gun charge led to the final apprehension of the other guys. Sadly, Oates, despite his performance, is totally unconvincing as a Boston native. I mean, I've never met anybody who was born here who talked like he came from Louisville, Kentucky. Paul Sorvino puts in a serviceable performance as the kind of well-spoken and dapper (but still fat) dude that he usually plays. Peter Boyle reprises the sinister-fixer-behind-the-scenes role that he played in The Friends of Eddie Coyle. Interestingly, Frank McCourt's brother, Malachy McCourt, puts in a fine cameo as a patriarchal suburban money launderer, and Gena Rowlands - like Falk, another actor with experience in Cassavetes films about husbands and wives - here plays wife to Falk's husband, common-law or otherwise.

The movie was a fun exercise in mid-20th century Boston nostalgia, but little else. There was more comedy than suspense. It had more the feel of an all-star caper film made in the early 1960's than of something made in 1978. I know, 1978 seems like ages ago - very nearly the Cretaceous period of American life - but stop to consider that movies like Thief with James Caan and Scarface with Al Pacino were made just three years and five years later, respectively. And what about Bonnie and Clyde, made in 1967, or that creepily edgy Tony Curtis film, The Boston Strangler, made in 1968? Both precede The Brink's Job by at least a decade and seem infinitely more modern. Not to mention The Friends of Eddie Coyle itself from 1973 or Friedkin's own The French Connection. All of these films resonate with serious thoughts about the consequences of criminal activity that are nowhere in evidence in The Brink's Job. Virtually all of the characters behave like regular guys who would never hurt a fly. It's implicit that their criminality was a scrappy response to Depression-era poverty, not a result of their being "bent" or because their parents abused them or whatever. Most of them come across as reasonably clever dudes who, if they'd been born a generation or two later, would have gone to U.Mass. and ended up respectable and prosperous and even law-abiding citizens. Even the prospect of these guys serving another 14 years in the joint is glossed over merrily, as if that would pass in an instant, what with all the loot they have to look forward to afterward.

I think the target audience of this movie was not Baby Boomers, still a skeptical and rebellious bunch in 1978, but their parents - the Greatest Generation. They would have actual memories of the Brink's robbery, and of the time it portrayed. This fun little movie about lovable mooks - all middle-aged white guys, you notice - who commit felonies without malevolence was meant as a sop to conservative tastes. The same kind of folks for whom Dirty Harry and Death Wish were made, but aimed at that crowd from an entirely different angle. The real tip-off comes when the sound track of the movie ends with an Andrews Sisters hit from the 1940's - not the sort of thing middle-aged thieves would have listened to back then, but definitely the kind of thing that folks who were around 50 in 1978 would have remembered from their youth.

I recommend it to Boston crime buffs nonetheless. It was made largely in Boston, and includes scenes filmed in the North End, Roxbury, the Combat Zone, and various other downtown locales.

(Odd factoid: According to Wikipedia, the makers of the film were ripped off while it was being made: "Ironically, in August 1978, 15 unedited reels of the film were stolen at gunpoint. The robbers demanded a $600,000 ransom. The money was never paid, because the robbers, showing a distinct lack of filmmaking knowledge, hijacked outtakes and dailies, positive prints of negatives were being held by Technicolor in New York City. The material was replaced with no significant delay. The robbers, however, made a ransom call, which triggered an investigation by the FBI. During the ransom call, Friedkin told the robbers to 'get a projector and enjoy the film; it was all theirs'.")

The Brink's Job (Wikipedia)
Great Brink's Robbery (Wikipedia)
CRIME: The Big Payoff (Time)
Great Brink’s Robbery “Crime of the Century,” 1950 (Looking Backward)
Brinks Job Exhibit (Boston Public Library)

Wednesday, September 21, 2011

Could Anthony "The Moron" Be Still Alive?

Above is a rare photograph of Anthony Mirabella, the Providence mafioso believed to have been slain in 1982. I wrote about Mirabella in a blog post dated July 28, 2011. Just this week, an anonymous source left a comment asking me to contact him (or her). I emailed this source using the address provided, and we corresponded. The source sent me the picture shown here. The source hinted that Mirabella may not actually be dead. When I sent the source a second email asking for more details, I received the following note:

"Well, there are more people that share my beliefs than you think. Many say he was a so-called 'Moron' but that's what he wanted them to think. I'm not saying he [was] some kind of huge mafia figure, hardly. But hit men in the mob keep their mouths shut and their ears open. They see and hear more facts, dates and so forth. Just the right thread when you're trying to sew the pieces together in a case. I find it funny that it is difficult to find legal documentation about [Mirabella]. Searches and such [yield] tidbits at best. The only way to identify the body was dental records, that's easy enough to cover up. Around the same time he was [supposedly "killed"] in 1982 the FBI had a long ongoing investigation into the mob. See, he knew his clock was ticking on the outside [and] what better way to keep breathing? I do not believe anyone ever did time for his murder. Bobo [Marrapese] was found not guilty and no one else was ever charged... There is a lot more to this story, Mr. Elliott. Everyone would just rather sweep it under the rug."

