overly helpful people, true crime, YouTube

Creeps like her? My unpopular opinion regarding Debra Hunter.

Yesterday, I read the trending story about Debra Hunter, the mom in Jacksonville, Florida who was caught on video last summer, berating a clerk at a Pier 1 home good store. Heather Sprague, the woman who decided to video Hunter, claims she had listened to her verbally abusing the clerk about an item she had wanted to return, but apparently hadn’t brought with her.

When Hunter noticed Sprague filming, she gave her a “double bird”– that is, both middle fingers in their locked and upright positions, then, obviously very angry, she said, “I think I’ll get real close to you and cough on you, then, how’s that?” Sprague, who was one of the few people wearing a face mask in public at the time, since this incident occurred in June 2020, before face masks were required, says she felt spittle on her face as Hunter then stormed out of the store.

Sprague is a mother of ten and has been treated for a brain tumor at the Mayo Clinic. Because of her delicate health condition, and that of her children, some of whom have special healthcare needs, Sprague claims she had to search frantically for a COVID-19 test. They were not widely available at the time, so she spent some time feeling very anxious. It cost her $150 to be tested. The results were, fortunately, negative.

Ms. Hunter has had her day in court, and Judge James A. Ruth sentenced her to 30 days in jail. Hunter also got six months probation, a $500 fine, must have a mental health evaluation and attend anger management counseling, and she must repay Sprague for the COVID-19 test.

After reading the many outraged comments people had about this case, I decided to watch the entire proceedings on YouTube. It was about a three hour video. One of the reasons it took so long is because there were technical difficulties, as the proceedings went on via Zoom.

Is she really that much of a creep? People should watch Ms. Hunter’s testimony. She doesn’t sound like a narcissistic creep to me.

Once again, I find myself disagreeing with the masses about this case. I read gleeful comment after delighted comment that Debra Hunter is going to go to jail for a month. I read many people condemning her character, based on headlines. I read that Debra Hunter and her family had received many death threats related to this incident, and her children were forbidden from playing with their now former friends. Ms. Hunter and her family are now pariahs, and now she will be going to jail for up to 30 days.

I know a lot of people think this sentence is entirely appropriate, and Debra Hunter and her family deserve being thrown to the Internet lions. It’s become very trendy for people to take it upon themselves to film total strangers and upload the videos to social media. Oftentimes, the videos– just a minute or two of someone’s entire life– lead to fifteen minutes of fame for the uploader and years of public ridicule and condemnation for the person being filmed AND their families. Debra Hunter has children too, and they are suffering because Heather Sprague decided to insert herself in a situation that, frankly, was not her affair.

I watched the incident from the video that Heather Sprague uploaded. While I don’t condone Debra Hunter’s actions at all, and I do think most of the punishment she received is appropriate, I don’t think she should be going to jail. It was a very short interaction she had with Sprague and, frankly, one that really didn’t need to happen. Heather Sprague, who claims to be medically fragile and has many children who are also medically fragile, CHOSE to meddle in a perfect stranger’s personal business. It seems to me that if Ms. Hunter was really that out of control, the store manager or perhaps even law enforcement should have been called– especially if Ms. Sprague is a cancer patient with small children at home. I mean, seriously… it’s Florida. She’s lucky no one pulled out a gun!

Many people were saying that Ms. Hunter’s decision to cough on Ms. Sprague was especially heartless, since Ms. Sprague has had cancer. But– if these two women didn’t even know each other, how could Ms. Hunter possibly know anything about Ms. Sprague’s medical history or condition? Yes, it was absolutely wrong for Hunter to lose her temper and cough on another person, particularly during a pandemic. But in June of last year, COVID-19 hadn’t yet wreaked the havoc that it since has worldwide. It was still very much a “novel” virus, and people in the United States were blissfully unaware of what was about to come. At that point, Ms. Hunter probably didn’t realize how dangerous coughing on someone is. The vast majority of us alive today have never before lived through a pandemic the likes of COVID-19. It was new territory in June 2020, and even as angry as Hunter was on that June day last year, I doubt she would have taken that action months later, when it became clearer how dangerous COVID-19 is.

As it turned out, Hunter didn’t have COVID-19 anyway, so while coughing on Sprague was rude, disgusting, and potentially dangerous, it wasn’t a murderous action. But people are still calling what she did “attempted murder” or “attempted manslaughter”. To that, I say “bullshit”. Yes, it was absolutely wrong for her to cough on Ms. Sprague, but I feel quite certain that Ms. Hunter’s intention was not to kill anyone. She was just really angry and having a very bad day, as we all do from time to time. And if Sprague hadn’t been filming her with the apparent intention of shaming, ridiculing, and destroying her life on social media, she probably would not have been on the receiving end of Ms. Hunter’s cough.

