****The Romanov Sisters

Tsar, Russia, Romanov

Standing: Maria, Tsaritsa Alexandra; seated, Olga, Tsar Nicholas II, Anastasia, Alexey, Tatiana

By Helen Rappaport – Prepare to have your heart broken. Like everyone, I knew that the Russian Revolution of 1917 brought a violent end to the rule of the Romanov family and the tsars. I also knew the gruesome trivia that Tsaritsa Alexandra had family jewelry taken apart and the gems sewn into her daughters’ clothing. In July 1918, when the family was led to the tiny half-cellar room where they were shot, at first many of the bullets struck the gems and bounced away, giving the fleeting impression the girls were impervious to them.

Rappaport wrote about that last horrific scene in a previous book, Ekaterinburg: The Last Days of the Romanovs, and she may have wanted to spare us—and herself—from reliving it. In this book, she follows the family right up to its final hours, and I found myself reading more and more slowly, trying to delay the inevitable.

Olga, Tatiana, Maria, and Anastasia were 22, 21, 19, and 17 at the time of their deaths. The book follows the courtship and marriage of their parents, the births and childhoods, and their maturing to young women through remaining letters diaries, and reminiscences of friends and relatives at the time. The reader comes to know these intelligent, warm-hearted, and lively young women well, and their unnecessary death is devastating.

It’s perhaps inevitable to speculate about a happier outcome. What if Nicholas hadn’t unexpectedly become Tsar at the age of 26? What if he’d been a stronger, more experienced military and political leader, a more flexible one, receptive to the idea of constitutional monarchy? What if their mother had been less withdrawn, chronically ill, and mentally fragile and had fostered—rather than assumed—the love of the Russian people? What if heir Alexey hadn’t inherited the hemophilia gene? Would she not have fallen under the sway of the much-reviled Grigory Rasputin?

Even without any of these circumstances, what if Nicholas and Alexandra had taken one of their many opportunities to leave Russia or at least send their daughters abroad? Eventually, even England’s King George V—determined to keep Soviet Russia as an ally in the war against Germany—withdrew his offer to provide his cousins safe haven.

They girls lives were closely sheltered, and they saw little of life as it existed outside their palaces or aboard the imperial yacht used for summer vacations. Alexandra often dressed them all in long white dresses, and that’s the picture most people had of them: remote, inviolate.

Russia, Romanov

Olga & Tatiana with a wounded soldier

An exception arose during the War, when Alexandra, Olga, and Tatiana trained to be nurses. Alexandra couldn’t reliably fulfill these duties because of her health, but the older two—especially Tatiana—were tireless. They wrapped bandages, dressed wounds, assisted in surgery, cleaned instruments, and did everything they could to aid the wounded soldiers in their care, including raising funds for their hospitals. The two younger girls read to the wounded and wrote letters for them.

These soldiers, like everyone else who met them, repeatedly remarked how natural and unaffected the girls were, how curious they were about the lives of other people. They were not at all like what they expected Grand Duchesses to be or what their popular image was. Rappaport has written a well researched, engaging biography of these brief lives and a century-old crime.


5 Forensic Science Myths


Mystery: why is this trainer so clean? (photo: West Midlands Police, creative commons license)

CSI’s wise-cracking investigators, expensive cars, and sexy co-workers with great hair? High on the drama scale, low on reality. Crime and mystery writers striving for drama and accuracy have to get past such exaggerated expectations. Deborah Cole, a forensic scientist with the New Jersey State Police, spoke to a recent meeting of the Liberty States Fiction Writers Group about forensic science myths.

The first is how television has primed people to believe that forensic science is infallible. The reality is that it cannot always provide definitive answers. Nor is it true that scientists never make mistakes or mess up the chain of custody. Sometimes “a good defense attorney can find holes,” she said. (Interestingly, criminals have become aware of the power of forensics and have learned from tv how to cover their tracks more effectively.)

Response is not as fast as people expect. Some states have only one crime laboratory, and crime labs are often small and outfitted with, well, not-the-latest equipment. As a result, they may have a backlog of testing to do, which adds to the time needed to complete tests (or whether they are ever completed at all, with unexamined rape test kits a prime example). Some tests themselves take a long time to produce results. Tests for different toxic substances must be conducted individually, and all this may take a month or more to complete.

