Annals of New Jersey Crime, Part 2

Yesterday’s post described the murder of Atlantic County, N.J., man John Kingsbury and the flawed investigation into his death, in which martial arts gym owner Michael Castro was the chief suspect.

Castro’s Day—Make that Decade—in Court

On April 5, 2013, 15 months after John Kingsbury’s murder at his Atlantic County home, the county prosecutor authorized charges of murder and felony murder against Michael Castro. While Castro languished in jail for 15 months, his lawyer diligently picked apart the prosecution’s case. He made plenty of holes in it, and a judge dismissed the murder indictment in June 2014.

In January 2016, the investigators obtained a second murder indictment. By that time, new evidence suggested that two people connected to Castro’s martial arts gym might have committed the crime or participated in it, further muddying the waters. Castro wasn’t jailed this time, but required to wear an ankle monitor for the next 15 months.

A man known to both Castro and his friend Lauren Kohl (whose missing gun apparently was the murder weapon) was driving Kohl’s Jeep Wrangler back and forth near the Kingsbury home shortly before the murder occurred there, and his alibi for the actual presumed time of the murder didn’t hold up. Investigators waited another 19 months to confront him about these actions.

A teenager whom Reporter Rebecca Everett describes as “Castro’s martial arts protégé” matched a witness description of a person seen near the house. He had no alibi for the afternoon of the death. Again the investigators dawdled, and when they asked for the youth’s cellphone data two years later, the company no longer retained it. By May 2017, prosecutors believed they could not win the case against Michael Castro and dropped the charges.

Impact on Michael Castro

Years of uncertainty had taken a toll on Michael Castro. He’d filed a civil rights lawsuit in 2015, put on hold when the second indictment came down. After the dropped charges, his lawyer dug in, finding in his investigation of the investigation “a pattern of deliberate misconduct.”

Such suits rarely succeed, but in 2021, a U.S. District Judge decided the problems were big enough that a jury should decide. New shortcomings in the investigation emerged—failure to document meetings, text exchanges, and steps in the investigation, including interviews and the results of a photo lineup. Those flaws were on top of the mishandling of evidence, inadequate case preparation, and damaging delays.

In a rare outcome in such suits, Castro received a $5 million settlement.

And in the Court of Public Opinion

Castro made a 37-minute YouTube video posted August 2021. In it, he talks about his initial surprise at being considered a suspect, his arrest more than a year later, and his months in jail and with the monitor. He talks about his abusive mother, his absent stepfather, the ten different schools he attended, his military service and resultant PTSD, and his persistent financial problems. Twice accused of murder, yet never convicted, he can’t escape public suspicion.

Says the dead man’s son, Glenn, “The whole thing’s awful. And it’s gonna go on till the day I die. And in theory, it may go on till the day my children die.”

Did Michael Castro get away with murder, or is he another victim?

Parts 1 and 2 of this story are based primarily on reporting by Rebecca Everett for the Trenton, N.J., Times.

Annals of New Jersey Crime

The Trenton, N.J., Times, recently devoted several pages to a true-crime mystery from the Garden State. Reporter Rebecca Everett detailed the investigation and failed prosecutions of the murder of 77-year-old John Kingsbury. Kingsbury died on Super Bowl Sunday 2012 at his home in Mullica, a rural township in New Jersey’s Pinelands area. His son Glenn, who returned home and discovered the body, as well as first responders, thought a fall or stroke accounted for the blood on and around the elderly man’s head. None of them saw the bullet holes from a gun described as “small enough to fit in the palm of your hand.”

Glenn and his girlfriend, Karen Drew, cleaning up, found two spent .380 shell casings and called emergency services immediately. Too late. John died before reaching the hospital, and they had just cleaned up a murder scene. Now, eleven years later, no one has been convicted of John Kingsbury’s murder. Reporter Everett says the cold case is “filled with enough shocking twists, shadowy characters and law enforcement bungling to fill a ‘Knives Out’ sequel.”

Who are John and Glenn Kingsbury?

John Kingsbury was a retired RCA electronics specialist, a member of Mensa, and Korean War veteran who trained K-9s. In shaky health, he’d moved to New Jersey a few months before his death to live with his son. Glenn and Karen own lucrative cheerleading event companies Cheer Tech and Spirit Brands. When they return home after a typical event, they’re holding tens of thousands of dollars in cash. “Anyone who worked with them would know that,” Everett wrote, “Including Michael Castro.”

