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Monday, December 11, 2017

Dr. Lisa Tseng: When Does a Physician Become a Drug Dealing Murderer?

     In California, as in most states, a cocaine dealer can be convicted of second-degree murder if a person he sold the drug to dies of an overdose. Such a conviction is based on what is referred to as the felony-murder doctrine which holds that if in the commission of a felony (selling cocaine) someone dies, the felon can be held criminally culpable for that death. The element of criminal intent applies to the commission of the felony, not the resultant death. In other words, it doesn't matter that the cocaine dealer didn't intend to kill one of his customers. It's still murder.

     Dr. Hsiu-Ying (Lisa) Tseng and her husband ran a storefront medical clinic in Rowland Heights, California, an unincorporated community of 50,000 in Los Angeles County's Gabriel Valley. The clinic had a reputation among prescription drug addicts as a place one could go to acquire prescriptions for drugs such as Xanax, Oxycodone, Methadone, Soma, and Vicodin. Dr. Tseng allegedly issued prescriptions for these pain and anti-anxiety drugs without asking too many questions, or requiring an acceptable medical reason.

     In 2010, reporters with the Los Angeles Times linked Dr. Tseng's drugs to eight overdose deaths. (Not all of the people who overdosed had acquired the prescriptions from the doctor, many of her patients had sold the drugs to others who overdosed on them.) According to the Times, Dr. Tseng, from 2007 through 2010, had written more than 27,000 prescriptions for pain and anti-anxiety medicine.

     In March 2012, state, county and federal narcotics officers arrested Dr. Tseng for murder in connection with the 2009 overdose deaths of three men in their twenties, all of whom had gotten prescription drugs at the Rowland Heights clinic. The authorities also charged Dr. Tseng with 20 felony counts of prescribing drugs to patients with no medical need for the medicine. (If this government-imposed standard were enforced strictly across the country, we'd need a dozen new prisons just for physicians and chiropractors. Street corner cocaine dealers would see their businesses shoot through the roof.) The 42-year-old doctor was placed in the Los Angeles County Jail under $3 million bond.

     There had only been a handful of prescription drug/felony-murder overdose prosecutions in the country. The Tseng case was the first of its kind in Los Angeles County. In June 2012, at a preliminary hearing before judge M. L. Villar de Longoria in a Los Angeles Superior Court to determine if the state had sufficient evidence to move the case to the trial phase, the assistant district attorney put on several witnesses. (In preliminary hearings to determine if the government has a prima facie case, there are no defense witnesses.)

     An undercover DEA agent took the stand and said he (or she) had been prescribed pain and anti-anxiety drugs without exhibiting any evidence of a physical injury. (What are the physical signs of chronic back pain?) Several family members of Tseng's patients testified that they had begged the doctor to quit issuing their addicted relatives prescription drugs. A representative of the Los Angeles Coroner's Office said he had warned Dr. Tseng that many of her patients were dying of prescription drug overdoses.

     On June 25, 2012, after three weeks of testimony, Judge Villar de Longoria ruled that Dr. Tseng could be held over for trial on the three murder charges. The judge, in justifying the ruling, told the defendant that she had "failed to heed repeated red flags" that her patients were drug addicts." (Since it's the role of a jury to make fact determinations like this, the judge's remarks were, in my opinion, inappropriate.)

     Assuming that Dr. Tseng had in fact intentionally or recklessly issued prescriptions to drug addicts, I'm not sure prosecuting her for second-degree murder was good jurisprudence in a country with millions of prescription drug junkies. Bartenders who serve alcoholics booze aren't prosecuted for murder when the drunks kill themselves in car wrecks. Gun dealers who sell firearms to people who use the weapons to blow their brains out aren't prosecuted for murder. (In the federal government's Fast and Furious operation, agents sold guns to drug dealers in Mexico who used them to kill dozens of people. One of the victims was an U.S. Border Patrol Agent. I don't think we'll see the U.S. Attorney General prosecute any federal employees for murder.)