Such speculations can explain why neither "Bobo" Marrapese nor anyone else was found guilty of his murder. It is entirely possible that Mirabella turned himself in to the FBI and they put him in Witness Protection. It would make a nice plot for an episode of In Plain Sight, as a matter of fact.

Anthony "The Moron" Mirabella & Friends (Jimmy Elliott - Gangland Scribe)

Tuesday, September 20, 2011

A Meditation On Wallets, Lost Or Otherwise

I did something uncharacteristically honest and selfless yesterday. Instead of bumping someone off or shoplifting the latest crime novel from my local bookstore, I returned a man's wallet. I found it in a ground floor men's room in the building where I toil at my ignominious day job. There it was, worn, leathery and very fatly stuffed, perched on the industrial-sized toilet paper dispenser in the largest of the stalls. At first I simply stared at it. After all, I had my own business to take care of. As I sat there, I pondered what to do. Should I leave it there? Maybe the dude who lost it would remember where it was and come back for it. Or maybe somebody else would find it and (I assume) turn it in - or steal it. I didn't really care. At least not initially. I didn't want to touch it - for two reasons. One, if I emerged from the men's room with this alien wallet in hand, someone - perhaps even its owner - might see me, and I would be accused of stealing it before I even had the chance to return it. Two, handling anything some other guy left in a men's room stall could be very unsanitary - for its owner as well as for me. Having seen Contagion the night before at the local Showcase Cinema, I was feeling a little queasy about the possibilities out there for, well, contagion. The leathery skin of that wallet did not look healthy.

Eventually, I did the "right" thing. Sort of. As soon as I was done with my business - but before I washed my hands (after all, I need to retain some portion of sociopathic mischief in everything I do) - I lifted the wallet with pincered fingers. I extracted something from it. No - not money! I pulled out the dude's ID card to see who he was. Ah, a name to go with the lost article! Would I steal his identity? No. Could I have stolen his identity? Interesting thought, but no - probably not easily. After I washed my hands, I conveyed this well-worn and somewhat turd-like locus of a man's identity to the nearest authority - but not before searching the name plates on every office door to see if the dude worked nearby. Somewhat to my relief, he did not.

Oddly, I did not consider theft - or any other sort of crime. Am I losing my touch? Have I gone timid? Or has Empathy insinuated herself, like the womanly entity she is, into the bedroom of my soul?

When I was very young and, like many a city boy, did not yet possess a driver's license, I carried no identification on me. Just some cash, and not always that. I bar-hopped, caroused, got into fights, puts the moves on girls, darted in and out amongst cars driven by drunken persons, and pursued all manner of hair-raising capers, all without an ID. Now I obey the laws religiously (mostly), and carry innumerable small labels on myself as though I expect to drop dead or be run over any moment. And it is not just death I fear. It is the police, the concierges of corporate towers, even the T.S.A. at my hometown MBTA station - they, too, would ream my ass if I ever attempted to pass before them ID-less. It sometimes seems to me that our ability to move freely through life and do that American thing of constantly reinventing ourselves has been eroded by carrying around too much identification. If anyone who wants to can always pin me down as exactly who or what I currently am, how can I aspire to become anything else?

I've lost wallets myself, and I know it feels. Believe me! You feel like you've lost your license to exist. I lost my wallet once when I was a tourist in Denmark, but someone found it and brought it to the police station. (The Vikings, too, have faded into civility.) I lost it another time when a hooker picked my pocket in Times Square. I even thought I'd lost it once when I had to go pick up my in-laws at South Station, and had stopped into a bar beforehand to steady my nerves. I ended up cancelling my credit card, only to find out a day or two later that I had, in my distraction, left it in my overcoat when I brought my in-laws home.