Robbery seemed the likely motive.

The Crime

John Kingsbury was at home alone when the killer or killers arrived at the family home. There was no weekend’s worth of event receipts, Karen Drew had already taken them to the bank.

Police found no indication of a break-in, and nothing appeared to be missing, but, unexpectedly, the video surveillance system had been disabled. Karen’s suspicion immediately fell on Castro, who she said had been pestering her that afternoon with cell phone calls about her and family members’ whereabouts. What’s more, Castro owed Glenn several thousand dollars, some of which he’d used to set up a mixed martial arts studio.

After the lead detective, Michael Mattioli, interviewed Castro four days after the killing, Castro immediately called a Camden County Sheriff’s Officer he knew, Lauren Kohl. It wasn’t until after she was contacted by Mattioli that Kohl reported two handguns missing from her home.

An Investigation Botched from the Start

The Atlantic County prosecutors worked on the case against Michael Castro for more than a year, in an investigation “torpedoed by errors and oversights,” Everett was told. Among them:

  • Investigators lost track of John’s cellphone, so it couldn’t be analyzed for years
  • They had a warrant to search Castro’s vehicle, but didn’t do it
  • They didn’t ask the medical examiner to estimate the time of the shooting
  • They didn’t collect surveillance footage from area stores that might have confirmed whether Castro (or other possible suspects) were in the area
  • They didn’t subpoena the cellphones of other possible suspects to confirm their locations
  • And, when it appeared one of Lauren Kohl’s missing handguns might be the murder weapon (and eventually was proved to be, on what basis is unclear, as the gun is apparently still missing), it was months before investigators actually followed up with her.

During this period, the prosecutor’s office had internal organizational problems, handing off the Kingsbury murder to three separate lead investigators in just over a year. Months passed between any investigatory actions they logged, with much not logged at all. The cellphone evidence fell apart. Stories changed. New suspects emerged, fogging the investigatory lenses.

Tomorrow: Michael Castro’s Day—Make that Decade—in Court

Where Crime Goes, Fiction May Follow

Photo: Vasanth Rajkumar

A recent lecture on the country’s dramatic drop in crime rates and “the next war on violence” dovetailed nicely with a Mystery Writers of America discussion on where crime-writing is headed.

Patrick Sharkey, author of Uneasy Peace, is a Princeton Professor of Sociology and Public Affairs. As you undoubtedly know, from the early 1990s to the mid-2010s or so, all across the country, in urban and rural areas, in large communities and small ones, crime rates—especially violent crime rates—dropped dramatically, with the greatest drops in the most disadvantaged communities.

Much as this decline was a cause for celebration, Sharkey says, this progress was always precarious because the go-to policies used to respond to crime—more prisons and police, more aggressive policing, and increased surveillance—weaken communities and build resentment and unrest in the population as a whole, especially in the populations most affected. These feelings boiled over most dramatically after the 2020 murder of George Floyd. Unfortunately, punitive strategies, Sharkey believes, are an ineffective response to the core problems.

Now, as we’ve read, the murder rate is increasing again (see the stats) from its low-points of a few years ago. What can be done to avoid the Bad Old Days? A different body of research that Sharkey has examined in detail shows that community-based organizations that focus on building stronger neighborhoods make a big difference in local rates of murder and crime of all types. He believes ample evidence exists to support a new model of crime prevention emphasizing community investment rather than individual punishment.

But will that happen? The covid epidemic has intensified the difficulty. It caused people to withdraw from public spaces and to return to them uneasily. It contributed to a notable rise in incivility. Also during the pandemic, gun sales exceeded any preceding levels (stats here). Confrontations and angry flare-ups happen; firearms make them more lethal. Covid and the associated isolation is also linked to unaddressed mental health problems in children, teens, and adults, some of which play out violently.

When author-members of MWA-New York met online last week to talk about where we think crime fiction is headed over the next decade, Sharkey’s assessment of the shifts in society were a useful backdrop for me. The discussion, led by Gary E. Ross, raised a number of issues that seem on the cusp of breakout. Clearly, crime fiction authors may want to take into account the increase in number of guns and unaddressed mental health problems.