I don’t think Debra Hunter’s actions in June 2020 were appropriate. She was extremely angry that day, and according to Ms. Sprague, Hunter had been going off in the store for about fifteen minutes. Friends and colleagues who testified on her behalf in the above video claim that this behavior was out of character for Debra Hunter. Her husband testified that the two of them had been trying to build a house and had run into significant problems with the contractors who were building it. Then, their rental house caught on fire and they lost a lot of their personal possessions. If what Ms. Hunter’s husband says is true, I can understand why Ms. Hunter was stressed. No, she certainly shouldn’t have been taking out her stress on the Pier 1 clerk, nor should she have lost her temper with Heather Sprague’s busybody proclivities— but I can see that she was under a lot of stress. And, not knowing the story behind why she was trying to return the item to Pier 1, I don’t have a clear idea of why she was projecting her rage on the sales associate, attracting Ms. Sprague’s attention.

If you are a regular reader of my blog, you probably know that I really don’t like this trend of people videoing strangers and making them go viral. I think such an action, while probably very satisfying for the person filming/judging/meddling, as well as the people who watch the videos, can have serious second and third order negative effects that don’t fit the “crime”. Everybody has bad days, and not a single one of us can be defined by the worst thing we’ve ever said or done. Is it really appropriate to destroy someone’s reputation and livelihood, as well as that of her family’s (particularly the children’s) just so someone can get fifteen minutes of fame?

I would have been much more impressed with Heather Sprague if she’d intervened by being kind. Perhaps if she had interjected by asking Debra Hunter if she was okay… or tried to help her calm down a bit. She mentioned Hunter’s child being there, doing the “potty dance”. Maybe Sprague could have redirected Hunter’s attention to the child, rather than whipping out her cellphone. If she really felt the need to meddle in this situation, she could have done so with a spirit of wanting to be helpful, rather than being judgmental. Now, thanks to Heather Sprague’s brand of “help”, Hunter’s children are being ostracized and may suffer psychological effects from this incident. Hunter will be going to jail, where she might be exposed to COVID-19 and, frankly, it’s doubtful that punishment in jail will rehabilitate her in any way.

I know a lot of people, particularly in the United States, think jail is the end all, be all of punishments. For some reason, a lot of us LOVE to see people rot behind bars, for the most trivial of infractions. Many Americans seem to enjoy it when someone gets the book thrown at them, and a lot of us are slow to forgive, unless the situation involves a pretty celebrity of some sort. But, I wonder how many rank and file Americans would like it if some stranger videoed them in the act of having a bad day, and took it upon themselves to put that moment or two on social media? Would they say to themselves, “I deserve the death threats and the nasty phone calls, letters, and text messages from thousands of people around the world.”? Would they say, “I was a jackass, and my kids totally deserve to be ostracized and harassed by their peers because of what I did.”? Would they be completely fine with losing their job, as well as their spouses losing their job, based on something that occurred outside of work hours? My guess is that the vast majority of people would not. And I haven’t even mentioned the hate mail and vitriol people who have the misfortune of sharing the name “Hunter” have gotten in the wake of this fiasco. Several innocent people have had to make statements that they weren’t involved in this incident.

I will agree that Ms. Hunter didn’t seem overly concerned about Heather Sprague’s welfare. But, I would submit that Heather Sprague wasn’t too concerned about Debra Hunter’s welfare, either, when she took it upon herself to make her Internet infamous. I’m truly sorry that Heather Sprague was so terrified that she might get COVID-19 from being coughed on… but this was a situation that she could have avoided by simply minding her own business or, barring that, asking someone in authority to get involved. And if I were someone who suffered from a brain tumor and had medically fragile children to care for, that is what I think I would have done. Or, I would have alerted someone who could have intervened without as much personal risk. I’ve heard many people say that anyone who is medically fragile in the age of COVID-19 ought to “stay home” and avoid the risk of catching the virus. Seems like that advice could apply to Heather Sprague, too.

Perhaps it’s my time in Germany that has made me find this practice of making people Internet infamous so distasteful. Here, people have the right to be forgotten. Even people who are accused and convicted of crimes have the right to anonymity. Media outlets don’t always print people’s full names, nor do they show their faces, if they have been accused or convicted of a crime. Now, I don’t mean to imply that this is necessarily how it should be everywhere, but I do think there is something to be said for letting people live down their past misdeeds and get on with their lives. I don’t think the trend of making people go viral is fair, nor is it practical. Because, eventually, people who screw up, need to be able to go on with life. They need to be able to find employment so they can support themselves. They should be able to redeem themselves, so the rest of their lives isn’t completely fucked up forever.

Uninvolved people who take it upon themselves to film strangers behaving badly are basically acting as judge, jury, and executioner when they upload that stuff to social media. I think, if a person films something that is criminal, it’s more appropriate to give that footage to authorities, rather than taking it upon themselves to put the footage on YouTube or Facebook. Frankly, I won’t be surprised if people start suing these meddlesome folks… or much worse, someone gets shot for pulling out a cellphone.