Oh, yes. Wallets. ID's. The insidious conflation of money with identity that wallets enable. What a thing it would be to be able to go without wallets! If I were run over, I might end up as a John Doe in the city morgue. Even if I survived, no doctor would treat me because I would have no health benefits card. But on the other hand, to go without a wallet might render me unmuggable. Should I choose to commit a crime myself, it wouldn't exactly make me unarrestable - but it would make it nearly impossible for the cops to find me again if I escaped. Going wallet-less wouldn't be as drastic as going naked, but who knows what kinds of freedom it could give us and what thrills it might induce?

Friday, September 16, 2011

Radical Brighton Bank Robbers From The Age Of Aquarius

This is a real blast from the past - indeed, from the days when leftism still existed in the United States, when it roamed the mod streets of Boston like a herd of bison. In September 23, 1970, two Brandeis students, Susan Saxe and Katherine Power, and three ex-convicts - William Gilday, Stanley Ray Bond and Robert Valeri - "entered the State Street Bank and Trust Company in Boston with the intent to expropriate funds to help finance the movement against the Vietnam War." Sadly, for them, they netted less than $27,000. Even adjusting for inflation, this was a paltry sum for such a serious crime. But then again seventies lefties were never noted for their soaring financial acumen. Far and away the worst consequence of their crime was their murder of 42-year old Boston police officer, William Schroeder. Killing a cop is never a good career move, but this action was especially horrifying for at least three reasons: 1) They shot him in the back, 2) they shot him with a Thompson submachine gun, and 3) Schroeder left behind nine kids.

This event alone mobilized the Boston police to hunt them down, but the Brighton robbery had not been their first serious felony in the name of radicalism. September 1970 had been something of a spree month for the gang. They had "expropriated funds" from Bell Federal Savings and Loan in Philadelphia on September 1st, and on September 20th they broke into the National Guard Armory in Newburyport, Massachusetts, stole some ordnance, and then attempted to blow the place up. These were serious radicals indeed.

Most of the ink devoted to this case in the past has been spilled on Susan Saxe and Katherine Power. Saxe was apprehended in 1975, but Katherine Power was not apprehended until 1993, when the former high school valedictorian was working as a restaurant owner, cooking teacher and food writer in Oregon. Having become depressed by her terrorist past, Power outed herself to her Oregon social circle and eventually surrendered to the FBI. Saxe was sentenced to 10 to 12 years in prison, and Power served only six years. Both women compel our fascination as "nice girls" - bespectacled super-student type "nice girls" no less - gone horribly bad.

However, the guys I'm curious about are the ex-cons, at least two of which were Massachusetts natives. The youngest was Robert Valeri, only 21 at the time. He was also the first apprehended. Identified by bank surveillance photographs, he was arrested at his Somerville home and quickly gave up his compatriots, fingering both Gilday and Bond. Gilday was apprehended on September 28th after an hour-long highway pursuit that reputedly involved "about 100 police cars". Although Gilday never managed to escape Massachusetts, Bond got all the way out to Grand Junction, Colorado before he was arrested while boarding a plane. One wonders if he had a D.B. Cooper-type scheme in mind.

Both William Gilday, 41, and Stanley Bond, 26, were clever men with rather interesting back stories. A native of Amesbury, Mass., Gilday had once been a minor league pitcher for a Washington Senators farm team, where he was known as "Lefty Gilday". (I know. Lefty? Washington Senators? You can't make this stuff up.) In his thirties he was arrested for robbery and sentenced to Walpole State Prison. It was there that he, Valeri and Stanley Bond enrolled in a rehabilitation program called STEP (short for Student Tutor Education Program). He and Valeri began taking courses at Northeastern, while Bond - himself a former Vietnam War helicopter pilot and perhaps the smartest of the trio - attended Brandeis University in Waltham. Brandeis was infested with radicalism at that time, and it was here that Bond connected with Saxe and Power, both members of a radical faction of the Students for a Democratic Society called the Weather Underground. Bond began an affair with Power (who, after her capture in '93, gave lukewarm reviews to the sex). Cocksman or not, Bond was allegedly brilliant and charismatic and was able to unite the interests of the ex-cons and the coeds.

Both Gilday and Bond spent the rest of their lives in prison. Gilday, who developed a reputation as a "jail house lawyer extraordinaire", recently died at the MCI in Shirley, Mass. at the age of 82 - prematurely, according to his die-hard radical admirers, as his parents lived to 99 and 102, respectively. Bond died in 1972, while making a bomb to help himself escape from Walpole, pretty much blowing off his head and his hands.