     If convicted of three counts of murder because she prescribed pills to junkies who overdosed on the drugs, Dr. Tseng faced up to life in prison. This was at a time when residents of 18 states, including California, could legally buy "medical" marijuana.

     In October 2015, a jury in Los Angeles County Superior Court found Dr. Tseng guilty of second-degree murder. The judge, on February 5, 2016, sentenced Tseng to 30 years to life in prison.
      

Researching a Crime For a Book

Writing a true crime book requires the writer to dig into angles not covered in the original rush of publicity and to deeply research the stories of victims, survivors, investigators, attorneys, and others; review all court, prison, psychiatric, medical, police and other documents about the perpetrator and interview people close to him.

Gretchen Brinck, authorsontheweb.com, 2002 

The Five-Finger Discount

     Everyone needs a little boost to beat the holiday blues. For some during a down economy, it's shoplifting. Retailers call it "shrinkage," the loss of inventory from the store shelves or storage from sticky-fingered shoppers and employees. The total cost to retailers last year was $112 billion, including losses from employee and supplier fraud, and organized retail crime gangs….

     And it goes up during the holidays, but not because thieves are trying to make Santa's bag bigger. Experts say that most thieves are in it for themselves.

     The thought going through a shoplifter's head is simple: "This is the time of year when we gift others, so we should gift ourselves as well," says Robert McCrie, a professor of security management. "People tend to shoplift for themselves, not to find gifts for other people."

     According to an analysis of the most recently available FBI data, conducted by the John Jay College of Criminal Justice…national shoplifting arrests averaged 80,889 during November and December 2015, an 8.95 percent increase over the prior two months, and higher than the non-seasonal average of 71,073 offenses….

     And as the economy weakened, shoplifting increased. From 2009 to 2015, annual shoplifting offenses rose from 698,233 to 997,739, according to the FBI, a nearly 43 percent increase.

Ben Popken, "Christmas on Five-Finger Discount for Shoplifters Seeking Holiday High," NBC News, December 24, 2013 

Thornton P. Knowles On Do-Gooders In Crime Novels

In the crime novel, the do-gooder rarely makes it past page 50. In my novels, there are no do-gooders. They don't even make it into the book.

Thornton P. Knowles

Sunday, December 10, 2017

The Annybelkis Terrero Murder-For-Hire Case

     Neil Logan, a 57-year-old aircraft mechanic from Boynton Beach, Florida made the mistake of his life when in June 2013, following a brief courtship and a spur of the moment decision, he married Annybelkis Terrero in Las Vegas.

     Not long after Mr. Logan and the 38-year-old Terrero took up residence in his Boynton Beach home, she regularly got drunk, used illegal drugs, and entertained strange men in the house. She also disappeared for days at a time.

     On August 31, 2013, just three months after marrying this woman, Neil Logan filed for divorce. The next day Annybelkis called the Boynton Police Department with the accusation that her husband had committed domestic abuse. Police officers came to the house and hauled Mr. Logan off to jail. Pursuant to a protective order filed against him, the owner of the house could not return to his home.

     In the fall of 2013 Terrero's Boynton Beach neighbors began complaining about suspected drug activity and prostitution occurring in Mr. Logan's former residence. After narcotics officers investigated the complaints and threatened to arrest Terrero on drug and prostitution charges, she agreed to stay out of jail by working as a drug informant.

     On October 16, 2013, Terrero and two narcotics cops wearing bulletproof vests were en route in a police vehicle to a suspected drug dealer's house. Along the way the snitch mentioned that she hated her husband and wanted him dead. Could the officers put her in touch with a hit man?

     The narcotics officers said they knew a men who could do the job. At that point Terrero handed one of the officers two stolen credit cards with instructions to use them soon because they were "hot." She said the cards were meant as compensation for the officers' role in her murder-for-hire plan.