Forensic scientists do not interrogate suspects and witnesses, regardless of what tv suggests. Not their skill set. And they certainly don’t make arrests. They may be called to a high-profile crime scene, but they aren’t there first (unlike in the UK’s Midsomer Murders tv series where the ME and crime scene team is always working away—with findings!—by the time the investigating detectives arrive). When they do visit a scene, they collect evidence to bring to the lab for analysis by someone else.

One scientist cannot handle an entire case. Forensic scientists are specialized (in the lab, their focus may be toxicology, chemical analysis, ballistics, and so on), which means that the evidence from a single case may be tested by a number of different scientists. The New Jersey State Police lab employs 130 scientists in different disciplines, and they are involved in some 35,000 cases a year.

Another reason one person can’t do it all relates to the Locard exchange principle: “whenever two objects come in contact with each other, there is always an exchange of material.” The practical application of this principle is that material from the clothing, floor, furniture, car, or other environs of the crime, which is gathered from the scene, from the victim, and from the suspected perpetrator (if there is one) must all be processed in different rooms and even by different people, in order to avoid cross-contamination.

Finally, Cole said (and she laughed when she said this), tv gives the impression that every day is exciting!

Further Information:

♦Useful for writers: http://www.forensicsciencesimplified.org/onducting Forensic ♦Research: A Tutorial for Mystery Writers: http://www.writing-world.com/mystery/forensics.shtml
♦Forensic workshops, including “TV v. Reality”: http://www.crimemuseum.org/forensic-workshops
♦Forensics: What Bugs, Burns, Prints, DNA, and More Tell Us about Crime, by Val McDermid (2015)


Woman in Gold

Klimt, Woman in Gold

Adele Bloch-Bauer I by Gustav Klimt (photo: wikimedia)

In Woman in Gold (trailer), Helen Mirren, chameleon-like, inhabits the body and personality of Maria Altmann, niece and heir of a prominent Jewish family in pre-WWII Vienna. The family’s best-known member today is Maria’s aunt Adele, whose portrait Gustav Klimt painted in 1907.

The painting was appropriated during the Nazi era and for many years hung in the Austrian state’s famous Belvedere Gallery, as “the Mona Lisa of Vienna.”

After her sister’s death, Maria finds correspondence suggesting the painting was perhaps not left to the government of Austria in her aunt’s will, as it claimed, and therefore not rightfully Austrian property. She hires a family friend’s son, Randol Schoenberg (played by Ryan Reynolds), a young down-on-his-luck Los Angeles attorney, to look into the matter. Schoenberg, grandson of the composer—another refugee from Nazified Austria—is out of touch with his family’s past and slow to recognize the significance of Maria’s quest.

Initially unwilling to take on the case, he is gradually drawn into it. Their bureaucratic battles with stonewalling Austrian officials soon unite the pair, and they are joined by a crusading Austrian journalist, Hubertus Czernin. Formidable legal and bureaucratic hurdles stand in the way of Maria being reuniting with the painting—“When you look at this painting, you see a work of art,” Marie tells a reunification commission, “I see my aunt.”

The story is another in a long line of mostly not happy stories of stolen art works in World War II, brought to renewed public awareness by movies and books like The Monuments Men and Pictures at an Exhibition. The opportunity to reunite beloved works of art and their owners is rapidly disappearing, yet this beautifully filmed movie, directed by Simon Curtis, shows the importance of continuing these efforts.

Because this film is based on a true story, and I for one remembered how it ends, a certain inevitability about the outcome guides the plot. Perhaps this is what has caused reviewers (not me!) to find it dull, though they find the actors captivating. The movie’s Rotten Tomatoes critics rating is a paltry 49%, but audiences were more in my camp, giving a rating of 88%. As a result of the audience reception, the film’s distributor announced yesterday that it will greatly expand its national distribution. If you like stories that touch on beauty, truth, and justice, you will like it, too!

Amanda Knox: The Final Chapter

Italy, street

Perugia street scene (photo: Giovanni Dall’Orto, creative commons license)

Working on a crime thriller set in Rome, I’ve had to try to come to grips with the eccentricities of the Italian judicial system. As a result, I’ve maintained a strong interest in the long saga of Amanda Knox and her Italian former boyfriend, Raffaele Sollecito. The pair was convicted, acquitted, convicted again, and now acquitted again for the final time in the 2007 murder of Knox’s British flatmate, Meredith Kercher, in Perugia, Italy.