Ah, those were the days! The days when youngish white criminals could still have some sexy radical cachet, and were not yet the shambling illiterate proles or the tattooed and shaven-headed Aryan Brotherhood types of more recent times. It is questionable whether or not these guys actually saw themselves as warriors for a more equitable society, or were simply co-opting radical politics to serve their own sociopathic delusions of grandeur. I'm inclined to believe the latter. Although homegrown terrorism has waned in recent years, having apparently been "outsourced" to more foreign populations, I can see a certain continuity between gun-toting smart cons like Gilday and Bond and other varieties of "smart guys gone wrong" that have been a staple of Boston area criminality for decades.

Crime: The Radical Bank Job (Time)
William Gilday and the Brighton Bank Heist, 1970 (Boston Local TV News Project)
William Gilday (Denver Anarchist Black Cross)
Political Prisoner William 'Lefty' Gilday passes away (Google Groups)
Stanley Ray Bond (Wikipedia)
Katherine Ann Power (Wikipedia)
Last words on the Weather Underground (Media Nation)
Susan Saxe Pleads Guilty; Receives 10-12 Year Sentence (Harvard Crimson)

Wednesday, September 14, 2011

The Murder Of Debra Davis (And Other Whitey Bulger Atrocities)

More Whitey news! I provide some links below to articles about the eagerness of Whitey Bulger victims (or their survivors) to strike back any way they can. In 2009, a federal court ruled that "$350,000 to the families of each of the three victims, because of the conscious pain and suffering endured by Debra Davis, 26, who was strangled in 1981; Deborah Hussey, 26, strangled in 1985; and Louis Litif, 45, who was stabbed and shot in 1980." Davis and Hussey are among at least two women strangled by Whitey Bulger. On separate occasions. It almost makes you wonder why on earth Whitey was not investigated as a possible Boston Strangler suspect, back in the day. And keep in mind that becoming Boston Strangler II was just one of his sidelines. The middle-aged Litif was a South Boston bookmaker who was about to provide evidence about Whitey before he was killed. The judge awarded an additional $800,000 to his widow and two children. The losing defendant in this civil case was not just the government, but specifically the FBI, who protected Whitey from local authorities while he acted as their informant. But winning a lawsuit against them is not enough, say many. They want everyone in the FBI involved with the Whitey Bulger protection scam to be exposed and prosecuted - not just their fall guy, John Connolly.

Debra Davis was Steve Flemmi's longtime girlfriend, having met the middle-aged thug as a teenager. After nine years she wanted out, but Flemmi passive-aggressively lured the poor woman to a South Boston address where Whitey (not Steve, you notice) strangled her with his bare hands, and then extracted her teeth with a pair of pliers. Kevin Weeks, who is now something of a minor celebrity and definitely not in jail, helped Whitey bury the body in Quincy. Of all Whitey's black-hearted shenanigans, I find this the most chilling. When Whitey was not killing women, he was killing their kin - even those of his mistress, Catherine Grieg. He not only killed her brother-in-law, Paul McGonagle, but may also have killed her brother, David. David Greig supposedly committed suicide by shooting himself in the heart. Relevant factoid - Whitey "discovered" the body. You can reach your own conclusions there.

Now that Whitey has been apprehended and sits in jail awaiting justice, lots of former friends, enemies and/or fre-nemies have come out of the woodwork to give their blessings, so to speak.

Here are some samples of how fondly Whitey is remembered and how well he is loved:

Patrick Nee, a former member of the Mullen Gang who once had a running gun battle with Whitey: "I wish I’d killed Whitey Bulger when I had the opportunity."

Richard Marinick, the author and a onetime armored-car-robber, was once threatened by Whitey - and rather disgustingly at that: "I’m walking along the street in Southie one day, and Bulger’s car pulls up. He says, ‘Get in.’ I’m sitting in the back seat, face to face with Jimmy. He says, ‘You’re a health nut, right, a healthy guy?’ Bulger was into good health, eating right, taking vitamin supplements; we’d talked about it before. ‘Well,’ he says, ‘what you’re doing now is not very healthy.’ He explained to me, ‘Our primary line of business is racketeering. Our secondary line of business is killing people. You do not want to be part of our secondary line of business … I will kill you and run your body through the meat-grinding plant. I will grind up your body, put it in a plastic bag, and leave it on your mother’s doorstep.’"