One more point I would like to add. Judge Ruth reasoned that he sentenced Debra Hunter to jail because he hadn’t heard her express remorse to Heather Sprague. He seemed to imply that she wasn’t sorry for what happened. Personally, I disagree with his assessment. I listened to Debra Hunter’s testimony. At about the 1:30:00 mark in the video, Hunter’s lawyer invites his client to speak on her own behalf. She tells the judge that she’s already written a letter and won’t put him through listening to her points again. The judge interjects and tells her it’s “her day” in court. She speaks about how her three children have suffered because of what “she did”. She sounded genuinely sorry to me, and even said she could empathize with the parents who stopped letting their kids play with Hunter’s children. The judge even told Ms. Hunter to slow down and relax, because she was clearly very upset. At 1:40:00, she legitimately starts to sob. And yet, so many people, reacting to headlines, are calling her a narcissistic monster who should lose her kids and rot in prison. WTF?

I have had lots of dealings with real narcissists… and they don’t behave like Debra Hunter did in her hearing. I would encourage those who think she’s a monster to actually listen to her testimony. At 1:48:00, Debra Hunter actually says she deserves what she’s getting… in contrast to what the judge said, I did hear her mention Ms. Sprague and how this affected her, again at about 1:48:00. She mentions that there has been a “lot of fallout” for Ms. Sprague and her family. At 1:50:00, she apologizes to Sprague and mentions the letter of apology that she sent to her soon after the incident.

The judge says that due to the length of Ms. Hunter’s tirade and the fact that there was saliva that came from the cough, she deserves jail. Well, as we’ve learned since last year, saliva and spittle is a thing when we talk, breathe, sneeze, and cough. Even if Ms. Hunter hadn’t coughed, there would have been saliva droplets. That is the nature of things pertaining to the oral cavity, and why we’ve all been forced to wear masks for the past year. I’m not saying the cough was appropriate. It wasn’t. I’m saying that there would have been saliva regardless, and this occurred at a time when we didn’t know as many of the facts about COVID-19. Again– if this incident had occurred this year, I doubt Ms. Hunter would have done what she did, and she might have been wearing a face mask, anyway.

I know my opinion is unpopular. I expect some people will feel the need to correct my opinion in the form of strongly worded comments. If you are a regular reader of my blog, you probably already know how I feel about people who feel the need to directly “correct” people’s opinions. I just don’t think, in this case, the punishment is appropriate. Yes, Ms. Hunter should have been in much better control of her emotions. I do think she needs some help from a mental health professional. I do think it’s appropriate that she pay a fine and reimburse Heather Sprague for what she spent on the COVID-19 test. I think community service and probation would also be appropriate. But we have so many people in jail, and the fact that the Hunter family has endured almost a year of “venom” (at 2:50:00) from the court of public opinion is already a heavy punishment.

And that venom hasn’t just affected Debra Hunter. It’s affected her business, her family, her children, and friends, as well as perfect strangers with the last name Hunter who have gotten hate mail and death threats, or had their businesses negatively affected by Sprague’s decision to film. That’s a whole lot of punishment delivered to uninvolved people for something that, prior to Facebook, would never have been international news, and probably would not have affected so many people besides those directly involved in the incident.

My guess is that most of the people– completely uninvolved strangers— who are calling for Hunter’s head on a platter would NOT like it if they got the same treatment for similar behavior. Anyone who thinks this can’t happen to them is fooling themselves. I’m sitting here reading this and listening to the actual court case in GERMANY, for Christ’s sakes. Think about that.

I wish Debra Hunter well and hope she and her family can move past this incident without too much trouble.

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law, LDS, religion, true crime

Repost: Rape culture in churches

I am reposting this blog entry that originally appeared on October 16, 2016. I have no reason for reposting it, other than I think it’s an interesting piece. Bear in mind that it was written almost five years ago and I haven’t changed the content, so some comments may be outdated.

I just read a very disturbing article about a lawsuit that was just filed against a Jehovah’s Witnesses church in Weber County, Utah.  The lawsuit was filed by a woman who claims that she was repeatedly raped by a church instructor and JW officials later her made her listen to a recording of one of her assaults.  The woman seeks a jury trial and $300,000 to cover medical care, legal fees, and general damages. 

According to the article I read, the woman may or may not have gone to the police after she was allegedly raped by a church instructor.  The Salt Lake Tribune states that members of the JW faith are encouraged to bring problems to church elders rather than involving outsiders.  Having done my share of reading about Jehovah’s Witnesses and having had a relative who was once a member, I can affirm that this attitude is prevalent among people involved with the Witnesses.

In this case, the assaults against the woman allegedly took place after she went out with the instructor on a date.  He took her cell phone from her and said she had to kiss him on the cheek to get it back.  She refused, so he kicked her out of his car.  Later, he came back for her and the assaults apparently escalated from there.  When the assaults were brought to the attention of JW officials, they began an investigation…  but it was not an investigation against the perpetrator.  Instead, the young woman was investigated.  Below is a quote from the article linked above:

In April 2008, the Roy church formed a judicial committee to investigate whether the girl engaged in inappropriate sexual behavior — “a serious sin” in the religion. During the meeting that included her mother and stepfather, the lawsuit states, church leaders played a recording of one of the purported rapes, obtained from the instructor, for four to five hours “repeatedly stopping and starting the audio tape … suggesting that she consented to the sexual behavior.”