In the background are other worsening problems that fiction might explore, like electronic crimes, unwanted surveillance, implementation of artificial intelligence models, the downside of Big Data (just don’t make me try to understand Bitcoin).

On the science side, our authors foresaw the increased capacity to bioengineer viruses and produce chemical weapons as likely to appear in fiction. The military’s cautious acceptance of what we used to call Unidentified Flying Objects and now call Unidentified Aerial Phenomena opens a lot of intriguing story directions. But, here on earth, the persistent and growing political divisions, domestically and internationally, create social instability where crimes can occur. All these will affect what authors may want to write about and (we hope) readers may want to read.

Further Reading:

Uneasy Peace: The Great Crime Decline, The Renewal of City Life, and the Next War on Violence (2019) Order it here.

Social Fabric: A New Model for Public Safety and Vital Neighborhoods, March 2021. Get a copy here.

Judgment at Tokyo

Did you know?

Last week was the first lecture in a local series on “Crime and Punishment,” which includes both real-life crime (true crime, write large), and an examination of fictional crime, as in the works of Raymond Chandler and Victor Hugo. There’s a bit on crime science, with a procedural lecture (the work of crime labs) and the intersection of juvenile justice practices and advances in brain science. In other words, a very big and loosely woven net of topics.

The first lecture, given by Gary Bass, a Professor of Politics and International Affairs at Princeton was on the Tokyo War Crimes Tribunal after World War II and is based on a book he’s been researching for years, expected in 2023 (watch for it!). I don’t know about you, but I was a tabula rasa for this one. If you’d asked me if there was such a tribunal, I would have said, “Uh, probably.” Alas, I don’t know enough to go into the details.

It’s interesting (and sad, really), how popular culture has shaped much of our views of this aspect of post-WWII actions. We can probably thank Hollywood and Spencer Tracy for that—at least for periodic reminders of those dramatic events–and it’s a shame there hasn’t been an equivalently memorable treatment of the actions and personalities at the Tokyo Tribunal, which went on for twice as long (two and a half years). Though Americans may be marginally aware of it, most certainly the Asian nations that had suffered at the hands of the Japanese occupiers were acutely aware.

For example, China was consumed with memories of the bombings and privations as well as the Nanjing massacre of 1937, during which more than 200,000 civilians were slaughtered. Post-war Australia and New Zealand were fixated on the grim fates of their captured soldiers whom the Japanese worked to death. Again, popular culture fills in a few blanks, if you remember the movie The Bridge Over the River Kwai or Richard Flanagan’s The Narrow Road to the Deep North, the 2014 Booker Prize winner.

One of the most interesting personalities involved was Indian jurist Radhabinod Pal, who became the only one of the judges who insisted all the defendants were not guilty, based in part on his questioning of the tribunal’s legitimacy. The interests of Empire and the U.S. use of the atomic bomb meant, to Pal at least, that no one’s hands were clean.He’s still held in high esteem in Japan today.

Europe-based World War II stories are a staple of crime and espionage thrillers. Thinking about some of the complexities the Tokyo Tribunal exposed, I thought I saw a deep well of new and compelling inspiration.

The Brooklyn Book Festival: A Washout

Following the book promotion dictum to “say ‘yes!’ to everything,” I volunteered to help out for an hour at the Brooklyn Book Festival yesterday. What fun (it should have been)!  Alas, the windy weather put people and tents and books at risk, so as much as possible was moved indoors, and the Mystery Writers of America and other booths in the Marketplace were cancelled. I’m looking forward to next year now.

Sunday was day seven of the eight-day festival—a free event, being held on the street and in the parks and plazas surrounding the Brooklyn Korean Veterans Park (at the entrance to the pedestrian access to the Brooklyn Bridge), all the way down to Brooklyn’s Borough Hall. It advertises “more than 100 literary events over 9 days.” And that’s not even counting my planning to be there to sign copies of Architect of Courage, a major missed opportunity (yes, I’m kidding).

