True Crime Wire

Steve Huff's true crime blog

I’ve taken too long to do this. For now, all my personal blogging on any subject–including crime–will be here:

http://huffwire.com

A Medium-hosted blog. Years ago I understood it’s wisest to confine your non-paid blogging to one destination but my ADD-fueled curiosity about platforms stayed in control.

I’m going to try and just focus on the one site for now, though. So follow that link.

UPDATE— An unnamed suspect in this homicide has reportedly been found dead in a truck, according to OKC police.


ORIGINAL POST

On Tuesday afternoon Michael Winchester, a 52-year-old Southwest Airlines employee, was shot and killed just outside Will Rogers World Airport in Oklahoma City, OK. Winchester was also reportedly the father of James Winchester, a member of the Kansas City Chiefs pro football team.

The airport was essentially locked down following the shooting, and the New York Daily News reported that some sources indicated a “sniper’s nest” was found in a parking garage near the scene of the shooting. A law enforcement spokesman wouldn’t confirm anything regarding evidence Mr. Winchester was the victim of a long distance shooter to the Daily News.

Southwest released a statement about the crime stating that the “Southwest Airlines Family is deeply saddened” by Mr. Winchester’s “passing.”

Will Rogers World Airport was frozen as police figured out what was going on, with passengers and staff sheltering in place.

I said I’d be updating this site more. I’m still not sure as to what approach to take, but I wanted to make note of this crime in part because the mention of a possible “sniper’s nest” was exceptionally strange.

The Daily Mail reported that as of Tuesday evening the airport was still shut down with departures and arrivals on hold “until further notice.”

[NY Daily News]

marcotte-vetrano-comparison

Left: Vanessa Marcotte/Right: Karina Vetrano

On August 2, 2016, 30-year-old Karina Vetrano disappeared while running in the Howard Beach community of Queens, New York. The attractive and fit aspiring writer was found about four hours after she vanished. She’d been dragged off a trail and assaulted, then strangled to death. She fought her attacker all the way, losing a tooth in the process.

Five days later and just under 200 miles away, 27-year-old Vanessa Marcotte—who worked for Google in New York—vanished while on a run in rural Princeton, a small community northwest of Worcester, Massachusetts. Marcotte was found murdered hours later. She was nude, part of her body burned. Police said she fought her killer hard enough that he likely had visible wounds from the encounter. Like Vetrano, it’s possible she was sexually assaulted.

I know, I know. It’s a question that at the moment seems more of interest to some pretty sketchy websites that traffic in hyperbolic posts meant to gin up more traffic to their ads. Still, as the investigations into the murders drag on, it’s hard to avoid wondering: could these horrific murders somehow be connected?

The victims’ similarities are unmistakable: A general physical resemblance; both smart and likely highly-motivated as well as confident. In a tangential way—because the city is so densely populated—even Marcotte’s job and weekday home in New York seems worth noting. Also, as my former Maxim colleague Gabriella Paiella wrote about for New York Magazine, the question of physical safety is always looming for women who run alone—it had surely bothered both Marcotte and Vetrano in the past. Yet both women were confident enough in themselves to push past that kind of anxiety and get out there and run. They presented tough victims to sexual predators, who—like many criminals—often target perceived weaknesses and vulnerabilities.

The killer or killers of Vanessa Marcotte and Karina Vetrano were even more strongly motivated than the average sexual predator and had to have had a lot of confidence in what they were doing. It’s easy to believe that in either case—and multiple reports indicate neither the NYPD nor the Worcester County, MA DA have not ruled out a connection—the victims fell prey to someone who had committed similar crimes in the past.

The New York Daily News reported Thursday that Karina Vetrano’s father believes police are close to an arrest in her case. Police said they don’t have a suspect, but Philip Vetrano even addressed a woman he said was the killer’s relative, saying, “We know there is a family member of the killer that we need for them to come forward, to finalize this very quickly, and she is in great distress…We know she wants to make that call.”

Hopefully the grieving father is right and at least one arrest in these strangely parallel crimes is in the offing. If that happens and both women were killed by the same man, he’ll have had previous victims, too. If the killers were different after all, there will still be another very dangerous man still out there, and it wouldn’t be surprising if he struck again.

