Secrets Can Be Murder: What America's Most Sensational Crimes Tell Us about Ourselvesby Jane Velez-Mitchell
Respected television news journalist Jane Velez-Mitchell asks a probing, disturbing question: Are killers like Scott Peterson and Andrea Yates all that different from the rest of us?
What kind of monster would do this? When journalists break the story of a child who's been kidnapped, a young woman who's been brutally raped, or a family/b>/big>… See more details below
Respected television news journalist Jane Velez-Mitchell asks a probing, disturbing question: Are killers like Scott Peterson and Andrea Yates all that different from the rest of us?
What kind of monster would do this? When journalists break the story of a child who's been kidnapped, a young woman who's been brutally raped, or a family who's been slaughtered, that's the question most of us ask. Secrets Can Be Murder exposes the hidden motivations behind the most sinister acts of recent times, with a behind-closed-doors look at these sensational crimes that will astound you.
After weighing in on high-profile cases for CNN, Fox News, Court TV, and MSNBC, author Jane Velez-Mitchell helps us understand these infamous crimes by unmasking the deceptions that turned toxic, exploding in rage and violence.
People lie every day to protect secrets, big and small. From desperate Hollywood personalities covering up their eccentric lifestyles to Bible Belt mothers who take the lives of their own children, Secrets Can Be Murder probes twenty-one separate cases. Each illustrates how leading a double life can land you in prison, and how failing to spot liars can get you killed.
Secrets Can Be Murder offers the inside story on each horrific case, unlocking the jaw-dropping secrets of the accused and revealing the common, innocent mistakes of the victims. After all, many of us have gone out alone late at night like Imette St. Guillen, or partied while on vacation like George Smith and Natalee Holloway.
From Dan Horowitz, the high-profile lawyer whose wife was brutally murdered by a teenage neighbor while Horowitz was defending a housewifeaccused of murder, to Neil Entwistle, the British husband who ran out of funds for an extravagant American lifestyle, Velez-Mitchell shows how each of these crimes has its own secrets to spill.
Many of us possess the same trusting nature as victims and carry around the same secrets as criminals -- whether it's debt, infidelity, or fetishes. With fascinating new insights from investigators and psychologists plus the friends and family of both the victims and the perpetrators, Secrets Can Be Murder illustrates just how little separates our so-called normal lives from that of a sociopath -- and how you can stay out of harm's way.
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Read an Excerpt
The murders of Imette St. Guillen and Teresa Halbach are so obscene, so disgusting, it's terrifying even to think about them. These cases produced allegations of grotesque sexual torture. The details are pornographic in the extreme. The sadistic nature of the crimes makes it almost impossible to delve into them without feeling like you're victimizing these women again just by telling the story of how they died. Each sad saga has left a huge controversy in its wake, one about the rights of the falsely accused, the other about the rights of women. Each case reveals the secrets of the men accused, secrets that are remarkably similar to those of millions of law-abiding American men.
Imette St. Guillen was a slim, smiling beauty who was on the dean's list at Manhattan's John Jay College of Criminal Justice. About to turn twenty-five, she was popular and set to graduate with a master's degree in criminal justice. Imette was on a fast track to career achievement and she had plenty to celebrate when, one Friday night in February 2006, she decided to go out on the town with a friend. As the evening became early morning, she and her friend split up. The friend went home. Imette decided to stay out.
Imette was last seen at a trendy bar in lower Manhattan, where she was drinking alone at about 4 a.m. It was closing time and the bouncer, a muscular forty-one-year-old ex-con, escorted her out. He has been charged with her murder.
The accused, Darryl Littlejohn, said publicly that police simply got the wrong man. Prosecutors say they have a wide array of forensic evidence against him, including a DNA match with bloodfound at the crime scene.
Seventeen hours after Imette St. Guillen left that bar, her naked body was found in Brooklyn, where it had been dumped in a ditch on the side of an isolated service road. A white athletic sock was stuffed down her throat. Some of her long dark hair had been chopped off, her hands had been bound with heavy-duty plastic ties behind her back. Her feet were bound. Her body was battered and bruised and had cuts and scrapes. She was wrapped in a colorful king-sized comforter. Authorities said she had been sexually assaulted.
To me, the most unnerving detail was this: Imette's head was completely wrapped in opaque packing tape, in effect mummifying her.
The killer "tried to dehumanize her completely," says Dr. Stephanie Stolinsky, a Los Angeles forensic psychologist who specializes in sexual issues. "Whenever you hide someone's face, it means that you don't want to see them as a human being. You want to pretend that they're just an object." In fact, says the doctor, the psychoanalytic term for viewing a person this way is as part object. "You only see a part of them. And it's a grand extension of what some people have as a fetish."