Kevin Weeks, Whitey's righthand man, claims that Whitey is still dangerous in jail at the age of 82: "He was a hard guy, tough as nails. A stone-cold killer. I know he’s 82 now, but still, he’s in great shape, mentally strong. I hear they’ve got him in protective custody to protect him from other inmates. But don’t put it past him: he might try to kill somebody himself. Put a shank in his hand, and he’d know what to do with it."

Still feral after all these years...

They say Whitey Bulger is in for it. The attorney for Debra Davis's family says, "Any plea that he agrees to, he gets a telephone pole shoved up the ass. If he goes to trial, he gets a telephone pole shoved up the ass." Well, maybe - but what in the end can they do to him? They can give him life, but - face it - he's 82. What kind of punishment is that? Prison would just be Whitey's own version of assisted living. The Bay State doesn't currently have the death penalty, but maybe they'll reinstate it just for him. God knows they should.

(As a sidenote, read some of the comments underneath the article. One commenter conflates "whitey" with white people in general, and disses both. Another taunts Whitey about how his "bung hole" will be used (or abused) in the joint. Still another pooh-poohs Whitey's dominance in South Boston, claiming most residents wouldn't have known him if he had walked past them on the street.)

Whitey’s Payback (Daily Beast)
Judge rules government liable for slayings by Bulger, Flemmi (Boston Globe)

Monday, September 12, 2011

The Corner Where The Gun Shop Stood

In my hometown, for as long as I can remember, there was a little strip mall-type place where the main road that led down from Route 2 crossed over the railroad tracks of the Boston & Maine. On the corner of this cluster of shops was a drug store or convenience store or some such thing, and the local hoods used to hang out there all the time. One day they harassed a girl who entered that store, and some young man about nineteen or twenty stepped in to defend her from them. They stabbed to death this young Galahad with a switchblade. I was only five years old then, and I didn't read the papers much, but I heard all about it. At least one of the hoods got sent to Walpole for the crime, and it was decades before there was another murder in my hometown. But for several months after that incident, whenever my granddad was taking me and my little sister on a walk and we passed that corner, he pointed out that shop, reminded us of what had happened there, and grimly shook his head. When I got to be teenaged myself, and was still living in the neighborhood, I always thought of that place as The Murder Corner.

Sometime during my teenage years, I noticed another shop in that vicinity. It was a gun shop. You could barely see inside the place, and it would be grated up after dark, but the sign on the outside let you know in no uncertain terms what merchandise was sold therein. It was the only gun shop I knew about - and I mean anywhere in that part of Greater Boston. And it stood almost on the same spot as The Murder Corner. I used to wonder whether that shop had existed when the murder took place, and was the honey-pot of weaponry around which those violent young hoods were hovering like flies. If it had not existed then, but had been opened later, why had it been opened so near that corner? Had the gun shop owners thought that it was a fitting place to sell "deterrents to crime" because of its history of violence? Or had that violence itself pervaded the soul of the place and turned it into a magnet for the sinister presence of firearms? Last time I drove past that corner, a few years ago, the Boston & Maine was long gone but that gun shop still existed. Most of the people who lived in that neighborhood are dead, or have long since grown up and moved away, and I don't think anyone around there remembers it as The Murder Corner, but in my eyes it still is.

Friday, September 9, 2011

Big Dig Contractor Murdered By David Caruso Lookalike

When concrete company president and Big Dig contractor Michael Zammitti was murdered in Wakefield, Mass. in March 2006, many assumed it was a mob hit. The Big Dig, once the largest construction project on planet Earth, was notoriously corrupt. Plus there was that Italian connection. Plus yet again, there was the sheer cold-bloodedness of the murder, which also took the life of a witness, Zammitti's part-time employee, Chester Roberts, who was shot in the back while apparently attempting to escape.

Further investigation revealed that the Mafia was not involved at all. The murder instead demonstrated one of the unexpected hazards of owning a vacation home. Michael Zammitti and his family had a sumptuous getaway in Freedom, New Hampshire, near the shores of Ossipee Lake. One of his neighbors was the affable handyman, Sean Fitzpatrick. The whole family got to know him during those leisurely summer days, the Zammitti kids even calling him "Uncle Sean". Zammitti's wife liked him, too. Fitzpatrick, who by all accounts considered himself quite the swordsman, befriended Mrs. Zammitti and eventually romanced the lady. If Fitzpatrick had remained the detached Don Juan, the romance would have run its course and nobody would have been the wiser. But the fool fell in love. When Mrs. Zammitti refused to leave her husband, Fitzpatrick behaved almost exactly like a woman scorned. Or at least like Glenn Close in Fatal Attraction. He drove 100 miles down to Wakefield with a 16-gauge shotgun, entered Zammitti's place of business and shot him in the head while he sat at his desk. Poor Chester Roberts was mere collateral damage.