U.S. journalist Nina Burleigh went to Italy for the first trial, lived in Perugia in the lead-up to it, and intended to write a book about a young American abroad who went off the rails and became involved in a horrific crime. Instead, as she recounts in her excellent book,The Fatal Gift of Beauty, she was soon convinced by both the lack of evidence and the treatment of the accused that Knox and Sollecito are indeed innocent. Her book also explores some of the reasons behind the Italian media and public’s apparent eagerness that “Foxy Knoxy” be found guilty.

To this day, opinion about the case is strongly divided. Most prominently, Kercher’s family remains convinced of Knox’s guilt. Former FBI Agent Steve Moore provides a useful understanding of why people, especially families, tend to maintain their belief that an accused is guilty, regardless of subsequent evidence and courtroom decisions. (A heartbreaking documentary film about this phenomenon is West of Memphis, covering the case of convicted teens dubbed the “West Memphis Three.”)

The pubblico ministero (Mignini) plays a pivotal role in an Italian courtroom, somewhat like a prosecutor in a U.S. court, but with greater powers. For much of the period of legal wrangling in the Knox/Sollecito case, the prosecution was handled by a poster-man for Italian jurisprudence gone amok, Giuliano Mignini, whose erratic logic was amply documented in Douglas Preston’s true-crime book,The Monster of Florence, about a serial killer who prowled “lovers’ lanes,” primarily in the 1970s and early 1980s. Preston has called the case against Knox one “based on lies, superstition, and crazy conspiracy theories.”

It certainly is a tale with many confusing elements—Amanda’s changing story, which was one of the chief marks against her, the investigators’ mistakes in securing evidence from the crime scene, the conflicting interpretations of the DNA evidence, and especially the clash of cultures when privileged foreign students indulge their freedoms far from home, oblivious to their conservative environment, an issue Moore discusses in this thoughtful blog post.

The story has fascinating characters, irredeemable tragedy at many levels, and the ability to evoke partisanship for or against out of proportion to the definite facts of the case. One can only hope that either when the court reveals its reasoning in finally acquitting Knox and Sollecito, which is to occur with 90 days of the reversal, or at some subsequent but not too distant time, the Kercher family can be persuaded that in the loss of their beloved daughter and sister, justice was achieved.

***400 Things Cops Know

police, neighborhood

(photo: en.wikipedia)

By Adam Plantinga – If you write (or read or watch) crime stories, you’ll be fascinated by the detailed insights from a veteran Milwaukee and San Francisco patrolman (now police sergeant). The Wall Street Journal called the book “the new Bible for crime writers.” And, if you  wonder about how crimes are managed in the community, you’ll definitely gain some insights.

Plantinga, who is a Phi Beta Kappa magna cum laude graduate of Marquette University, divided his 400 lessons into 19 chapters on “Things Cops Know About . . .” shots fired, juveniles, booze and drugs, domestic violence, and so on. Each chapter is not only a dive into specifics, but as important, together—with candor and humor—they provide an unfiltered view into the thought processes of the cops called out to deal with some of society’s worst and most intractable problems, deaths in circumstances that most of us never have to contemplate, much less confront, and the possibility of violence at every traffic stop. The endemic cynicism he reports arises from constant exposure to people behaving badly, as well as the internal machinations of many police departments.

In the chapter on shots fired, I was surprised to learn how hard it is to find bullets after they’re fired (unless they’re in somebody), in part because “most handguns have ranges exceeding a mile.” Of course, before a bullet can go that far, it generally hits a tree or a house or something. And most criminals aren’t very good shots, Plantinga says. But, as a responding officer, you can’t count on that.

I saw a movie about a hit-and-run accident over the weekend, and thanks to reading this book, I tried to telepathically help the on-screen investigator: “Look for prints on the rearview mirror!” Thanks, Sergeant Plantinga.