 

tinsley1

Part of note from killer

April Tinsley vanished on Good Friday, 1988. According to the FBI page on her disappearance and murder, the 8-year-old Fort Wayne, Indiana girl was on her way home from visiting a friend when she was kidnapped. April’s killer raped then murdered her. She was suffocated to death.

April’s killer has never been caught. Police have a description, an approximate age range, and a psychological profile indicating he is likely a “preferential” pedophile — a pedophile who is specifically attracted to children, likely within April’s age range. There are different kinds of pedophiles, according to most profiling research, and this kind can find it harder than others to hide their attraction to children.

The man who killed April Tinsley even left behind plenty of evidence. Including communications, beginning with a message scrawled on a barn door, reading in part, “I kill April Tisley (sic)… I kill again.”

Michelle McNamara wrote about April’s “communicative” (Michelle’s apt description) killer in a blog post at True Crime Diary in 2012:

Investigators say they believe whoever wrote the message was April’s killer.  They haven’t said why, but there are two possibilities.  The writing implement, said to be crayons, was found nearby, and DNA from the crayons could have been matloched to a sample found on April’s body.  The second possibility has been discussed on message boards, but not confirmed by investigators.  It’s alleged that when April’s body was found she was fully clothed but missing one shoe.  The rumor is that above “ha ha” was the question, “did you find the other shoe?”

As Michelle reported in that post, 7-year-old Sarah Bowker would disappear not long after that message on a barn door. She met the same fate as April. Strangely, while the coroner who examined both girls concluded their murders were related, the FBI disagreed.

The Tinsley murder had long been a cold case by the time April’s killer made himself known again in 2004. He did this by leaving seemingly barely literate notes inside baggies, accompanied by used condoms in various areas, clearly targeting little girls anew.

Still, the FBI didn’t become fully involved until 2009. They created a profile of the killer. CNN reported on some of the FBI’s conclusions about his psychological makeup:

Police believe he is a white male currently in his 40s or 50s who prefers and desires sexual contact with children, particularly little girls.

“This offender has demonstrated that he has strong ties to northeast Fort Wayne and Allen County,” the profile said. “This is where he likely lives, works and/or shops. You may be standing next to him in line at the grocery store, sitting beside him in the pew at church, or working beside him on the production line.”

Such profiles can be helpful in that they might spur local residents to tell police, “You know, I always wondered about this one guy (…)”

Criminal behavioral analysis — profiling — is a fascinating if imperfect art. In development since the 1970s, it’s accrued an aura of myth, thanks in part to great fiction like Silence of the Lambs. The truth about behavioral analysis is that it’s one tool in a vast investigative suite of them, and is rarely the factor that solves the case — it’s simply one helpful way to narrow down a field of suspects.

tinsley2

“Snapshot” of Tinsley suspect

With the advent of easy and inexpensive DNA testing and the parsing of human genetic makeup, a new form of profiling has been filtering into news accounts of cold cases in the last couple of years, and it was recently applied to the DNA of the killer in the Tinsley case.

Parabon is an outfit in Virginia and they’ve been doing a steady business creating suspect portraits using an unknown subject’s genetic history as revealed through DNA. Here’s how they describe what they do with a product they call Snapshot:

Snapshot is a revolutionary new forensic DNA analysis service that accurately predicts the physical appearance and ancestry of an unknown person from DNA. It can also determine kinship between DNA samples out to six degrees of relatedness. Snapshot is ideal for generating investigative leads, narrowing suspect lists, and identifying unknown remains.

Parabon, as best as I can tell, uses the same data that Ancestry.com and 23andMe utilize from submitted DNA samples to develop a portrait of unknown killers as well as John and Jane Does. It’s a smart and understandable use of new technology and when I first learned of it, I was blown away. Anyone who has ever obsessed over a cold case in which there were known samples of the killer’s genetic material hears about what Parabon is doing and gets a little thrill at the prospect: What would a Parabon Snapshot of the Zodiac Killer look like? Or the vicious Golden State Killer, whom Michelle McNamara was writing a book about when she passed away?

My wife and I have had our DNA analyzed by both Ancestry and 23andMe. It wasn’t until I took a deep dive into what 23andMe concluded from my DNA sample that I thought about Parabon’s Snapshot profiles and felt a sudden twinge of disappointment.