The woman alleges that she was raped several times.  Realizing the patriarchal culture within the Jehovah’s Witnesses, it’s possible that she felt like she had to do what this man said.  She was likely taught to do whatever the church officials told her to do.  As the attacker was apparently her church instructor, she probably felt that she had no choice.  It really is a shame that people continue to get and stay involved in religious organizations that promote this kind of thinking and do nothing to empower everyone, not just the men. 

This situation among the JWs in Utah sounds an awful lot like the recent hullabaloo about Brigham Young University’s policy of bringing rape victims up on Honor Code violations.  Women who dared to report rape to the police or University officials were getting in trouble for putting themselves in situations where they might be assaulted.  For the record, I think these kinds of policies are disgusting and they keep our society in the Dark Ages.  

Of course people– male or female– who choose to sexually assault others should be held responsible for their actions.  At the same time, I don’t think it’s wrong for people to look out for themselves.  I wish these churches and universities like BYU would do more to promote personal safety outside of the religious sense.  I wish they wouldn’t simply tell women to protect their virginity and purity because that’s supposedly what God wants.  They should be empowering them to protect themselves because they don’t want to be victims of crimes. 

It’s interesting that this subject came on my radar this morning.  I just saw a Facebook post by 11th Principle: Consent about how rape culture develops.  Although I would absolutely never say that it’s okay to rape someone, I do think it pays to be careful.  One young woman made a comment about how she’d gotten very drunk at a party and was raped while she was unconscious.  She wrote that it was wrong that she was raped, but she shared some responsibility in the situation by drinking so much that she passed out.  She got a lot of indignant comments from people who said that no part of the rape was her fault at all; she bore absolutely no responsibility toward the crime perpetrated against her.

At the risk of pissing off a lot of people, I will go on record as saying that I agree that rape is never a victim’s fault.  However, I do think that everyone– males and females– should take some responsibility for their personal safety.  One of the comments I read on the 11 Principle: Consent Facebook page was this:

– if you went for a walk, but someone chose to stab you, should you have stayed in?

-if you decided to go for a drive, but someone drove into your car, is it your fault?

-if you went for a swim, but someone drowned you, was it your fault because you put yourself in a position where you could be drowned?

My response is that in the above examples, precautions could have been taken to lessen the chance of harm or mitigate the harm that did occur.  For instance, when you take a walk, you choose areas where there are people around.  You carry a cell phone that is charged and ready in case of emergency.  You tell someone where you’re going.  You might learn self defense.  These are things you can do to lessen the chance that you’ll be a victim.  You might still end up being victimized, but you will have taken steps to lessen the chance of it.

If you go for a drive, you wear a seatbelt (even though I hate them).  You make sure your car is safe to drive.  You don’t drink alcohol or take drugs before getting behind the wheel.  You make sure you are well rested.  You might still have an accident, but you’ve done your part to lessen the probability.

If you go for a swim, you make sure you can actually swim.  If you can’t, you learn how and stay out of the deep end until you have the appropriate skills.  You take someone with you when you swim.  You use floatation devices if you need them.  You might still drown, but the chances are not as high as they could be.

When it comes to assaults, sexual or otherwise, I think the same responsibilities apply.  Don’t get so fucked up that you black out.  Don’t go to parties alone, especially if you don’t know the people hosting them.  If you do get assaulted, it’s certainly not your fault.  But my guess is that you will learn from the assault and take steps to be sure it doesn’t happen again.  It sounded to me like the young woman who said she shared in the responsibility of her attack had simply learned from it.  She’d made a mistake by getting so intoxicated.  I have made the same mistakes myself on a number of occasions.  There, but by the grace of God, go I.  

Is it ever your fault if you get assaulted?  No.  The person who chooses to perpetrate a crime is always the guilty party.  But the point is, there are things you can do to lessen the chance that you will be a victim.  I don’t think it’s wrong to acknowledge that.  I don’t think that line of thinking promotes “rape culture”.  I applaud the young woman who realizes that she was wrong to get so drunk that she passed out.  At the same time, I think it’s sad that there are shitty people out there who would take advantage of a woman so distressed.

I’m reading the article about the lawsuit against the JWs just as everyone’s talking about Donald Trump’s infamous “locker room” talk.  I have friends of every stripe opining on a potential U.S. president talking about grabbing women by their pussies.  I have a number of very religious relatives criticizing Hillary Clinton because– well, probably because she’s a female liberal.  These same supposedly God fearing people see no problem with voting for a man who brags about forcing himself on women and grabbing their crotches.  But if a woman gets assaulted, instead of being outraged, they look for ways to blame her.  I don’t think that’s right.  But I do think there are things people can and should do to protect themselves.

As for the woman suing the JWs, I don’t think it’s wrong that she’s filed a lawsuit.  This isn’t the first time I’ve heard of a pervert ending up in power.  It’s not just the JWs, either.  Lots of churches empower creeps who then victimize their supposed underlings.  I’ve read about plenty of religious organizations who don’t do enough to keep bad people from powerful positions.  I think they should be held accountable when these things happen.  Again, from the article:

A leader from the congregation apparently warned the girl’s parents in November 2006 that the instructor — who previously attended church sessions in Ogden and Oregon — was a “bad kid” who had “engaged in inappropriate sexual behavior with a female member of the Clearfield congregation.” The plaintiff says that warning wasn’t enough.