****The True American: Murder and Mercy in Texas

Texas, guns

(photo: C. Holmes, CC license)

By Anand Giridharadas (read by the author) I missed this nonfiction book when it came out last May, and was astonished that I haven’t heard any chatter about it. The book probes the 2001 murders of two South Asian men and the attempted murder of a third because they “looked Muslim” to the assailant, a “Texas loud, Texas proud” man named Mark Stroman, who viewed his actions as revenge for 9/11. The story is told from the points of view of Stroman and the critically injured Bangladeshi man, Rais Bhuiyan, “two men bound, as it turned out, by more than just an act of violence,” said Ayad Akhtar in the New York Times.

Over the course of the trial and the long wait on Texas’s death row (the death penalty applied because one of the murders occurred in the course of another crime, a robbery), the victim, Bhuiyan, comes to believe Allah saved him from death so that he could do something remarkable. That something, he decided, was to forgive Mark Stroman. Not only to forgive, but to save him from execution.

The lengthy interviews journalist Giridharadas conducted give unparalleled access to the thinking of both Bhuiyan and Stroman, however tangled and inconsistent it may be. Bhuiyan, who would appear to hold all the moral high ground here, at times gets caught up in the self-promotional aspects of his international justice campaign. Meanwhile, Stroman cannot be simply dismissed as another gun-toting nut, either. He has been let down in many ways by people and institutions that should have served him better; in his time on death row, he learns to admire Bhuiyan and to think more deeply about his actions—or at least to mouth the words.

In this truly riveting tale, the author comes to no simplistic conclusions about these possibly imperfect motives on either side. As Akhtar says, “Giridharadas seeks less to uplift than illuminate.” And, Anne-Marie Slaughter says the book “explores two sharply opposed dimensions of the American experience in a style that neither celebrates nor condemns. We readers become the jury, weighing what it means to be a true American today.”

Update: 5/30/15: Anand Giridharadas won the New York Public Library’s 2015 Helen Bernstein Book Award for Excellence in Journalism for The True American.


Human Trafficking: An Everywhere Story

10/23 UPDATE: Hidden in Plain Sight, a new study released 10/21 by the Urban Institute and Northeastern University evaluates for the first time the comprehensive state of labor trafficking in the United States. Just one fact from the study shows how little most people understand about this problem. How do these trafficked people come to the United States? Most of us might guess they walk through the desert bordering Arizona and New Mexico. That’s wrong. Some 71 percent of them arrive by airplane. The study’s grim conclusion: “There’s a long way to go when it comes to thinking about how to prevent 21st-century slavery within American borders.”

Original Post:

city street, night, noir

(photo: farm3.staticflickr.com)

Once Governor Rick Snyder signs a series of new bills sent him last week by the Michigan legislature, minors involved in prostitution will be treated as victims instead of criminals, and children will be able to clear their records of crimes their traffickers forced them to commit. Amazingly, such laws are not universal in the United States, according to Rachel Lloyd, who created the New York-based Girls Educational and Mentoring Services (GEMS) to help girls and young women experiencing commercial sexual exploitation or domestic trafficking.

The message of a current exhibit at Mount Mercy University in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, uses quotes and photos to tell the story of four people, three from the local area, to show that “human trafficking is a local problem, and there are things people can do in Eastern Iowa to fight it,” says exhibit organizer Mindy Pfab. She wants people to realize that even if they don’t know someone who is being trafficked, they may well know someone who is vulnerable—runaways and other children with unstable home lives, minority and low-income children, those with a history of sexual abuse, and young women involved with gang members—bearing in mind that the average age when a person is trafficked is 12.

A forum last Thursday in Lima, Ohio, focused on human trafficking in its annual Take Back the Night event at the Ohio State University-Lima campus. As the keynote speaker from the state Attorney General’s Office said, we will not “arrest our way out of” this problem. Reasons other simplistic solutions don’t work, including “why don’t they just leave?” arguments, are explored in Rachel Lloyd’s TEDxUChicago talk. Escape isn’t so easy. A little more than 12 years ago, Elizabeth Smart was kidnapped at knifepoint from her bedroom and found nine months later in a Utah town only 18 miles from her Salt Lake City home. As an articulate advocate for abused children, Smart provides compelling testimony (here in a New Yorker article by Margaret Talbot) about why the determination to survive sometimes means staying put.