     The next day in the Sunshine Square Shopping Center parking lot, Terrero met with a Boynton Beach undercover officer posing as a professional hit man. As is standard operating procedure in such cases, the murder-for-hire conversation was recorded.

     Terrero informed the undercover officer that she would pay him $30,000 from her husband's life insurance payout after the assassin did his job. She said she also wanted the hit man to murder another 57-year-old person named William Straub. The Lake Worth, Florida resident was a friend who had tried to help Terrero beat her alcohol and drug addictions. (Why she wanted this man dead is a mystery. Perhaps she had confided in him regarding her plans to have her husband killed and the proposed hit simply involved the intent to take out an incriminating witness. But if she were worried about that kind of exposure, why did she reach out to a pair of narcotic cops?)

     Shortly after the murder-for-hire mastermind handed the undercover officer a loaded Remington shotgun as a downpayment for the double-hit, the officer arrested Terrero. A Palm Beach county prosecutor charged Terrero  with two counts of murder solicitation and two counts of bribery. The judge denied the suspect bail.

     This was not the first time Terrero had seen the inside of a jailhouse. Police arrested her in 1998 for burglary and aggravated battery and in 2011 for assaulting a police officer .

     In speaking to a reporter following Terrero's arrest, William Straub, one of the murder-for-hire targets, described her as "brilliant" when she was sober and not so bright when drunk. (Terrero must have been very intoxicated when she proposed murder-for-hire to a pair of men she knew to be cops. That has to be one of the stupidest moves in the history of crime.)

     According to Terrero's 61-year-old mother Seneida Holden, her daughter has struggled with alcohol and drug abuse since her teenage years. At one time she claimed to have kidnapped the Lindbergh baby. (Since Bruno Richard Hauptmann kidnapped and murdered the 20-month-old son of Charles and Anne Lindbergh in March 1932, Terrero is off the hook for that crime.)

     On November 14, 2013, the Palm Beach County Prosecutor's Office announced that the charges against Annybelkis Terrero had been dropped. The spokesperson said the case was dismissed due to "significant legal issues." (It's possible these "significant legal issues" had to do with the fact Terrero had been working as a drug snitch.) She walked out of the county jail a free woman.
    

Stephen Glass: Notorious Fake Journalist

Whether fabricating sources or inventing scene settings, four journalists made headlines by choosing fiction over fact. It was discovered in 1998 that Stephen Glass had made up nearly half of his New Republic magazine stories. The New York Times reporter Jayson Blair was fired in 2003 for fabricating quotes from people he never met…Janet Cooke, a reporter with the Washington Post had to return her Pulitzer in 1981 after admitting she had created, out of whole cloth, an eight-year-old heroin addict to write about. In 2014, USA Today reporter Jack Kelley resigned after falsely creating stories, including a piece about a drowned woman who later turned up alive.

K. C. Baker, "Under Fire," People, February 23, 2015 

The Wrong-Way Driver

     Two separate wrong-way wrecks killed 11 people on Sunday morning, February 9, 2014 in Florida and California….Five people died in a crash on Interstate 275 in Tampa when a Ford Expedition, traveling south in the northbound lanes, collided head-on with a Hyundai….The Expedition caught fire, and the driver was killed. The other four people killed, all men between the ages 20 and 21, were occupants in the Hyundai….

     In Pomona, California, a wrong-way driver crashed into two other vehicles on State Route 60, known locally as 60 Freeway, leaving six dead…The first driver was arrested on suspicion of DUI and manslaughter….The driver was hospitalized in critical condition….Four other people at the scene and two others died at the hospital.

Ralph Ellis, "11 Killed in Wrong-Way Wrecks in Florida, California," CNN, February 9, 2014

Thornton P. Knowles On "The Catcher In The Rye"

Over the years I've read J. D. Salinger's The Catcher in The Rye several times. I must say that the greatness of this 1951 classic escapes me. In my opinion, the book is nothing more than a coming of age novel narrated by a dimwit.