How did the guy end up a “church instructor” if church leaders knew he was a “bad kid”?  One has to wonder.  At the same time, isn’t it crazy that someone like Donald Trump, who openly admits to being a pervy creep– even if it was privately– might end up leading the country?  No wonder we have issues with so-called “rape culture”.

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book reviews, LDS, true crime

Reposted review of Under the Banner of Heaven

Here’s another Epinions review that I reposted on my old blog and am reposting as/is on this blog. Jon Krakauer’s book about Mormonism is well worth a read, even years later. I wrote this review in June 2006, but the book remains relevant today, especially as Netflix airs its new documentary, Murder Among the Mormons.

The official trailer for Murder Among the Mormons, which I haven’t yet seen.

Those of you who regularly read my book reviews on Epinions.com may have noticed that recently, I’ve been reading and writing reviews of a lot of books about Mormonism. I thought I would take a break from the subject until I happened to run across Jon Krakauer’s 2003 book Under the Banner of Heaven: A Story of Violent Faith at Fort Belvoir’s thrift shop. I had just read several very interesting Epinions reviews about the book and had already planned to purchase it at full price. I couldn’t resist when I saw it priced at $4 at the thrift shop. I picked it up last weekend and wasn’t able to put it down until I finished reading it last night.

Under the Banner of Heaven is a fascinating book. It seems to be part true crime, part history book, and part expose. At this book’s core is the story of Dan and Ron Lafferty, two brothers who, on July 24, 1984, believed they had received a commandment from God to brutally murder their sister in law, Brenda Lafferty, and her fifteen month old daughter, Erica. July 24th is a significant day in LDS culture. It’s Pioneer Day, which is the anniversary of the day Brigham Young and his followers found the Salt Lake Valley. Brenda Lafferty was a vibrant, outspoken woman who had apparently encouraged her sisters in law to be assertive in their dealings with their husbands. She paid for her rebellious streak with her life not long after Ron Lafferty’s wife decided to leave him.

The Lafferty brothers were members of a fundamentalist sect of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints. Popularly known as Mormon Fundamentalists and collectively known as the FLDS church, this group is not the same as the mainstream LDS church. One of the most striking differences between the FLDS church and the main LDS church is that Mormon Fundamentalists practice plural marriage, which is a form of polygamy. Although the mainstream LDS church denounced polygamy in 1890, Mormon fundamentalists are ultra conservatives who believe that polygamy was an essential teaching according to the LDS church’s founder and first prophet, Joseph Smith. True believing Mormon Fundamentalist men take multiple wives and typically have many children who grow up in the faith.

In Under the Banner of Heaven, Jon Krakauer relates the story of the Lafferty brothers, but he also includes the history of the LDS church and its splinter groups. He writes about Colorado City, Arizona/ Hildale, Utah the FLDS community on the Arizona/Utah borders and Bountiful in British Columbia. He includes chapters about famous and infamous FLDS church members who have been in the news over the past few years. There’s a chapter on famed polygamist Tom Green and one on Elizabeth Smart’s kidnapper, Brian David Mitchell and his wife, Wanda Barzee. Krakauer weaves these stories in with the core story about the Lafferty brothers and their gruesome murders, effectively showing how everything is interrelated.

Krakauer, who grew up an agnostic among Mormons in Corvallis, Oregon, writes in his epilogue that this book turned out differently than he expected. He wanted to write a book that explored and compared the LDS Church’s present with its past. But as he started writing Under the Banner of Heaven, Krakauer found himself drifting onto a different path. I was very impressed with Krakauer’s ability to look at the many aspects of the LDS church’s very convoluted and colorful history and write a book that was both very interesting and informative. Krakauer writes that his book was generally not well-received among many members of the LDS church. I never detected any bias for or against the church on Krakauer’s part. Yes, he did expose some of the more troubling aspects of the church’s past, but he also wrote about how Mormon pioneers were persecuted. I came away with the idea that Krakauer was just reporting the facts without necessarily passing judgment.

I will warn that parts of this book are very sad and upsetting. Krakauer does not mince words as he describes how Brenda Lafferty and her daughter were killed. Reading about Brenda Laffety’s murder was very troubling; but to me, it was much more disturbing to read about the way her innocent child was butchered. You may not want to read this book if graphic descriptions of brutality keep you up at night.

Although this book was published three years ago, it’s quite timely today. Krakauer provides a lot of information about Warren Jeffs, the self-proclaimed prophet of the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints. Jeffs was very recently put on the FBI’s most wanted list for sexual conduct with minors and conspiracy to commit sexual conduct with minors. Krakauer explains how Warren Jeffs came to be a prophet and provides chilling information about Jeffs’ late father, Rulon Jeffs, the former prophet who was once known as “Uncle Rulon”.