It Happens Here

night walk

(photo: freeaussiestock.com)

I focused on these current stories from the American heartland to emphasize that no part of our country is immune from this problem. In the United States, several hundred thousand people—many of them children and teens—are sexually exploited and engaged in forced labor. This number includes both boys and girls, pre-teens, teens, and adults, native-born Americans, people smuggled in from other countries, and foreigners here legally. Journalist Faricour Hemani explores the range of countries and types of trafficking in a TEDx SugarLand talk that includes excerpts from situations uncovered in a 6-part BBC series.

Readers who work in the health care industry may be interested in a 10-minute Catholic Health Initiatives educational video introducing the topic of human trafficking (definitely safe for work). My friend Colleen Scanlon opens the video, which recognizes that many trafficked or sexually exploited individuals come into contact with the health care system, making it a potential point of intervention. Because these young people are living on the margins, solutions also must include economic empowerment, not just for current victims, but for preventing future victimization.

It Happens to Individuals

Prompted by Colleen’s video, I collected resources for this post, and they represent a sea of powerful individual stories, each one unique—stories of cruelty and resilience, tragedy and escape. These are real-life stories in numbers we don’t like to think about. Not just somewhere else. Here. And they are stories that need to be told until laws, such as Michigan’s change and society refocuses on prevention. Swedish crime writer Henning Mankell, shocked by the reality of human trafficking in his own country, took up the challenge in The Shadow Girls, reviewed here in 2013. There’s no bottom line to this, except for the greater need to be aware and beware. In Michigan, in Cedar Rapids, in Lima, Ohio, where you are.


Huffington Post’s “10 Things You Didn’t Know about Slavery and Human Trafficking and What You Can Do about It” – pleased to see New Jersey has some of country’s best anti-trafficking laws!

The Polaris Project – named after the North Star that guided slaves to freedom in the U.S.

GEMS – Girls Educational and Mentoring Services

*****Down by the River

drugs, El Paso, Rio Grande, narcotraficantes, DEA, Border Patrol, Mexico, Texas

U.S. Border Patrol agents on the Rio Grande (photo: c1.staticflickr)

By Charles Bowden. Investigative reporter Bowden has produced a number of excellent nonfiction books, and this 2002 book about the porous U.S.-Mexico border between El Paso and Ciudad Juarez and the heavy traffic in drugs and violence spanning the Rio Grande there–was highly regarded from the start. Since it’s a dozen years old, as I read, I couldn’t help hoping the situation has improved. Ample recent evidence here, here, and here, suggests it has not, and ongoing drug-related violence throughout the Central American region is a principal reason its children are fleeing here.

The rivalry, lack of cooperation, and mutual undermining of DEA, FBI, and CIA agents in their interactions with the corrupt Mexican hierarchy clouded any comprehensive understanding of the problem and precluded any effective action. When one of these government agencies would get the goods on a bad guy, another would put on the brakes, maybe because the man was one of their thousands of snitches–an always shaky investigational strategy, as any TV watcher knows–or maybe for some other reason. The Mexican drug lords outflanked the clueless American agents at every turn, playing one against the other.

Bowden had no idea it would take eight years to sieve the truth from the slurry of lies and to assemble the fragments of this accounting from hints, scattered news reports, reportorial digging, and conversations with people afraid to talk. He doesn’t discuss the risks to himself, but they had to be industrial grade. He frames the whole convoluted, vague, and hopelessly tangled mess with the story of the death of one 26-year-old El Paso man, Bruno Jordan. Jordan’s family lives close to a border bridge, dangerous Ciudad Juarez crowded up to the Rio Grande’s opposite bank. Jordan was shot down in a K-Mart parking lot in what the police claimed was a car-jacking by a 13-year-old boy, and what his family believes was a hit. Bruno had nothing to do with drugs, but his older brother headed the DEA’s El Paso Intelligence Center and, in the course of his career, had rubbed a great many of the vindictive and ultra-violent narcotraficantes the wrong way.