Thornton P. Knowles 

Saturday, December 9, 2017

The David Tarloff Murder Case

     Psychiatrists diagnosed David Tarloff with schizophrenia in 1991 when the 23-year-old was in college. Over the next seventeen years, the Queens, New York resident, on twelve occasions, ended up in a hospital mental ward. There was no question that the man was mentally ill.

     Tarloff lived with his mother in a Queens apartment until 2004 when she moved into a nursing home. By 2008, the 40-year-old schizophrenic had convinced himself that his mother was being abused by nursing home personnel. That's when he concocted a plan to rob Dr. Kent Shinbach, the psychiatrist who had initially treated him in 1991. With the money he hoped to acquire by using the doctor's ATM code, Tarloff planned to pull his mother out of the nursing home and take her away to Hawaii.

     In February 2008, after making several phone inquiries, Tarloff learned that Dr. Shinback had offices on Manhattan's Upper East Side. In preparation for the robbery, Tarloff purchased a rubber meat mallet and a cleaver that he packed into a suitcase filled with adult diapers and clothing for his mother.

     On February 8, 2008, Tarloff showed up at  Dr. Shinbach's office armed with the meat cleaver and the mallet. But instead of encountering his robbery target, he was confronted by Dr. Kathryn Faughey, the 56-year-old psychotherapist who shared office space with Dr. Shinbach.

    In the Manhattan doctor's office, Tarloff smashed Faughey's skull with the mallet, then hacked her to death with the meat cleaver. He also attacked Dr. Shinbach when the psychiatrist tried to rescue his colleague. Tarloff fled the bloody scene on foot and was taken into custody shortly thereafter. Dr. Shinback survived his wounds.

     The Manhattan District Attorneys Office charged Tarloff with first-degree murder. The defendant's attorney acknowledged what his client had done, but pleaded him not guilty by reason of insanity. If a jury found that at the moment Tarloff killed Dr. Faughey, he was so mentally ill he couldn't appreciate the nature and quality of his act, they could return a verdict of not guilty. Instead of serving a fixed prison term, Tarloff would be placed into an institution for the criminally insane. The length of his incarceration would be determined by the doctors who treated him. If at some point the psychiatrists considered him sane enough for society, he could be discharged from the mental institution. (It is for this reason that most jurors are uncomfortable with the insanity defense, particularly in cases of extreme violence.)

     Under American law, criminal defendants are presumed innocent and sane. That means the prosecution has to prove guilt beyond a reasonable doubt. The defense, in insanity cases, has the burden of proving, by a preponderance of the evidence (a less rigorous standard of proof) that the defendant was out of touch with reality when he committed the homicide. Since even seriously psychotic murder defendants are aware they are killing their victims, not guilty by reason of insanity verdicts are rare. This is particularly true in rural communities where jurors prefer to send mentally ill murderers to prison.

     After years of procedural delays, David Tarloff's murder trial got underway in March 2013. A month later, following the testimony of a set of dueling psychiatrists, the case went to the jury. After ten days of deliberation, the jury foreman informed the judge that the panel had not been able to reach an unanimous verdict of guilt. The trial judge had no choice but to declare a mistrial.

     The Manhattan prosecutor in charge of the case announced his intention to try David Tarloff again.

     In May 2014, at his second trial, the jury rejected the insanity defense in this case and found David Tarloff guilty of first-degree murder. The judge sentenced him to life in prison without the possibility of parole.

     

The Insanity Defense

Insanity defense cases should be tried not by juries but by specially trained and credentialed judges. I have seen firsthand the debacle of naive and inexperienced judges struggling with complicated psychological testimony, ineptly charging juries, and generally remaining clueless throughout the proceedings. These judges should be given on-the-job training and assistance to become proficient in the application of psychological principles.

Dr. Barbara R. Kirwin, The Mad, the Bad, and the Innocent, 1997