As Parabon attempts to make clear in profiles such as the one they’ve released in the Tinsley case, their workups — highly detailed suspect sketches, basically — are based on the suspect’s most probable appearance, based on what their genetic material tends to predict.

Here’s the cold water about this kind of thing: even if your genetic material tends to indicate you’ll look a certain way, there is no guarantee you will. I learned this from my 23andMe experience.

23andMe breaks reports from your DNA down into numerous reports. These include:

  • Ancestry Composition (I am 99.2% northern European and 0.7% Sub-Saharan African)
  • Muscle Composition — I am a “likely sprinter,” my muscle composition primarily “fast-twitch” muscle fibers
  • Caffeine Consumption — I’m likely to consume less. I do not consume less. I consume large quantities of it.
  • Individual reports on your likely hair color, physical characteristics, and skin.

The reports in the last bullet point are where things get interesting.

According to 23andMe’s analysis of my DNA, I am most likely to have “light brown or blond hair.”

On my hair report, 23andMe actually states, “You are not likely to have red hair. 94% of customers who are genetically similar to you do not have red hair.”

I was born with coppery red hair. It’s gotten blonder as I’ve aged, but there’s no doubt about it. The report nails my hair type (lightly wavy), that I’m likely to be balding (I am), and the fact it’s light colored. But that’s it.

It seems like nitpicking but if the same data was used to make an unknown suspect profile, he wouldn’t have red hair — a highly distinctive feature.

My 23andMe profile correctly predicts I have light-colored eyes (green), but the part of the report that details potential facial characteristics of someone with my genetic makeup states clearly: “Steven, you are not likely to have a cleft chin.62% of customers who are genetically similar to you do not have a cleft chin.”

One of my most obvious facial characteristics is a clearly cleft chin.

23andMe also concluded I would have light skin, which I do, but not many freckles. That part is debatable. I don’t have nearly as many as some redheads, but I’ve certainly got some.

So far, it’s not hard to guess that a Parabon Snapshot reaching conclusions similar to 23andMe from my genetic data would have me — a redhead with some freckles and a cleft chin — as a light brown-haired man with few freckles and a square, un-cleft chin. My DNA tends to predict those things. I simply was an outlier and ended up born with the less likely traits. Just as many people are, every day, everywhere.

This is not a knock on Parabon. I think they’re doing very necessary work and hope they keep refining and improving their product. It’s a reality check for the many true crime devotees like me who see intriguing news stories about Snapshot-generated profiles and don’t bother to look past quickly turned-out reports breathlessly hinting that this might the thing that solves the case.

It’s a long-needed and possibly fundamental tool. Truth be told, I have no doubt a Parabon Snapshot or some similar forensic product will one day play a key role in solving a major case, especially when combined with a service that has Ancestry.com’s capacity for identifying possible familial relations, up to 3rd, 4th, 5th cousins.

But Parabon’s Snapshot is not a magic bullet. Reading the fine print on Parabon reports it is clear they are aware of this. Reading interpretations of their work in the press, it’s clear that the media is not. Sober, realistic assessments of possible breaks in long-unsolved and deeply unsettling cases like the murder of April Tinsley don’t traffic quite as well for a TV station or newspaper website.

Robert Lawson Carnochan (Mugshot)

Robert Lawson Carnochan (Mugshot)

He is in his 70s. He is Canadian. He’s an illegal immigrant, and he’s been in the United States since 1993, going under at least 18 different false identities. According to Mohave County Chief Arizona Deputy Rodney Head, his real name is Robert Lawson Carnochan. And at least three women linked to him in the past eight years have vanished. From the Kingman, AZ Daily Miner:

Verna Clayton, currently 73, was last seen with Carnochan at her Dolan Springs home in June of 2008. The last time anyone has seen Las Vegas resident Neva Lindley, currently 77, was in November, 2011. She also was last with Carnochan, who was arrested April 13 in Yucca on half a dozen forgery charges and three counts of identity theft. He has since been indicted on those charges – along with six weapons charges, including one that involves possession of a handgun with a ground-off serial number.

[Kingman resident Nancy] Hartz was 72 when she went missing last June after selling her northern Kingman home and leaving with Carnochan in his motorhome.

“He became acquainted with them the same way as Nancy Hartz,” said Head.