The cupidity and corruption of Mexico’s elected leaders, the federal police, the army, and every “get tough on drugs” task force they set up is old news now, but the extent of it is nonetheless shocking. According to a source Bowden cites, when Vincente Fox became president, one of his cabinet members said, “All of our phones, faxes and e-mails are monitored by the narcos. We are surrounded by enemies. We cannot attack corruption unless Washington ends its indifference to wrongdoing by the Mexican elite.” But Washington ignored it, for political reasons of its own, and instead, for decades, has touted the phony War on Drugs.

confiscated drug money

Confiscated drug money (photo: wikimedia.org)

While the people live in poverty and terror, the drug czars live in multimillion-dollar mansions, protected by gun-toting federales. One provincial governor cracked down on the drug lords who live in luxury and some safety in his prisons (operating their networks unimpeded, of course), by decreeing they could no longer have Jacuzzis in their cells. At the time of Bowden’s writing, Northern Mexico was essentially a lawless region where the amounts of money are so huge that anyone can be bought. According to the DEA, in 1995 Amado Carrillo Fuentes’s Juarez-based cartel alone was generating approximately $200 million every week.) With cash flow like that, the Mexican government couldn’t afford to shut it down if it wanted to. “Unsuspecting” U.S. and European banks launder perhaps $.5 to $1 trillion dollars a year of this dirty money. Have an account at Citibank?

U.S. law enforcement and border officials may not be corrupt individuals, but everyone they must deal with is likely to be, or might be, today, or another day. In a 2013 interview Bowden talked about the continued violence and murder in Mexico, spawned by Americans’ drug habits, and how this violence is routinely ignored by politicians, bankers, and others who wink-wink don’t ask where the money comes from, calling it “the willful ignorance of the US press covering Mexico. The Mexican press is terrorized. The U.S. press does not like to challenge power.”

Author Charles Bowden died August 30, 2014, at his Las Cruces, New Mexico, home.

Mother Jones encomium and other excellent links.

A Quandary


(photo: Mike Cauldwell, Creative Commons)

Can I escape this post with my First Amendment advocacy credentials intact? Doubtful.

Talking to so many accomplished writers trying mightily to get published, I’ve about decided blind luck is the key ingredient in the publication lottery. Then, in the midst of a long Wired story by Andy Greenberg on crypto-anarchy, one sentence snags my attention: Simon & Schuster has paid Cody Wilson $250,000—a figure a vanishingly small number of authors see these days—to write his memoir.

Who is Cody Wilson you ask? And why does he move to the head of the line, the top of the heap? You may recognize his name as the 26-year-old creator of the world’s first fully 3-D printable gun, which I wrote about here in May. Blueprints of his useable firearm were downloaded more than 100,000 times in two days.

Wilson is also co-creator of Dark Wallet, software intended to enable fully anonymous, untraceable online payments using bitcoins. The software’s purpose is to let people anonymously trade in weapons, drugs, pornography, and general mayhem, and Wilson drapes his creation in the flag of the First Amendment. Untraceable and untouchable, he and his lawyers hope.

Since bitcoins are an international phenomenon, it’s no surprise that Iraq’s newest crop of super-violent, decapitation-loving jihadi fighters, ISIS, selectively aware of the 21st century, touts Dark Wallet as a way to fund their activities.

Wilson takes his anarchic role in stride. “Well, yes, bad things are going to happen on these marketplaces,” he says. “To quote the old civil libertarians, liberty is a dangerous thing.”

More questions for Simon & Schuster: Can he write? Does it even matter?

(if you click on either of the related links below, be sure to visit the comments.)

Plastic Guns


(photo: c1.staticflickr.com)

In the hands of a good mystery/thriller writer, the presence of undetectable plastic guns can change the dramatic equation. But in case the real-life possibility of seriously lethal 3-D printed guns existing outside the weakly regulated firearms marketplace has been a problem barely on the edge of your consciousness, a threat like a massive meteor strike—remote, but awful—it’s time to give it further thought. A Wired article by Andy Greenberg, full of anonymous sources and YouTube videos of test-firings, shows how far this technology has come. Predictably, the cost of manufacture has plummeted as lethality has risen.

A combination of libertarians, gunsmiths, and technology enthusiasts has been improving on printable handgun and rifle designs, step-by-step, moving “3-D printed firearms from the realm of science fiction to practical weapons.” And, Greenberg says, leaving “legislators and regulators in the dust,” despite the Undetectable Firearms Act. Another reason this situation is like a meteor strike is, given what we know—in this case about human behavior—these developments seem unstoppable.

The RFID article below suggests how a different technology can contribute to gun safety, too, for conventional handguns.