Fitzpatrick's trial made national news, as love-triangle-related murders occasionally do (re: the Oxygen channel's Snapped). Fitzpatrick got life, twice over. Here's an object lesson for all you would-be alpha males out there. If you can't keep it in your pants, at least keep your heart buttoned up.

(Odd factoid: One of the witnesses for the prosecution was a retired political cartoonist.)

N.H. man convicted of murder in Wakefield love triangle case (Boston Globe)
Guilty Verdict in Massachusetts Double Homicide Trial (Boston Criminal Attorney Blog)
Trial To Begin in Love Triangle Double Murder (ABC News)
Family Business (MSNBC)
Neighbor recalls conversation with murder suspect (The Conway Daily Sun)

Tuesday, September 6, 2011

I Was A Teenaged Courtroom Monitor

Back when I was in college, I spent my winter break as a courtroom monitor for the American Friends Service Committee. This was when I wanted to become a lawyer, before I realized I was too much of a Silent Bob type ever to banter with the best of them in a law school class like those dudes in Paper Chase. A guy I knew from the Debate Club (where my silence was most conspicuous) and I signed up to monitor courtrooms for the Quakers to make sure that no legal rights were being violated. This was not to say we would have recognized such violations if we saw them. The American Friends dude who handled us – a glib, bespectacled and scruffy little guy who reminded me of the seventies-era comedian Buck Henry, and who was clearly Jewish, not a Quaker – just told us to keep notes. He would review the notes later, he assured us, and he would know if anything went wrong.

So my buddy and I did our little tour of Greater Boston courtrooms over the next few weeks. He drove. I paid for lunch. We came from the same hometown. As a matter of fact, he was my sister’s arch enemy back in high school, due to his playfully sarcastic demeanor. I cannot tell you how much I enjoyed hanging out with my sister’s arch enemy.

I remember only four courtrooms. There was one in Somerville, just off McGrath Highway, which had a red brick façade with plain white columns like a pretentious funeral home or one of those forbiddingly formal restaurants that do most of their business as function rooms for wedding receptions and whatnot. The likeness fit, as appearing in court seemed just about as momentous as getting married or dying. It was even a rite of passage for some of us. The judge there was some old Irish dude whose eyes seemed to twinkle as the bailiff went, “Oyez! Oyez!” Of the few cases on the docket that morning, more than half were no-shows.

Then there was the wood-paneled courtroom in Brookline, with its short-haired lady judge. The courtroom was nearly as well-accoutered as a law office, and the cases discussed therein were just about as dull. Civil stuff, mostly. Rich guys quibbling over easements and an angry divorcee who apparently wanted to divorce herself from her own divorce lawyer. You get the picture.

The courtrooms in Boston were much grittier and more indelible. The downtown Boston courtroom had the light-colored interior of a colonial church and its docket veritably twitched with an assortment of hookers and other losers. The judge was a youngish guy who resembled Kelsey Grammer, except with gold-framed glasses and without the tooty-fruity baritone. The most memorable case that day was a probable cause hearing for a murder trial. A black inner-city dude was accused of shooting some white guy when the two crossed paths in a Boston park. The black dude claimed self-defense, even though the white dude had not been armed. He claimed, in fact, that the white dude had attacked him with his bare hands, and the black dude had no choice but to shoot him. In retrospect, this was not so long past the Boston busing crisis when black people were persona non grata in certain parts of the city, so maybe the black dude’s case would've had some merit had the white dude not been just some guy in an overcoat on his way home from work.

The freakiest courtroom of all was the one in South Boston. This supposed palace of justice was a dimly lit, puke-green-painted attic on the top floor of a hundred-year-old building on Broadway, and the case du jour was another probable cause hearing. A dapper-looking dark-haired guy – as natty as a mid-century London spiv with his blond wife sitting next to him - had allegedly murdered his boyfriend, a transvestite with undescended testicles. I did not make that up. That detail actually was mentioned, although pursuant to what I do not know.

I was not impressed with the sausage machine of the legal process during those few dreary weeks. When it was not boring, it was depressing, and when it was not depressing, it was simply inaudible. The professionalism of the attorneys and the judges was a subtle and persistent thing, like a squirrel gnawing on an acorn. Being in a courtroom ultimately reminded me of being in a hospital. In both places there is always something dramatic happening for somebody, but watching that drama unfold was, at least for this disinterested observer, like watching a tree grow.