We've all heard of foot fetishes and the like -- but shoving a sock into her mouth, wrapping her head in packing tape, and torturing her until she suffocates? That goes way beyond fetish to freakish. The medical examiner ruled the cause of death to be asphyxiation. Why would any human being get a sexual thrill out of dehumanizing another human being? To better understand, we have to delve deeply into the mind of the killer and uncover the secrets, the dark fantasies and sadistic desires, that lurk there. But how do we do that? How can we ever possibly know what goes on in someone else's head? The unpleasant truth is that the answer lies in our own heads, in our own dark secrets, in our own disturbing fantasies, the ones we think about but never reveal, not even to the person who shares our bed.
The unspoken reality is this: The person who killed Imette St. Guillen did not have unique fantasies. Human beings tend to obsess about a handful of sexual themes that often revolve around power and surrender, dominance and submission, sadism and humiliation. We are terrified of addressing these sexual issues as a society. We pretend that only criminals have "dirty" thoughts. But, secretly, many of us have indulged in fantasies involving cruelty, either dispensed or received. That's why we want to hear all the sick and sadistic details. They titillate us even as we cringe.
The first step to solving any problem is to acknowledge the truth and understand it -- to own it. The only way we can really understand and shape the forces at work in violent sex crimes is to recognize their seeds. We must face ugly truths about sex, rage, and violence, and how men and women are trained to relate to each other as hunter and prey. Only then can we revolutionize the cultural dynamics that mold both murderers and the lesser sadists who merely abuse women and children.
To suggest this is to invite the self-righteous among us to beat their chests and denounce us as apologists for criminals and purveyors of moral degeneracy. To them I say: Look around you. Look at sexual molestation scandals involving priests. Look at Dateline NBC's "To Catch a Predator," which shows that sexual predators come in all shapes, sizes, and professions, from teachers to religious leaders. Spend a day at a rape crisis center, or at an urban police station. Our society is dripping in sexually charged violence, and it's crippling us.
Something has to change! A good beginning would be for each of us to start being honest with ourselves about our own dark secrets. Ask yourself what secret thoughts you have about sex that you've never told anyone. What occurs to you about how you developed these fantasies? What are their roots?
In the aftermath of Imette St. Guillen's nightmarish end, an emotional debate arose over whether the victim should have been out at a bar by herself drinking at that time of night. Earlier on, Imette had gone with her close friend to another hot spot, a bar called Pioneer. At about 3:30 a.m., the friend decided she wanted to go home, but Imette chose to stay out. She is believed to have walked a few blocks through the darkened streets of lower Manhattan to another bar, the Falls. At about 3:50 a.m., the friend says she called Imette on her cell phone, and Imette told her she was going home soon. Imette was reportedly still at the bar at closing time, and was escorted out by Darryl Littlejohn, whom police allege later murdered her.
The New York Times reports that a co-owner of the Falls told investigators that after Littlejohn took Imette out a side door, he heard arguing and then a muffled scream. Two homeless people in a nearby park reportedly told cops they saw a man fitting Littlejohn's description putting an unsteady woman matching Imette's description in a van and speeding away.
"The first thing that pops into your mind when you hear a situation like that: What in the world was she thinking, to be out at that hour of the morning, after having been drinking all night in an area where she was very vulnerable and in situations where she had no protection whatsoever?" This observation comes from Dr. Janice Shaw Crouse of Concerned Women for America, a conservative evangelical organization that bills itself as the largest women's public policy organization.
As the revolting details of Imette's murder emerged, talk radio was blaring similar sentiments. "As tragic as it is, your first reaction is she should not have been out alone at 3 or 4 a.m. in the morning, because look at what can happen," scolded one indignant male talk radio host.
Oh, really? Easy for a man to say. He isn't bound by the same restrictions. If a man was out having a drink at four in the morning, would we be blaming him for putting himself in harm's way? Would we be asking ourselves, What was he thinking being at a bar alone? Of course not!
Imette's family, in Boston, was understandably disturbed by the criticism directed at her for being out alone that late. Her mother, Maureen St. Guillen, told a Dateline NBC correspondent, "To those people who spoke, were they ever twenty-five?...What did they do at twenty-five? I mean, you can't live your life in a bubble."
She raises a very valid point. How many of us have done something in our twenties that might pose a similar level of risk? Be honest. Are women in our society not entitled to be adventurous? Is questionable judgment an option reserved only for frat boys?
Even the dismay of Imette's family pales next to the anger expressed to me by one woman, who says she was sober and with friends when she was assaulted by a bouncer at a nightclub after complaining about bad service.