On the surface, Under the Banner of Heaven seems to be about a double murder. Looking deeper, this book is about much more than two heinous crimes. It casts a revealing look at the relationship between mainstream Mormonism, the fastest growing religion in America, and Mormon Fundamentalism, a faith that few people understand. Krakauer spent many hours interviewing people for this book, including Dan Lafferty himself. The Lafferty brothers insist that they were on a mission from God when they killed Brenda Lafferty and her daughter. In fact, they meant to kill at least two more people that day, but perhaps God intervened on their behalf.

Under the Banner of Heaven is not an easy book to read. Krakauer packs a lot in 365 pages and he does a good job of explaining a religious environment that is foreign to many people. I think he’s written an important and riveting book, although I suspect that it’s not a popular choice among devout Mormons. I would definitely recommend this book to anyone who enjoys reading about true crime and history. I found this book well-written, well-researched, and extremely hard to put down. I also learned a lot more than I bargained for when I bought this book.

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education, poor judgment, stupid people, true crime

I hope you know that this will go down on your permanent record!

Good morning, y’all… It’s my third Wednesday as a pseudo single person. Bill is supposed to come home sometime between tomorrow night and Friday night. Originally, the plan was for him to come back Friday night, but he needs to get a new ID card or he can’t work. Our cards expire on the 23rd, even though we just updated them in September. Bill is now on a new contract and that means new cards. Come to think of it, before long, I’ll also need a new regular military ID– the one I’d use in the USA if we were there.

In any case, Bill tried to get a new card made at an installation somewhat close to where he is right now, but that office ran out of ID cards on the day he was going to go. The other ID office near his current location is closed until the 29th. So then Bill said maybe he’d come home on Thursday night and get new cards made in Wiesbaden. I assume he’d be taking me, too, since I also need a new card, not that I spend any time on the installation during the COVID-19 mess. But then last night, he said getting one in Wiesbaden is also not possible. So now he says he will try to get one in Hohenfels, which was his original plan. Maybe they have a restock of IDs by now. If he does that, he says maybe he’ll be home Friday morning. That would be good.

It occurs to me how lucky we are to like each other so much. Yes, we love each other, but we also LIKE each other a lot. And we miss each other when we aren’t together. Bill’s business trips are boring for both of us. Sometimes I go with him, but then I end up hanging out by myself all day in a hotel room or wandering aimlessly. I am actually glad I got to go with him to Poland in November 2019, though. That was a pretty interesting trip. It would have been even better if we could have driven ourselves there rather than flown.

Anyway… on to today’s topic. I cannot, for the life of me, understand the mentality of some people– mothers especially– who feel the need to commit crimes on behalf of their children. Especially crimes that are more about their egos than preserving life or limb. I mean, I can understand a woman going all “mama bear” on someone who literally threatens or hurts her child somehow. But what about the moms who feel like they need to engage in fraud, harassment, or computer crimes to make sure her little darling(s) is/are on top of the heap? We’ve spent the last two years hearing about Felicity Huffman and Lori Loughlin committing fraud and cheating to get their daughters into good schools. But more ordinary moms of more modest means also commit these crimes on behalf of their children.

I ran across two such stories yesterday involving meddlesome moms who are now in legal trouble because they couldn’t or wouldn’t let their daughters achieve things on their own. In one case, the mom and daughter were both involved and BOTH of them got arrested. I’m sure that will look good on the girl’s permanent record.

Case #1

Meet Raffaela Spone, a 50 year old mom from Chalfont, Pennsylvania. She is currently facing misdemeanor charges for producing “deep fake” nudes of her daughters’ rivals on her high school cheerleading team. Ms. Spone was arrested on March 5, having been charged with three counts of cyber harassment of a child and three counts of harassment. In her mug shot, she stares blank faced at the camera, her heavily lined eyes glaring, her thin, maroon lips pursed into a line. She wears a chartreuse colored top and a necklace, indicating that fashion and looking snappy is important to her.

Ms. Spone allegedly doctored photos of her daughters’ rivals on a Doylestown area cheerleading team, creating realistic looking images that make it look like the girls were photographed nude, vaping, or drinking beer in bikinis. She sent these fake photos to cheerleading coaches in an effort to get the girls kicked off their team. She also texted the photos to the girls themselves and suggested that at least one of them should kill herself. The three victimized girls were all on the same team as Spone’s daughter, but investigators don’t think she had anything to do with the harassment or was aware of what her mother was doing.

A case like this has all the trappings of a Lifetime movie. In fact, back in the 1993, HBO made a satirical movie about Wanda Holloway, a mother in Texas who actually hired a hitman to kill her daughter’s cheerleading rival. Fortunately, the would be hitman turned Wanda in and the plot failed. In that film rendition, The Positively True Adventures of the Alleged Texas Cheerleader-Murdering Mom, Holly Hunter played Wanda Holloway. In 1992, ABC also made a movie about Wanda Holloway, Willing to Kill: The Texas Cheerleader Story, with Lesley Ann Warren playing Wanda. I haven’t seen either film. Maybe I’ll seek them out today.