Friday, September 2, 2011

The Case Of The Meth-Addled Spine Surgeon

Fast on the heels of Dr. Richard Sharpe comes the equally strange case of Dr. David Arndt. Although Dr. Arndt has not yet murdered anyone, he may be even scarier than Dr. Sharpe. For one thing, he is (or was) a surgeon - a profession bound to bring out the willies in the best of us. Think of the Jeremy Irons character (or characters, actually, since they were twins) in Dead Ringers. Ee-uuuwww... Not to mention all those horrifying healers of B movie infamy, always re-attaching severed heads to the wrong bodies or keeping them alive all by their lonesome. Frankenstein, too, don't forget. Ditto The Reanimators.

In the summer of 2002, Dr. Arndt made news by skipping out on a patient in the middle of an operation - a spine operation, mind you - to cash a check. He returned 35 minutes later, and eventually finished the operation, but the damage to both the patient and his reputation had been done. He was quickly suspended from Mount Auburn Hospital in Cambridge, Mass. Shortly afterward, his medical license was suspended and the tale of his surgical siesta went viral. Law suits followed. To be fair, spine operations can often take 8 to 10 hours to perform, even as long as 18 hours in some cases. Such work must require incredible stamina, both mental and physical, but surely there are limits. Surgeons are known to excuse themselves to go to the bathroom, for instance - and no one gets upset about that. To cash a check though... That almost makes the dude seem like a caricature of the greedy medico.

And that's not all. Less than a month after the check-cashing incident, Arndt was charged "with four counts of statutory child rape and one count each of indecent assault and battery, drugging a person for sexual intercourse, contributing to the delinquency of a child, and possession of the drugs ketamine hydrochloride ('Special K') and methamphetamine." It turns out he had picked up a couple of teenaged boys - aged 14 and 15 - in Cambridge's Central Square and held a kind of drugs-and-sex party in his car. He later gave the kids his cell phone number, which gave the coppers the tool they needed to entrap the perv.

And that's not all either. A year later, Arndt "was arrested on August 8 [2003] and charged with possession of methamphetamine with intent to distribute." Apparently, he had rented a room in a South End hotel and had ordered a package sent to him there under the alias "Frank Castro" via Federal Express. Unfortunately for him, the postal authorities found the package "suspicious" and obtained a warrant to open it. It contained "a large, pink penis-shaped pinata" which itself contained two pounds of meth.

As the Boston Globe says, these are stressful times for physicans, they often feel compelled to work way too hard, often turning to drugs and alcohol as a result, even - in many cases - using drugs like meth (or "speed") to help them work all those long hours. Dr. Arndt just had the misfortune of derailing himself far more luridly than the average addict with an M.D.

One thing Arndt had in common with Dr. Sharpe was an unconventional and rather flamboyant sexuality. While Dr. Sharpe was a cross-dresser, Dr. Arndt was a clearly out-of-control homosexual. In addition to picking up underaged boys for sex, he had also made unwelcome passes at male orderlies and nurses, and had even committed assault on one of his boyfriends. Had he been heterosexual, his behavior could have been equally bad, but it would not have contributed quite as much to his notoriety.

Dr. Arndt definitely falls in that category of Boston area bad guys whose criminality represents the flip side of brilliance. The son of a prominent Harvard Medical School professor and extremely bright in his own right, Arndt was almost hard-wired to follow a medical career. In fact, he came to medicine relatively late and via a winding path. Born in 1960, he graduated high school during the still hippy-dippy 1970's and made his way west to San Francisco, where he attended a now-defunct "alternative college", counseled the homeless and discovered his sexuality. Eventually his medical destiny drew him back to Boston, but not after he had evolved into a full-blown non-conformist. This extreme non-conformity, coupled with his intellectual arrogance, made a serious conflict with society's norms almost inevitable.

As of February 2010, Arndt was still in federal prison, serving out a 10 year sentence. He claims to have found God (but not Jesus), as "Arndt is now an ultra-Orthodox Jew who keeps kosher, wears a beard, keeps his head covered, works to follow hundreds of commandments governing all aspects of life, and spends the bulk of the day in prayer or studying ancient Jewish texts." Well, whatever it takes to keep him out of trouble.