"I think bouncers are notorious for having a raging-bull temperament. That's part of what makes them able to carry out their job," says the woman, who didn't want to give her name because she was pursuing legal action against the club. She feels that the hour and the location are irrelevant to the crime committed against Imette St. Guillen. What is relevant is the hostility and rage this male bouncer apparently felt toward a woman who was a total stranger. Newsday, citing police sources, said witnesses in the bar claimed Imette directed a "racially tinged comment" at Littlejohn, who is African American. Imette's family found that hard to believe. In any case, it's hardly a justification for the murderous violence of which Littlejohn was accused.
The fact that some people suggest that Imette herself was to blame is a grotesque illustration of how male-centric this society is. It's as if to say: well, men are men and they can't control themselves, so it's our own fault if they grab us. It's a hunter/hunted relationship, pure and simple. That's crazy. Turn the tables and consider what would happen if, for even one week, women began killing with the same frequency that men are now killing. Just imagine the six o'clock news chock-full of female killers.
Really, try to visualize it! What if men were told they had to stay home after a certain hour because they were in danger of being raped and murdered by marauding women? What if men had to hope a gallant woman would walk them to their car, thereby protecting them from other, more violent women? What if men were lured into vans by women who reassured them, Don't worry, I'll take you home, only to rape and murder them? How long do you think guys would put up with that before marching on Washington?
Many women, however, seem to accept inequality as just the way it is. Some women even encourage the double standard, because it emphasizes traditional gender roles that are comforting to them.
Much of the criticism of Imette's judgment comes from women themselves, such as Dr. Crouse of Concerned Women for America: "Women do not have the upper-body strength, women are not able to protect themselves in the same way as men do.... Some of the feminist rhetoric gets so distorted that they want to, somehow, live in this idealistic world that shows no comparison to what is real."
Rita Smith, who runs the National Coalition Against Domestic Violence, feels that women who express the traditionalist view that women must adjust their lifestyles to protect themselves from male aggression have been "trained" to think that way: "Women shouldn't be too vocal about these issues because then men will see us as, somehow, shrews, or worse yet, lesbians."
So women who challenge gender stereotypes risk being perceived as man haters. But is there even a word for a man hater? Can you think of it? Misandrist, says the dictionary. Doesn't come up much, does it? On the other hand, misogynists, or women haters, are all over the place, hence our familiarity with the term.
At the risk of being perceived of as the rare man hater, I must ask the following questions. Do women really have to accept, as an unwritten rule, that we are prey to men? Is safety for all, regardless of gender, just some utopian fantasy? Is our societal secret that we really don't believe the male gender is capable of evolving beyond violence?
Instead of women having to curtail their behavior to accommodate the aggressive tendencies of men, why can't we as a society somehow modify the behavior of men?
Let's take a look at the suspect in the Imette St. Guillen murder case, Darryl Littlejohn. Only five feet seven inches tall, he may have compensated for his lack of height by being "built," as they say of men who are particularly muscular.
Raised in humble surroundings in Queens, New York, Littlejohn has a long rap sheet that includes about half a dozen felony convictions, including one for armed bank robbery in the mid-nineties that kept him behind bars until 2004.
Numerous reports indicate Littlejohn often dressed in military-style garb and posed as a member of law enforcement, wearing caps and T-shirts emblazoned with U.S. Marshal logos. Sometimes he would wear a bulletproof vest; other times handcuffs or a handgun would reportedly dangle from his hip. Darryl Littlejohn appeared to be trying to live up to some comic-strip macho ideal of what it means to be male. He clearly seemed to have an exaggerated, even cartoonish sense of what it means to be a man.
A bartender at the Falls wrote an article in New York magazine about the claims Littlejohn and another bouncer made of being "federal marshals who hunted fugitives by day and moonlighted together at night.... They even had shiny gold badges." The bartender wrote of being regaled by tales of house raids, busts, and prisoner transports -- all, apparently, complete fiction.
Why make up a story about being U.S. marshals? Is it because the oldest federal law-enforcement agency in America is the stuff of legend? U.S. marshals fought for law and order in the Old West by hunting desperadoes like Billy the Kid and the Dalton Gang.
"The Wild West mentality is still with us," Mary Anne Warren explained to me. She coined the term gendercide, and wrote a book by that name. Gendercide means "practices that cause more deaths to one sex than the other...usually motivated by people's ideas about the relative value of males and females and their appropriate uses and roles."
Warren says some psychoanalytical theories trace aggressive male behavior back to childhood: "The young boy has to de-identify with his mother in order to become male. He has to separate himself from his mother and from everything that's like her in order to be seen as male...in order to feel male. This is arguably one source of hostility toward women. You try so hard to suppress the feminine in yourself, you become hostile toward feminine individuals."