The Daily Miner reported that  they all met Carnochan online, through “one Internet dating site or another. ” Deputy Head and fellow investigator Scot Durst said Carnochan was simply a person of interest in the disappearances.

A fascinating wrinkle buried in the Daily Miner article was that a woman had assisted Carnochan in attempting to convince investigators seeking Nancy Hartz that she was still alive. She even agreed to a phone interview with a private investigator. She was quizzed about Hartz’s adult children and all her answers were wrong. Nancy Hartz’s children all agreed: that wasn’t their mother’s voice on the phone, either.

The woman, whom investigators indicated had moved from California to Arizona to be with Carnochan, apparently wasn’t considered culpable. Deputy Head said she’d returned to California and felt “very lucky” that Carnochan was in custody. She fit the profile of the missing women — in her 70s, single, and perhaps too suggestible for her own good.

Verna Clayton, Neva Lindley (Kdminer.com)

Verna Clayton, Neva Lindley (Kdminer.com)

In spite of both apparently considered missing for years, I couldn’t find Verna Clayton or Neva Lindley on any missing persons sites.The Daily Miner reported that their assets had been turned into cash not long after they met Carnochan.

Robert Carnochan has been at whatever he’s doing for quite some time. That’s not a big leap to make. He could be a Bluebeard, serially seducing lonely women and using whatever he steals from them to keep himself going.

It’s hard to not read the few articles published since his April 13 arrest and suspect that Carnochan’s mysteries wind across many more than just three women over the course of the last 23 years. He’s been at whatever he was doing for far too long.

The chances a wily operator like Carnochan will talk are slim. Lacking evidence, he could simply end up convicted on the forgery, identity theft and firearms charges and no one will ever know what happened to these women.

Or any of the other victims he’s surely left behind him, under his many different names.

Michelle McNamara, the brilliant mind behind True Crime Diary, passed away in late April, 2016.

I was already established as a crime blogger when I discovered Michelle’s work 10 years ago, and I was blown away. There were moments when I thought I had a handle on this thing, but Michelle was the real deal. A talented writer with literary flair and an absolutely dogged reporter of the old school, willing to use her own time to knock on doors, make calls, and get the truth, in whatever way she could.

We struck up a friendship. It was on one hand a typical internet friendship — polite and distant in some ways yet cerebral and deeply involved in others. Through reading her work and exchanging emails with her I realized I’d made friends with a like mind who shared my tendency to get lost in obsessions with unanswered questions.

Michelle’s obsessions led to her securing a book deal to write about the unsolved Original Night Stalker rapes and murders that ripped through upscale California neighborhoods in the late 70s and early 80s. When she passed away she was very close to being done with the book. If I can help bring her book to the public in any way, I will.

In the meantime, I realized with a modicum of shock that Michelle’s death had jarred loose something inside me that I’d been resisting for a while.

I’d abandoned covering true crime stories in an in-depth close-up way for some time because I felt too psychologically fragile to deal. I’d branched out to covering other subjects like tech and pop culture. I’d even delved into comedy. As a result I eventually ended up writing an official tie-in book to AMC’s brilliant Breaking Bad spinoff, Better Call Saul

Michelle McNamara leaving this world far too soon made me realize I wasn’t done with true crime at all — even though my constant tweets about various crime stories all along had been telling me the same.

So here it is, in its very early form, my True Crime Wire. As I write it’s just a WordPress address. But as I gauge my own interest and ability to engage, it will likely become a standalone address. After all, true crime as a genre has been undergoing a substantial renaissance. The popularity of Making a Murderer and Serial alone are proof enough.

Here I’ll curate and aggregate crime stories, both old and unsolved and breaking. When I’m able I’ll add my own reporting. I may add contributors as I see fit. I’m not going to rush it. I’m going to be careful and also have to keep in mind my own professional work schedule, doing freelance writing and editing for Maxim magazine as well as writing more books.

And yes, this blog is dedicated to the memory of my friend Michelle, whom I never had a chance to tell just how gifted I thought she was. She could have ruled the true crime genre. If her book on the Original Night Stalker — which she re-dubbed the Golden State Killer — is as good as I expect, she may yet dominate the bestseller lists.

I hope so. And I hope she had at least some idea of how much I respected her work and appreciated her support. I didn’t always deserve it. But I’ll try to live up to it.