With the goal of celebrating published literature and connecting readers with authors and booksellers, the festival began in 2006 as a one-day event involving some 300 authors. Except for today, it also hosts a Marketplace with 250 book publishers and literary organizations, including Mystery Writers of America. My would-have-been co-hosts at the MWA booth were Tim O’Mara (Crooked Numbers, Sacrifice Fly) and Phillip Cioffari (novels, story collections, a movie, and plays). Sorry to have missed becoming acquainted with them.

Sunday was Festival Day, a highlight of the event. Included were US and international authors, including such well-known names as Jonathan Lethem (Motherless Brooklyn, The Feral Detective), Gary Shteyngart (Our Country Friends, Lake Success), Jennifer Egan, (The Candy House, A Visit from the Goon Squad), Geraldine Brooks (March, Horse), and many, many others.  

Getting into Brooklyn from where I live in Central New Jersey takes some time—an hour plus on New Jersey Transit, then connecting to the subway to Borough Hall in Brooklyn. Just enough enforced sitting to work up a good appetite. For excursions like this, my friend Joanne is often my companion and chaperone, and we’d worked out a good schedule and picked an enticing place for lunch. Next year!

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“Just One More”

Michael Venutolo-Mantovani has written a riveting piece for the October 2022 issue of Wired, “Just One More.” Late on the night of August 15, 2021, Worth Parker’s North Carolina cell phone received a Facebook message about the chaos in Afghanistan. It read: “Sir. I hope you are well. By any chance do you know any Marines who are on the ground right now?” Having retired from the US Marines as a Lt. Colonel six weeks before, Parker thought he’d cut those ties.

The message described the plight of the sender’s brother and father who had both worked for the US military in Afghanistan. With the American pullout scheduled for the end of the month, their lives were in increasing peril. The sender, Jason Essazay, had also worked for the US, but had obtained a Special Immigrant Visa for his service and was living in Houston. “Parker was Essazay’s last resort,” Venutolo-Mantovani writes. At the time the pullout was announced, 81,000 Afghans had pending applications for a SIV. US intelligence reports predicted it would take several months for the Taliban to take Kabul, but as we now know, the fall of Kabul occurred only days later.

When Parker read that the 24th Marine Expeditionary Unit was helping with the evacuation, he called an old friend in the unit who said he’d try to help. Working in the eye of a fast-moving hurricane of fragmentary information, changing requirements, and coordination difficulties involving violent extremists and desperate families, Parker’s initiative succeeded.

Three days before Essazay’s contact with Parker, Joe Saboe, who’d left the Army 20 years earlier received a call from his younger brother, wanting help to get a friend and his family out of Afghanistan. Saboe didn’t know how he could help, but “tried the closest thing to a Noncombatant Evacuation Operations tool he had: Facebook. His post asking for help generated a message from a friend of twenty years before also trying to rescue someone. The two men strategized. Soon he heard from more veterans, each worried about a single contact. By August 17, Saboe had a group of volunteers working on the cases of 128 potential evacuees. A story in the Military Times generated more than a thousand contacts from Afghans looking for help and Americans wanting to provide it.

Parker, the former Lt. Colonel, enlisted his high-powered connections in the military establishment to form a group calling itself “the Graybeards.” Learning about Saboe’s operation, Parker hoped to convince Saboe’s volunteers to support the Graybeards’ efforts. “But almost immediately, Parker realized (the younger generation) was comically more tech savvy” than the retired military and civilian leaders. “It was time to reject the chain of command that had been drilled into him from the minute he joined the Marines.” He put the Graybeards’ Project Dunkirk in direct support of Saboe, giving him “some of the best-connected people in the US military and intelligence worlds.”

Heroic efforts were made in a fluid and increasingly dangerous Kabul. They achieved the rescue of more than 1,500 Afghans and, even today, more people continue to be evacuated in ones and twos. Each is a victory, but, collectively, they represent only five percent of Saboe’s database. Volunteers continue to chip away at that list, trying to save, as Project Dunkirk’s motto has it, “Just one more.” This whole inspiring and infuriating article is well worth a read.

Memories of a Queen

Maybe it’s having been named Victoria, but the history and doings of the British royal family have always fascinated me—not the scandals so much as, in the present day, the Queen herself. Like her predecessor, Elizabeth I, she took on a tremendous responsibility at the age of 25 and bore it with grace during good times and bad (Victoria was 18).