There's definitely something to that. Boys, trying to fit into muscle-bound male stereotypes, suppress the feminine within themelves and feel shame about the feminine traits that they've stuffed inside. The shameful feminine thing they hate to acknowledge inside themselves is what they end up attacking outside themselves.
The man they arrested for St. Guillen's murder was secretly a teen trapped in a man's body. He was apparently fascinated by comic books. Littlejohn used several aliases that he stole from cartoon characters. One of them was Jonathan Blaze, which just happens to come from the comic book Ghost Rider; Jonathan Blaze is the character's alter ego. Littlejohn also went by Darryl Banks, the name of a comic-book artist famous for his contribution to the Green Lantern series. Finally, the man accused of killing Imette also used the name John Handsome, which observers have connected to the detective in the Green Lantern, named Handsome John Riley.
"He's locked into being thirteen to eighteen years old emotionally," says psychologist Stephanie Stolinsky. "Something probably happened in his school days that locked him there. Those were the last days that he felt happy. Those were the last days that he felt powerful. After that, he felt very inadequate and lacked self-esteem. And the only way that he could get that esteem was to be somebody else and to be many other people." His criminal record is a clue to this secret inferiority complex. When Littlejohn was just a teenager, he was sent to prison for robbery, locking him up -- and locking him in.
What's astounding is that when Darryl was working at the bar, this forty-one-year-old man's emotionally stunted behavior didn't set off any alarm bells with his colleagues. That says less about his colleagues than about the vast number of emotionally stunted men leading false lives. Many men are secretly still boys on an emotional and psychological level.
So many people, male and female, are trapped in surfacey, immature lives that being a walking cartoon fails even to raise an eyebrow. After all, American men today have been infantilized in many respects. Popular culture encourages wives to treat their husbands like overgrown children. The airwaves are awash with commercials in which women scold their clumsy men and assign them errands. The women are portrayed not as sexual partners so much as mothers. Their husbands are their kids.
Such stereotyping is robbing American males of a healthy and appropriate sense of power in their intimate relationships. No wonder they retreat to the privacy of their computers, where they can act out all sorts of sexual fantasies, dominating abstract women through Internet porn in a way they can't do in real life. Family Safe Media claims 60 million Americans purposely visited Internet porn sites in one year alone. This organization says 70 percent of those surveyed indicated they keep their online porn use a secret. The group says there are more than 4 million porn sites on the Internet. And the number is growing fast.
I know of several men who admit that their wives are completely unaware of their secret lives on the Internet, where they go to explore areas of sexuality that are off-limits in their marriages. If your husband insists on not being disturbed when he surfs the Web, watch out. He may be checking out more than sports scores.
If we had healthier, more honest relationships with our natural sexual urges and could share them with our mates in an open, playful way, then this secretive, shame-based sexuality wouldn't be rising from the bowels of our psyches, sometimes spilling over into reality when a disturbed individual loses track of what's real and what's fantasy.
Put simply, if we could be real about sex and put all our fantasies out in the open with our lovers and spouses, then we wouldn't have such a need for a sordid fantasy world. As it stands now, the typical American is sexually bipolar, phony when it counts and real only in those secret times when nobody else is watching. That's when we unveil the nasty secrets we share with dangerous criminals. And if you doubt this, just go online and do a search for the words bondage, submission, S&M, or any other taboo topic. What comes up is America's secret life. The sexually graphic photos that pop up show women who look very much like Imette must have appeared as she was being violated and murdered.
Sex is often about power, and power exchange is a charged experience. But it doesn't have to be demeaning or sick. It only becomes dirty when we consider it to be. We could learn to accept sexuality for what it is and explore power exchanges through role playing and other means. Then all the need for secrecy around sex would evaporate. But that requires being honest with ourselves.
There is also an interesting psychological analysis of those who would point to Imette's behavior as her downfall. All humans have a very basic need to feel safe in what's clearly a dangerous world. A vicious crime like Imette's murder so shatters everyone's sense of security and safety that we become desperate to take the randomness out of it, because the randomness is precisely what makes it so scary. You can't defend yourself against something that's totally random. If people can point to the victim's behavior as the cause, then they feel as if -- by avoiding that same behavior -- they can remain safe. It keeps them, psychologically, in the safety bubble. But in real life there is no safety bubble! Just take one glance at the FBI crime statistics if you want to feel insecure about your personal safety. Pick a city -- any city. How about Albuquerque, New Mexico? In the first six months of 2005, that quaint southwestern city along the Rio Grande saw 14 murders, 152 forcible rapes, 530 robberies, and 1,542 aggravated assaults, for a total of 2,238 violent crimes. That does not include the 2,901 burglaries and 10,586 larceny/thefts and 1,706 motor vehicle thefts the people of Albuquerque endured. That's for only half a year! Expand that image all across America and you have an idea of what's going on from sea to shining sea.