I wonder if Raffaela Spone thinks someone might portray her on film someday. I’m sure Lifetime would be all over it. At least in this case, no one was physically hurt and murder was never on the table. If she is convicted, Raffaela Spone could spend six months to a year in prison. Mitigating matters is the fact that in one of the doctored photos that was supposed to appear to be a nude, Spone had digitally removed the bikini in the photo and overlaid flesh colored bars that gave the photo a “Barbie doll” effect, with no genitalia showing. Had anything private been showing, Spone would be facing much more serious charges.

Meanwhile, I’m sure everyone in their town now knows who Spone’s daughter is, even though she wasn’t implicated in the case. In her quest to cheat for her daughter, Spone has made things much worse for her. Even though the daughter wasn’t involved, her permanent record now has a blight. Hopefully, the people of that community are empathetic. I can only imagine Spone is probably a nightmare when she’s behind closed doors, particularly if she’s willing to go to these lengths to cheat for her daughter.

Case #2

We now move south to Florida, where a 17 year old high school student and her mother, Laura Rose Carroll, who also happens to be an assistant principal at Bellview Elementary School, have been arrested for hacking the school’s computer system. Ms. Carroll is alleged to have logged into the school’s computer system and casted 246 votes for her daughter, who was on the Homecoming Court. Ms. Carroll’s efforts, had they not been discovered, would have resulted in her daughter winning the contest under false pretenses.

The list of charges against Laura Rose Carroll and her daughter is long. According to The Hill, “the mother and daughter will be charged with offenses against users of computers, computer systems, computer networks, and electronic devices, unlawful use of a two-way communications device, criminal use of personally identifiable information and conspiracy to commit these offenses.” Arrest records also indicate that Ms. Carroll’s daughter also had improper access to her mother’s “FOCUS” account. I’m assuming that FOCUS is some kind of school computer system that has all of the permanent records of the students in the school system. Naturally, that would include personal information that should not be accessible to anyone who doesn’t specifically need access to such personal and confidential information. A witness claims that the daughter had access to the FOCUS account for a long time and use it frequently to get information about test scores and grades. The daughter also allegedly divulged private information about other students to her friends.

Given who Ms. Carroll is, it’s highly likely that everyone knows who her daughter is, despite her name not being printed in the media due to her age. Not knowing anything at all about this duo and not finding the news articles about them particularly illuminating, I wonder what the conditions were that led to this mother-daughter crime spree. Which one of them is the more toxically ambitious of the two? Is it mom who wants to see her daughter crowned in a means to stroke her own ego and, perhaps, vicariously live through her daughter’s achievements, even if they were ill gotten? Or is it the daughter who convinced her mother to help her cheat? It will be interesting to see if the media reveals any more details about this case.

I suspect Ms. Carroll is now unemployed. If she’s not unemployed yet, she probably will be very soon. Her bond was set at $8500, while her daughter was carted off to juvenile hall. I wonder if it was worth it to them.

These cases make me appreciate my mom more. I mean, hell, my mom won a beauty contest when she was 16 years old. I’m sure she would have loved it if I had been pretty and popular instead of outspoken and obnoxious. Fortunately, my mom is not ambitious for anyone but herself, and she pretty much stayed out of my life once I was at puberty. She stuck to paying the bills and encouraging me to get a job and GTFO on my own. She sure as hell wasn’t involved in my horse shows, which was what I was doing when I was a teen. She didn’t even look at my report cards. At the time, I thought that made her uncaring, but now I think she did me a solid. Anything I achieved, I did so legitimately and mostly on my own. At least neither of us were ever arrested for cheating or harassment or any other embarrassing misdeed that would have wound up on my permanent record. I have the satisfaction of knowing I can do things on my own… which I’ve been unhappily proving for almost three weeks now.

On another note… for some reason, as I type this, I am reminded of this classic song by Violent Femmes… the album this song comes from never ages, even though the lead singer can’t sing. What he has is vocal charisma. I’m sure it’s served him well over the years.

“I hope you know that this will go down on your PERMANENT RECORD!” Oh yeah?
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book reviews, true crime

Repost: A review of Burl Barer’s Mom Said Kill…

Here’s a repost of a grisly true crime book I read and reviewed in 2009. I am reposting it as/is here. Incidentally, Burl Barer once commented on my original blog. He responded to a rant I wrote about being frustrated by writing, but also noted a positive review I had written of his work.

Mom Said Kill… and unfortunately the kids obeyed

I’ve often heard it said that people who want to become parents ought to be subjected to a licensing process. We license people before they can legally drive cars. We license people before they can legally practice certain professions. We even license dogs. But when it comes to raising children, arguably one of life’s most challenging jobs, it sometimes seems the least qualified people are first in line for the position. Such was the case for Barbara Opel, a mother of three who lived in Everett, Washington. Barbara Opel had always impressed upon her children the importance of minding their mother. With their help, along with that of several other teens and pre-teens, Barbara Opel plotted 64 year old Jerry Heimann’s murder. Burl Barer writes about the shocking case in his 2008 book, Mom Said Kill.