What Went Wrong? (Boston Globe)
For a fallen surgeon, a higher power (Boston Globe)

Wednesday, August 31, 2011

A Rash Of Hit-and-Run Incidents Plagues The Bay State

You've heard of the legend of the Boston driver, haven't you? Motorists from our neck of the woods are notorious for their driving, which is, by turns, too aggressive, too irrational, too heedless of the laws and way too often downright crazy. Some (like my dear departed Ma) attribute Boston driving to the, quote-unquote, "Irish scofflaw" influence, whereby motorists of Irish descent supposedly flout the laws established by Anglo-Saxon grandees. Even beyond its status as a vile, anti-Irish canard, this theory makes no sense when you consider that a lot more law-makers (not to mention law-enforcers) in the Bay State are Irish than Anglo-Saxon. Then there is the theory that Boston drivers are screwy because the roads themselves are screwy, having once been meandering cow paths and all that. Maybe so, but I've seen as much crazy driving on I-95 and I-93 as anywhere else - and those were built during the Cold War 1950's to transport nuclear weapons and provide escape routes for evacuees and their design is about as disorderly as a geometry lesson. Another theory holds that the high concentration of both college-age kids and liquor-serving establishments in the Boston area enable a "perfect storm" of vehicular mayhem. Still another theory contends that Massachusetts, being the liberal state that it is, doesn't punish its serial traffic offenders enough, allowing them to stay on the road when they ought to be stuck on the sidewalk. Or maybe the best theory is one that accommodates all the half-truths that engender every other theory.

Whatever the reason, Boston traffic still sucks, and always has. It almost killed me once, as a matter of fact. During a long slog home from a bar in the wee hours of my misspent youth, I was stumbling across the Alewife Brook Parkway when a sedan stuffed to the sun-roof with young folks whizzed by, just missing my ass by inches. Some others I know of have not been so lucky. A girl I went to grammar school with, just six months married, was killed by a hit-and-run driver when she opened her car door to haul out Christmas presents. I could go on, but I won't.

There's been a rash of hit-and-run incidents in the Greater Boston area in the last month or so. It could be one of those random clusters of events that spuriously suggest a trend - or it could really be a sign of something changing for the worse. Here are a few cases plucked out from Google News:

1) 55-year old Paul Baran of Taunton struck and killed 17-year old Nicholas Silva-Thomas while the latter was riding his skateboard in the middle of the street. Baran fled the scene, but later turned himself in. Although Baran was not apparently intoxicated during this incident, he had a rap sheet that went back longer than Silva-Thomas had been alive, including "more than 30 misdemeanor charges — ranging from speeding, driving under the influence and leaving the scene of an accident resulting in property damage — as well as a score of hearings, some involving Baran’s status as a habitual traffic offender." When he was hauled into court this August, the event marked the 16th time Baran's license had been revoked or suspended since 1989. Yet, until recently, he was still driving. Even if he is found guilty of "leaving the scene of an accident resulting in a death", Baran could serve as little as two years - or less. And that's not counting parole.

2) 47-year old Jon Ravida of East Boston struck and killed 22-year old Sothay Pen as the young woman was crossing Route 1A in Revere. She died of severe head trauma at the scene. The Boston Globe reported that Ravida "has an extensive driving record dating to 1987, according to the Registry of Motor Vehicles. His license has been suspended four times, and he was ruled at fault in two accidents." Mr. Ravida did not turn himself in, but was in fact identified by witnesses who noticed the damage to his SUV (of course, an asshole like this would have an SUV) and his suspicious behavior when he stopped at a gas station near the scene.

3) 34-year old illegal immigrant Nicolas Gauman struck 23-year old Matthew Denice while the latter was riding his motorcycle, and dragged the young man's body behind his pickup truck for a quarter of a mile. Denice had just been graduated from Framingham State College with a degree in Computer Science. Gauman was not only driving while intoxicated, he was also driving with an open container of liquor in his vehicle.

It could be that economic stress is ramping up both the distracted mindset and the substance abuse that is causing these incidents - as well as the fear of oblivion that encourages a man to flee from his own crimes - but that is no excuse. I say, let's get tough on irresponsible drivers - and then maybe later on we can get tough on bankers and hedge-fund managers and CEO's.

Lengthy driving rap sheet for alleged hit-and-run Taunton driver frustrates family, friends of dead teen (Enterprise News)
DA accuses hit-run suspect of a coverup (Boston Globe)
Illegal Immigrant Charged in Hit-and-Run Death of 23-Year-Old Massachusetts Man (Fox News)