Hardly anyone in America can guarantee his or her own personal safety. Most American homes can be broken into relatively easily. Even in affluent gated communities with private patrols, there are so many support staff coming and going, it's virtually impossible to make absolutely sure a home owner is always protected. And even if you are living in a fortress with a safe room, you could be sharing that home with a violent man, as many women are. The Department of Justice reports that in one typical year, 2002, almost a quarter of all murders were family murders. That is what's really frightening. A woman can curtail all her personal freedoms and still become a target of domestic abuse, home invasion, or any number of other common crimes. And we're not even considering psychological and emotional abuse, like intimidation and belittling. Clearly, the answer is not to keep women off the streets and in their homes.
"Women have to wake up," says an anonymous female assault victim. "We have been sleepwalking. It's no wonder we are easy targets. We have to demand in no uncertain terms that men stop acting like terrorists."
Critics of this line of reasoning may be outraged, wondering, How the hell can you indict all men based on the crimes of a few? Well, how the hell can you curtail the freedoms of all women based on the crimes of some men? If you take the "she shouldn't have been out" argument to its logical extreme, you'd have to keep women at home and out of the workforce. The gruesome slaying of Teresa Halbach is a case in point.
Blond, five foot six, and 135 pounds, Teresa Halbach had everything going for her. Pretty and ambitious, the twenty-five-year-old loved taking wedding and baby photos. She was snapping pictures of cars for sale as a temporary way to supplement her income and had been over to the Avery family's auto salvage yard a number of times, according to my conversation with her brother. Still, Teresa was virtually a stranger to Steven Avery when he called a car sales publication, reportedly using a false name, and asked that Teresa be sent over to take photos of a minivan for sale. It was October 31, 2005 -- Halloween -- when she arrived.
Tim Halbach, a subdued and thoughtful business attorney, still cannot fathom why this crime happened to his kid sister: "The hardest thing is that a stranger did this to a stranger, essentially, and so I don't know what can keep a stranger who's got some mental issues from doing crimes of these violent natures."
Avery admitted he saw Teresa that day in the driveway of his trailer home, which is on the salvage yard's grounds. He said he paid her forty dollars and she gave him an Auto Trader magazine. But Avery insisted he knew nothing of Teresa Halbach's death.
However, authorities say Avery's pasty-faced sixteen-year-old nephew, Brendan Dassey, provided a chilling narrative of what allegedly happened that day, in a videotaped confession that lasted several hours. It sparked intense outrage. Here's how the prosecutor recounted the boy's story in the criminal complaint filed in the case against him.
After getting off the school bus, Dassey biked to pick up the mail. He noticed there was a letter for his uncle Steve and went over to deliver it to him. Dassey allegedly told authorities that as he approached, he heard a female voice screaming, "Help me!" coming from Avery's trailer. A sweating Avery invited his nephew in and then asked him "if he wanted to get some 'pussy.'" According to Dassey's confession, Avery admitted, in extremely vulgar terms, that he had raped Halbach, and encouraged Dassey to do the same.
Then Avery allegedly escorted the boy into his bedroom, where a naked Teresa Halbach was face up and "restrained to the bed with handcuffs and leg irons." Halbach begged the boy not to rape her, but Avery encouraged him. The criminal complaint says, "Dassey stated that he then had sexual intercourse with Teresa Halbach while Steven Avery watched." Halbach was crying.
The hellish scene would become even more surreal and grotesque. Dassey said he and Avery went back into the living room and watched TV for ten to fifteen minutes as Halbach remained shackled to the bed in the next room. According to the same court document, "Avery told him he did a good job and that he was proud of him" and then announced his plan to kill Teresa Halbach and burn her body.
According to the complaint, the nephew said he and Avery returned to the bedroom; Avery held a six- to eight-inch knife from the kitchen in his hand. Avery told Teresa Halbach he was going to kill her and threatened her for a while before actually plunging the knife into her stomach. Avery then gave Dassey the knife "and told Dassey to 'cut her throat.' Dassey stated that he then went over to Teresa Halbach and cut her throat with the knife." Halbach was still alive when Avery further instructed his nephew to cut off some of Teresa's hair. Avery then "put his hands around Halbach's neck and strangled her for approximately two to three minutes." They then unshackled Teresa, believing she was dead, but Avery proceeded to shoot her about ten times anyway. Finally, they moved her body to a nearby burn pit and set her corpse on fire.
Avery is a father of four and had a girlfriend at the time. Months after his alleged confession, Dassey took it back in a short letter to the judge, claiming that on that fateful Halloween he was watching TV and playing video games at home until his uncle Steve invited him to a "bombfire."