I have never seen any of the royals up close—except once. In May 1985, we were visiting the town of Reims, with its famous cathedral, in the heart of France’s champagne region—reason enough to stop over there. Reims is also the town where Colonel General Alfred Jodl signed Germany’s unconditional surrender at the end of World War II. Coincidentally, we were there the day before the fortieth anniversary of the signing, a bit proud that General Eisenhower declined to attend the signing. Not only did he outrank Jodl, but he’d seen the camps. He knew what had been done.

As we wandered the cathedral aisles, practically the only visitors, one aisle to our right I saw a smiling elderly woman wearing a pale blue suit and matching hat. A few well-dressed men orbited in her vicinity. “Look! It’s the Queen Mum!” I whispered. My husband, knowing how poor I am at recognizing people, took a closer look. “Oh, my god, it IS!” I discreetly took a couple of pictures, now rather faded, and the headline from the newspaper the next day confirms the presence of the “reine-mère.”

In 2012, we again stumbled into royal doings, when we visited London to take in the special exhibits for the 200th birthday of favorite author Charles Dickens. They were quite fun. The photo is of the writing retreat he used, probably to escape the clamor of his many children. Coincidentally, again, we arrived right at the time of the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee—her 60th year on the throne. We saw a great deal of Jubilee-related pageantry, a Royal Air Force flyover, and thousands of cheering Britons. I saw a dress I liked too.

Dickens
Dickens’s writing retreat in Rochester, England (photo: vweisfeld)

National Booklovers’ Day

bookshare, Flannery O'Connor, peacock
Bookshare box outside Flannery O’Connor’s girlhood home
with an adored peacock (photo: Vicki Weisfeld)

Touted as “a day for all those who love to read,” today is National Book Lovers Day! So many ways to celebrate: reading to a child, buying a rare book, reorganizing your bookshelves (might need more than one day for that), making a donation of books to your library, or reading something you wouldn’t ordinarily read (ok, I’m ordering Stephen Graham Jones’s My Heart is a Chainsaw right now!). Maybe I should finally paint the Little Free Library my daughter gave me three Christmases ago. Goodness knows, I could fill it! I took the above picture of the one outside Flannery O’Connor’s home in Savannah. Note the peacock on the side—she raised them.

Celebrate with a new five-star mystery thriller! I have just the book in mind: Architect of Courage by, well, me. Enjoy! Click here to order.

The Ride-Along

Frank Zafiro and Colin Conway, two former officers of the Spokane, Washington, Police Department, have collaborated on the important novel, The Ride-Along. One day, at the beginning of his ten-hour overnight shift, experienced officer Lee Salter is asked to have a civilian ride in the patrol car with him. This is not an unusual request in many police departments where ride-alongs are considered part of community relations. In this case, the person who’ll accompany him is a member of a vocal citizens’ Policy Reform Initiative named Melody Weaver. Salter expects a difficult few hours, and so does she.

The authors deserve considerable credit for trying to set aside their biases and present both sides of the police-citizen disconnect. Both parties make their arguments, though the authors’ thumbs seem on the police side of the scale. Weaver is querulous and argumentative, not appearing to want explanations, but rather to criticize. At least at first. Exposure to situations police officers face routinely does get through to her to some extent.

Salter acknowledges missteps by the authorities, particularly in the case of George Floyd’s death. But for the most part, he dismisses the research she cites and she doesn’t come up with specifics, making almost an “everybody knows . . . .” kind of argument. Under pressure, they both tend to retreat to established positions, which not only keeps the dialog from moving forward, but also effectively illustrates how far apart their positions are. Salter’s fallback is “you weren’t there.” That’s an inarguable position.

While the story wasn’t satisfactory in a conventional sense, in that there was no great epiphany by either of them during the ride, it is brilliant in showing how much more dialog is needed to bridge the gap. The book, with its biases (the authors make the point that we all have them), like the ride-along itself, is only a first step. But someone has to take it, and Zafiro and Conway have made a worthy effort. I hope it achieves a wide readership among thoughtful people.