In 2001, Barbara Opel and her kids, 13 year old Heather, 11 year old Derek, and 7 year old Tiffany, were living with Jerry Heimann, a generous, kind-hearted man who had needed help taking care of his 89 year old mother, Evelyn. Jerry Heimann was managing the pain of his terminal cancer and his wheelchair-bound mother was suffering from Alzheimer’s disease.

Barbara Opel’s weapons: her kids and her temper

Heather Opel was an attractive girl. Naturally athletic and a good student, she seemed to have a good future ahead of her, even though her mother had a reputation for being “mean”. Heather and her brother, Derek, had been denied access to their father, William Opel, ever since their parents divorced in 1991. Their sister, Tiffany, was the product of another relationship.

Heather was involved in sports, which her mother always attended. She was widely known among the other parents, kids, and the coach as having a “hell of a temper”.  Evidently, Heather Opel had learned at an early age never to question her mother under any circumstances, lest she suffer dire consequences. And yet, despite her allegedly fearsome temper, Barbara Opel had more teenaged friends than adult friends.

Building up to murder

On April 7, 2001, Marriam Oliver, one of Heather’s friends, approached 17 year old Jeff Grote at a skating rink and told him that Heather thought he was cute. The next day, Heather Opel and Jeff Grote had sex in Derek Opel’s bedroom. When they were finished, Barbara Opel gave Jeff permission to spend the night with Heather. A couple of days later, Barbara finally sat down with Jeff to have a serious chat, but she didn’t want to talk about the consequences of having unprotected sex. Instead, Barbara Opel proposed murder. She wanted Jeff’s help in killing her employer, Jerry Heimann, claiming that he had been cruel to Heather.

At first, Jeff Grote refused any part of Barbara Opel’s plan, but the ever persistant woman kept nagging him, demanding that he find someone to carry out the deed. She offered him cash and a new car, and told him that after they killed Heimann, they could get their hands on the $40,000 in his bank account. For Heather’s help in the murder, Barbara Opel promised a new bike.

Jeff Grote came through with a few friends and on April 13, 2001, Barbara Opel’s gang of teens and pre-teens savagely attacked Jerry Heimann with knives and baseball bats. Once Heimann was dead, they doused his body with corrosive acid and dumped it. Seven year old Tiffany helped her mother in her unsuccessful attempt to clean up the mess. They took Heimann’s furniture and helped themselves to his checkbook. They left Heimann’s mother in her wheelchair, where she sat alone without food, water, or heat. Evelyn Heimann’s grandson, Gregory Heimann, found her eight days later, starving and dehydrated. He had shown up at the house looking for his father, who was supposed to meet him at the airport. It was to have been their first visit in five years.

My thoughts

Mom Said Kill is a very well written and researched account of a shockingly brutal murder. Of course, what makes this case more shocking than most is that it was perpetrated by children. Besides her daughter, Heather, and Jeff Grote, Barbara Opel managed to get several other young teenagers involved in the crime. Most of the teens, including Heather, ended up being tried as adults for the murder and will now spend many years in prison for following Barbara’s orders.  Thankfully, Barbara Opel is also now forever behind bars.

Burl Barer does a good job explaining the case. He also adds in some interesting commentary about brain development in adolescents and teenagers, pointing out that teenagers are not able to think as adults do and see the consequences of their behavior. For example, Barer explains that a fourteen year old may not have the capacity to understand what it means to spend twenty-five years in prison, nor may they understand what “the right to remain silent” actually means. Aside from his account of this case, Barer also explains how traumatic brain injuries and alcohol abuse during pregnancy and before adulthood can affect brain development. Sixteen pages of black and white photos are included.

Barbara Opel was, by Barer’s account, also a victim of child abuse.  Besides having been raised in an abusive environment, Barbara’s mother apparently drank a lot of alcohol during her pregnancy and had worked in a dry cleaning store, which exposed her to chemicals that may have affected Barbara’s brain development before she was born. Even as Barer demonstrates how horrible Barbara Opel’s crimes are, he also shows how she, too, was a product of the cycle of abuse. Nevertheless, while I could understand feeling some slight empathy toward Barbara Opel, my overwhelming reaction to this story was disgust and sorrow, for the senseless way Jerry Heimann died, for the grief his survivors have been forced to endure, and for the children, most of whom had no criminal record before the murder took place.

One additional personal note…

I have to admit that reading Mom Said Kill made me very uncomfortable. My husband was once married to a woman who, in many ways, reminds me of Barbara Opel. Reading this book made me feel some compassion toward my husband’s two daughters, neither of whom have spoken to him in years after disowning him at their mother’s behest. This book reminded me that many teenagers, particularly younger ones, just aren’t capable of thinking as rationally as adults are. Part of being a teen is making stupid mistakes, which may include challenging authority when it’s unwise to do so or not knowing when to question authority. On the other hand, this book also shows what can happen when the cycle of child abuse and neglect isn’t broken. And that’s why, besides compassion toward my husband’s kids, I also feel uneasy about their futures.

Anyway… I wholeheartedly recommend this book to true crime fans.

Burl Barer’s Web site…

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