Dassey's shifting stories sent the prosecution's case against his uncle Steve into a tailspin. Because the rape and kidnapping charges against Avery were based on his nephew's detailed confession, and because Dassey kept changing his version of events, the sexual assault and kidnapping charges against Avery were dismissed, just as his trial was about to start in the winter of 2007. Considering that Halbach's body was burned so far beyond recognition that mere fragments were left, proving sexual assault -- independent of the nephew's account -- seemed virtually impossible. Avery's defense attorney has been quoted as saying there was not one detectable trace of Halbach's DNA, hair, or blood anywhere in his trailer. Still, prosecutors contended they had a strong case and moved forward with the remaining charges against Avery, including first-degree intentional homicide, mutilating a corpse, and possession of a firearm by a convicted felon.
In the days following her disappearance, Teresa's Toyota Rav 4 was discovered hidden on the salvage yard's grounds. Authorities found her car keys in Avery's trailer, along with handcuffs, leg irons, weapons, and ammunition. Bone fragments and teeth were found in the fire pit. Authorities say DNA from the charred remains was found to be consistent with Teresa's DNA. Authorities also report that the blood found in Teresa's vehicle matches Avery's DNA profile.
In the wake of this nauseating litany of sadism, a public outcry arose over why Steven Avery was walking free when Teresa Halbach innocently walked into his orbit.
Two years before Teresa was murdered, Steven Avery had been freed from prison with considerable media fanfare. He had become a living symbol of judicial injustice. Avery had served almost eighteen years for a rape he didn't commit. Given the technological advances in DNA testing in the years since Avery's original 1985 conviction, lawyers at the Wisconsin Innocence Project examined Avery's claims of innocence and filed motions that resulted in new DNA tests on hairs that had been preserved as evidence from the crime scene. The DNA evidence showed the male pubic hair did not belong to Avery; rather, it implicated another man, Gregory Allen, who by that time was behind bars on a sixty-year sentence for a subsequent sexual assault.
As Avery walked out of prison, his nineteen-year-old daughter was there. A gaggle of TV news cameras recorded the historic event. "I'm out!" Avery cried. "Feels wonderful." He was even given high marks for expressing no anger toward the rape victim who singled him out as the perpetrator. "It ain't her fault," said Avery. "They put it mostly in her head." In the wake of his release, a legislative task force was formed to change the laws so that this kind of miscarriage of justice couldn't happen again.
But in the wake of Teresa Halbach's murder, there are those who believe the Wisconsin Innocence Project is guilty of myopia.
"I sit here and think that had the Wisconsin Innocence Project never taken up this case, he'd still be in jail and my sister would still be alive," says brother Tim Halbach as he sits in his law office, his quiet voice choking with emotion, as he recalled his younger sister's hopes and dreams and how his family's world was so violently shattered.
Keith Findley, an impassioned law professor who is the co-director of the Wisconsin Innocence Project, told me he felt deeply saddened over Teresa Halbach's murder, although he didn't want to prejudge Avery's guilt or innocence. "I regret very much what happened to Teresa Halbach. That doesn't change, however, the fact that Avery wasn't guilty of that prior crime. And, if your criminal justice system is going to have any integrity...it has to be focused on getting to the truth."
But truth can be an elusive concept. And we must also ask -- the truth about what?
It is true, say authorities, that Steven Avery had a history of violence that predated the 1985 sexual assault case. His rap sheet included two burglary convictions, reckless driving, misdemeanor theft, and cruelty to animals. Prosecutors say he tortured and killed a cat by pouring gas on the animal and throwing it onto a bonfire to die. Cruelty to animals is a very common predictor of subsequent cruelty to humans. Teresa Halbach's remains were found in the burn pit near Avery's garage.
But far more ominous than his rap sheet are the threatening letters that authorities say Avery sent to his wife from prison as his marriage crumbled. It ultimately ended in divorce in the late eighties while he was still incarcerated. "If you don't brang up my kids, I will get you when I'm out," reads one missive scrawled in large, childish lettering. "I hate you, you got your divorce.... Now you will pay for it," reads another page. "Daddy will git mom," he purportedly vows in an Easter card.
The local police department also filed a report on a cassette tape Avery's wife said she received in 1988. According to a police department transcript, in between profanities and accusations, Avery says, "You're going down; you're going down deep.... I hate you so much that I won't even tell you what I'll do to you; hell no." Avery also allegedly threatened to burn her car when he got out. Experts say a preoccupation with fire, like animal abuse, is a predicator of violent behavior.
Professor Findley of the Wisconsin Innocence Project said he was not aware of the threatening letters Avery allegedly sent to his wife until long after he was freed. He addressed the larger criticism of his efforts: "If you're asking me, do we try to judge these people and decide which of the innocent are deserving of being exonerated, the answer is no. We look to see if the system got it right in this case."