Earlier this week, I wrote about Unexpected Synchronicities. Here’s another one. Recently, I watched the highly regarded 2019 documentary The Human Factor, by Israeli film director Dror Moreh. It chronicles the negotiations undertaken in the Clinton Administration to bring peace to the Middle East. Through photos and video coverage you see the main players—President Clinton; Israeli presidents Yitzhak Rabin and Ehud Barak; Palestine Liberation Army chairman Yasser Arafat; and younger versions of six chief US negotiators: Dennis Ross, Martin Indyk, Gamal Helal, Aaron David Miller, Daniel Kurtzer, and Robert Malley, who gave interviewers unprecedented access for this film.

Like in The Ride-Along, you see two intractable sides, locked in a mutually damaging struggle, in which no resolution seems forthcoming. The two sides’ frames of reference barely overlap. At one point, one of the American negotiators comments that the whole idea of peace meant something different to the Israelis than to Arafat. Then, strategic slips in the last round of negotiations set the stage for 25 additional years of conflict. What had been moving in the right direction slid back into chaos. We need to learn from that on the home front.

Film reviewer Matt Fagerhorn says The Human Factor shows “how much we have to lose when we give into the easy temptation of demonizing those who think differently.” It’s a judgment that applies equally to the conflicts in The Ride-Along.

Further reading and viewing:

Shots Fired: The Misunderstandings, Misconceptions, and Myths about Police Shootings by Joseph K. Loughlin and Kate Clark Flora.

Dror Mohreh’s riveting documentary, The Gatekeepers, consisting of interviews with past heads of Israel’s internal Security service, Shin Bet, about the consequences of failure to find peace.

Broadway Babies

Two plays in two days hardly competes (except in price) with our five plays in four days sojourns at Niagara-on-the-Lake’s Shaw Festival. Still, last weekend we were on the go!

The room in our hotel near Penn Station was technically larger than the bed, as long as you crabbed along sideways. We didn’t plan to spend much time there, so hardly cared, until the middle of the night when . . .

Our first stop was the Museum of Arts and Design at 1 Columbus Circle. In its exhibits on now–“Garmenting” and art jewelry–some of the jewelry could technically be worn. The garments, probably not (see the teepee dress). Afterwards we had some time to kill so sat a while in Central Park. After several big inhales there, it’s possible we were stoned.

Off to our first play: Tracy Letts’s The Minutes! If you’ve ever sat through a public officials’ meeting that’s struggling to stay on track, you’ll totally get the humor in the play’s first hour. A new member of the Big Cherry City Council is trying to find out what happened at a meeting he missed and why a fellow-councilman has mysteriously been removed. No one wants to tell him. Once they do, the last 15 minutes could be from another play altogether. On the whole, it was entertaining, well acted, and we were glad we saw it. (Tracy Letts is in it.)

Lovely dinner at Trattoria Trecolori on 47th Street, very crowded with the pre-theater seating, but quieted as curtain time approached. Husband Neil has a broken toe, so we couldn’t walk to the restaurant and decided to grab a pedicab. We’d never ridden in one. I think he’s at the bank now trying to negotiate a second mortgage. We chalked it up to a nice “experience,” which, on such a lovely warm evening, it was.

Sunday morning, we saw the special Winslow Homer exhibit at the Metropolitan Museum. Really, really wonderful. Lots to like, including Maine seascapes you could drown in. As you probably know, he’s considered a greater artist with watercolor than with oils. On one occasion, he produced a watercolor, and when the buyer was told the price, he said, “But it only took you an hour to paint it!” “An hour to paint, a lifetime to learn how.” (Now you know my full repertoire of artists’ quips.)

Next up, the matinee of The Music Man with Hugh Jackman and Sutton Foster. When the railway coach full of traveling salesmen appeared for the opening number, such an excited din arose, I thought I’d teleported to a high school football game somewhere in Texas. Then, when Hugh Jackman stood up at the rear of the train car, it was, wow, must be the championship game! Excellent singing, lively rendition of the score, choreography fresh and inventive, I liked the sets. The whole show is an exceedingly pleasant package.

During intermission, the drama continued in the long line for the men’s room. A belligerent man behind Neil complained loudly and incessantly, as if he were the only person who had to wait his turn. The usher tried to settle him down, but the man totally lost it. When Neil got back to our seats, he started to tell me about it, but I’d already heard the whole story from the two guys sitting behind us. Never a dull moment!

We topped all this off with a sushi dinner, made a 7:14 train. Arrived home, greeted by cats.