In hindsight, it appears that Avery's rage was building during his long imprisonment. The false incarceration, the unraveling of his marriage, an apparent tug-of-war over visitation with his children -- all were making him feel like the victim. And there's nothing more dangerous than an enraged man in the throes of what he feels is righteous indignation.
Interestingly, Brendan Dassey, Avery's nephew, is listed a number of times on "Inmate Request for Approval of Visitor" forms, indicating the boy may have visited his uncle behind bars as a child. Years later, that boy would be accused of becoming Avery's apprentice in crime.
Of all the haunting details to emerge about Avery's time behind bars, the biggest bombshells can be found in a March 2006 legal document. In it, the special prosecutor in Avery's murder case offered some jaw-dropping reasons why bail should be denied to the defendant: "Steven Avery has demonstrated an intent, plan, and motive to abduct, rape, torture, kill, and mutilate young women, as evidenced by conversations with inmates, and showing diagrams within the Wisconsin Corrections System, of a 'torture chamber' Avery intended to build upon his release from prison."
That's right. Prosecutors say that before the Wisconsin Innocence Project got Avery released, while he was still behind bars, he was planning the very sort of crime he was later accused of committing. The prosecution's motion continues, "Steven Avery has demonstrated an intent, plan, and motive to dispose of the victims' bodies through burning, as evidenced by conversations with inmates," which "also included a detailed demonstration on how to bind victims to be held against their will."
The Wisconsin Innocence Project says that if authorities thought Avery posed a danger, they should have pursued that as a separate legal matter. They insist it is very unusual for wrongly convicted men to commit violent crimes once they're freed, adding that the work they are doing is crucial, given that advances in DNA technology have turned up many wrongly convicted individuals in prisons across the country. Since its formation in 1992, a national organization based out of Yeshiva University, called simply the Innocence Project, says it has helped free 181 innocent people, including fourteen who had at one time been given the death sentence.
Still, Teresa's brother says he wishes the Wisconsin Innocence Project had looked beyond the DNA and focused instead on the big picture of Steven Avery's criminal history, his behavior in prison, and his mental state when deciding whether to champion his cause.
One more fascinating fact. Freed after serving almost two decades behind bars for a rape he did not commit, Avery sued authorities for $36 million. But after his arrest for Teresa Halbach's barbaric murder, Avery ended up settling his wrongful conviction suit for a tiny fraction of the amount he originally sought, $400,000, much of which may well be absorbed by legal fees. Avery claimed he was being framed for Halbach's murder by authorities because of his multimillion-dollar suit. But prosecutors believe that the rage and hatred Avery accumulated over two decades in prison was so all-consuming that he was willing to walk away from tens of millions of dollars and sacrifice his hard-won freedom just for the chance to act out his lust for violence and his sadistic fantasies on a woman he barely knew. Such a choice would be pure evil. Not to mention stupid!
Authorities reportedly claimed they found pornography in Steven Avery's home. But some reports indicate what Avery had was probably not that much different from the adult materials in thousands, maybe millions, of homes across the nation and the world. It is undoubtedly being viewed in your neighborhood right now, by a neighbor who walks his dog and smiles at you like he's the most trustworthy guy in the world.
Like so many relatives of murder victims, Tim Halbach says he's thought a lot about how to make sure his sister did not die in vain. Some lawmakers used his sister's murder to push Wisconsin to adopt the death penalty. Others want Wisconsin residents to be able to carry concealed guns. Tim seems to lean against both of those ideas. "What kind of society is it that someone has to carry around a gun to be safe?" Good question, Tim. What kind of society tries to solve violence with more violence? The answer is: a society that is addicted to it.
America is hooked on violence. America is particularly hooked on sexual violence. If you don't believe me, do a little test. Turn on the TV and start channel surfing. See how long it takes you to stumble onto an act of violence or an example of male aggression against females. You won't find nudity or nonviolent erotic sex on the regular channels. That would be a violation of "our standards of decency" ! But you will find a ton of fully clothed men in aggressive pursuit of women in various states of undress and helplessness.
In the Victorian era, when it was risqué for women to show their ankles, a man could become aroused just by the sight of a woman's ankle. That's what men were socially conditioned to find erotic. Today it would be a real challenge to find a man who could get turned on by the sight of a woman's ankle, unless he had a fetish for it. "It's called classical conditioning," says psychologist Stephanie Stolinsky. Like Pavlov's dogs, we can be trained to be aroused by whatever stimulus we're fed.
Today we have created a warlike attitude toward sex. The "pursuit" is no longer an abstract concept. Now it's a real hunt. Men are the hunters. Women are the prey. Now that is what turns us on! And of course, our culture is what's training us to find this exciting. To remain competitive and original, creators of TV shows and movies feel they must continuously raise the bar (or lower it) when it comes to depictions of sexually oriented violence. That's what we're being conditioned to find arousing. And the abuse and murder of women is a by-product. The National Coalition Against Domestic Violence maintains that one in five women has experienced an attempted or completed rape and one in four women will experience domestic violence during her lifetime. Still, many so-called opinion makers urge us to accept this grotesque reality as just the way it is, and scold women that they must shield themselves by limiting their own freedoms.
In the hideously violent film Sin City, we saw women being dismembered, with their heads put up on the wall as trophies. They were actually kept in a dungeon, where they were tortured. Many very intelligent critics gave this movie good reviews based on the absolutely breathtaking visual effects. And it was groundbreaking in its use of green-screen technology, which brought Frank Miller's graphic novel to life. In that sense it's a masterpiece, but at what price?
There's an interesting parallel here. One criminologist described St. Guillen's murder as "unrestrained, cavalier cruelty and sadism." That description could have just as easily been applied to this movie and many others that are just as violent. One review called Sin City "brutal, crude, and relentlessly juvenile, a work designed to appeal to the anti-social thirteen-year-old inside all of us."
A well-educated and sophisticated movie reviewer might see the stylized violence in Sin City as harmless because it's so unreal. But that movie reviewer is not the one we're worried about! We're worried about emotionally stunted, violence-prone men who already live in a cartoonish, fantasy-based world. Anyone come to mind? How about the suspects in these murder cases? A man like Darryl Littlejohn, who names himself after comic strip characters and wears a shiny fake badge, may not grasp the nuances and subtle distinctions between highly stylized cartoonish violence and real blood. And what about all the latchkey kids killing hundreds every day on their Xboxes?
There's a slogan going around: "Fear No Art!" I agree. I feel art needs to be protected. I know art is meant to disturb and provoke, not reassure. But if it disturbs us, we also have a right to discuss the ways in which it disturbs us.
Ella Taylor is sometimes disturbed by the violence she sees onscreen. The movie critic for L.A. Weekly told me she's also a former sociologist and a mom. But, says Ella, all movie violence is not equal. "You would not be able to show a holocaust movie without showing violence and be true to the material. The problem comes when it's empty violence." Taylor says she believes only a very small percentage of violent crimes are motivated by specific movies. She worries more about the impact of a steady diet of violence that's all around us, in films and television. That includes local and national news, cable shows, prime-time dramas, the works. "It gives people a tremendously skewed vision of society," she believes.
Everybody's showing violence ostensibly in order to denounce it, but further numbing us to it in the process. Enough! We get the point. How about doing a masterpiece of green-screen technology without the highly stylized violence?
But would that sell? See, it's a vicious cycle. Filmmakers, while spouting off about the artistic message behind stylized violence, are really trying to make a hit movie. In today's world, that often means a movie dripping with the kind of sexually charged violence that will appeal to teenage boys. They're demanding "sexy" violence because they've been conditioned to it, and they're conditioned to it because it's what we're feeding them.
"There is no question that watching violence brings out violence.... Watching violent rapes on television minimizes what rape means," says Dr. Stolinsky, adding, "They are habituated to the horror of it. The more you watch it, the less it matters to you at all." And we are watching a lot of it.
Women have the power to stop the cycle. According to Business Week, "Women earn less money than their counterparts -- 78 cents for every dollar a man gets. But they make more than 80 percent of buying decisions in all homes." Message to women: Start flexing your consumer power! Stop buying the violence against you. Say it: No, I'm not going to that movie, it's too violent. Let's choose something else. Let the movie executives figure it out. Money is the only message that gets through to them. Meanwhile, it costs Americans billions of dollars a year to cope with the aftereffects of violence against women, from lost work days to health care, from police and ambulance services to the costs of the criminal justice system. Imagine what we could do with all that money if we didn't have to spend it cleaning up the carnage.
Cases like those of Imette St. Guillen and Teresa Halbach make me think of a scene from the classic movie Network, in which people opened their windows and bellowed, "I'm as mad as hell and I'm not going to take it anymore!"
Copyright © 2007 by Eastwind Enterprises, Inc.
Meet the Author
Jane Velez-Mitchell frequently guest hosts for Nancy Grace on CNN Headline News and has reported for the nationally syndicated Warner Brothers/Telepictures show Celebrity Justice. A former reporter/anchor for WCBS-TV in New York City and KCAL-TV in Los Angeles, Velez-Mitchell has won numerous awards, including two Emmys for her work in New York City and Los Angeles. She lives in Los Angeles. Visit her website at www.secretscanbemurder.com.
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