book reviews, dogs, Virginia

Reviewing My Journey with Ernie: Lessons from a Turkey Dog, by Heidi H. Speece

A few weeks ago, I ran across an entertaining article in the Daily Press, a newspaper I read when I was growing up in Gloucester, Virginia. I had to use a VPN to read the article, thanks to the strict privacy laws in Europe that have made reading the news from home more complicated. I am glad I had the VPN, though. Otherwise, I might not have ever had the opportunity to read about Ernie, an adorable golden retriever “Turkey Dog” who is now happily living in York County, just across the river from where I spent my youth.

In that Daily Press article, I was introduced to Heidi H. Speece, a high school English teacher who decided she needed a change in her life. Change was most certainly in the cards for Heidi– in the form of a rescue dog from the streets of Istanbul. After I read the newspaper story, I was interested in reading Speece’s book. It turns out we have a lot in common, and not only because I grew up just over the river from where she now lives. We’re close in age, and I was once an English teacher, albeit only for a couple of years as a Peace Corps Volunteer.

Like me, Heidi Speece is a dog lover. Her former golden retriever, Buddy, had died about a year before Speece heard of a very special dog rescue called Kyra’s Rescue, which is based in Washington, DC. Kyra’s Rescue aims to find homes for stray dogs, primarily from Turkey. Turkey has a big problem with homeless dogs, many of which are golden retrievers or mixes thereof.

After Buddy died, Speece was missing canine company. She had visited Turkey on a cruise in the late 90s and had loved the country. So she contacted Kyra’s Rescue and started the process of adopting Ernie, a golden retriever who was found abandoned outside a Turkish auto body shop in March 2017. Now about ten years old, Ernie has brought Speece laughter, adventure, and much joy. But it could have turned out very differently for Ernie if not for a few guardian angels, both in Turkey and the United States.

When he was found, Ernie was malnourished, mangy, and had a bad hip injury, most likely caused by being hit by a car. He had managed to survive, thanks to kindhearted mechanics who worked at the auto body shop. They gave him scraps of food and let him sleep in the shop when the weather got too inclement. Later, a woman took Ernie to a pet boarding facility, where he was eventually connected with Kyra’s Rescue. Ernie arrived in the United States on July 4, 2017; Heidi picked him up in the parking lot of an IKEA the next day, and gave him the middle name “Bert”. You can probably guess why she added the name “Bert”, if you are familiar with the children’s TV show, “Sesame Street”. I used to live in northern Virginia, so I know exactly where the IKEA is where Heidi and Ernie came together!

I am familiar with the homeless dog issue myself, having spent two years in neighboring Armenia as a Peace Corps Volunteer. I still vividly remember the packs of street dogs there. I’ve also visited Turkey, so I’m not surprised that there are stray dogs there. However, I was surprised to read that the homeless dogs in Turkey are often golden retrievers. Golden retrievers are originally from Scotland. Also, I’d always known them as great family dogs, lovable, sweet, and friendly. But then, although I’ve adopted several rescue dogs, I have little personal experience with golden retrievers.

As I read Speece’s hilarious story about Ernie and his non-stop antics, I sort of understood better why they might be cast out of their human families– not at all that I condone abandoning a pet. It turns out that golden retrievers are sweet, but very mischievous! People who are inexperienced with golden retrievers sometimes adopt them, forgetting that the cute little puppy will eventually grow into a large dog who can raise all kinds of ruckus. Very soon, Heidi Speece got the excitement she needed, as her new companion collected balls, ran amok at football games, and attacked model skeletons in veterinary offices. Ernie quickly bonded with Heidi’s mom, who lives in Williamsburg. She dubbed herself Ernie’s “grandmummy” and also eventually adopted a “Turkey Dog” from Kyra’s Rescue, another golden retriever named Limerick.

I really appreciated the thoughtful touches that are included in My Journey With Ernie. I mentioned that Heidi Speece teaches English, so her book includes some resources that other authors might not have considered. At the end of her story, she admits to knowing that high school students often use tools such as “Cliff’s Notes” to familiarize themselves with works of literature. In that vein, Speece offers a “watered down” version of her story, including a cast of characters, which makes it easy for me to remind myself of details I might have missed while reading the book. I thought it was an ingenious touch!

My Journey With Ernie was just published last month, so the information in it is very current. Speece even writes about a recent rule from the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) that is wreaking havoc with Americans who have pets and live overseas. In July 2021, the CDC imposed a temporary ban on importing dogs to the United States from countries at “high risk” of rabies transmission. Turkey is on that list or high risk countries, so at the moment, it’s much harder for Americans to adopt dogs from Turkey.

I’m in a Facebook group for servicemembers who are moving to or from the United States with pets. Germany is NOT on the CDC’s banned list of import countries. However, because of the hassle and potential liability issues from the ban, Lufthansa, Germany’s national airline, which happens to be among the best for transporting dogs, has also reportedly been declining to transport animals to the United States from Germany. It’s caused a huge problem for people who are trying to rotate back to the States from Germany with their dogs.

I’ve read many panicked messages from Americans trying to move back to the States with dogs and running into roadblocks. And the new rule also doesn’t help that negative impression some Germans have of American dog owners. Speece rightfully points out that, although the rule came about because someone imported a rabies positive dog from Azerbaijan, the odds of other dogs coming to the States with rabies is tiny. The new rule really does make things difficult for a lot of people and their pets. I speak from personal experience that international travel with dogs has never been easy or cheap, even before the pandemic struck and this new rule was enacted. Hopefully, some successful lobbying will get the rule dropped or restructured so that it doesn’t cause such a hardship for Americans who live abroad.

As my regular readers might know, Bill and I adopted a street dog ourselves last year. On August 31, 2019, our beloved beagle, Zane, died of lymphoma. Ordinarily, we would have contacted a beagle rescue and adopted another beagle to keep our surviving dog, Arran, company. But beagles aren’t as popular in Germany as they are in the United States, so they aren’t as easy to adopt here.

Americans also suffer from a lingering bad reputation among animal shelters in Germany, thanks to some members of the military abandoning their pets before leaving Germany to go back to the States or elsewhere. A lot of Americans in Germany who want a dog end up buying them from breeders. We didn’t want to buy a dog from a breeder. Bill and I did try to adopt a beagle from a German pet rescue, just as the pandemic began. But thanks to a series of disasters and an ultimate tragedy, that adoption didn’t work out. You can search my blog for the story on that incident.

But happily, we do have another dog now, which makes me have something else in common with Heidi Speece– as our latest dog is also from a country that has issues with strays. A fellow dog loving friend and dog rescuer introduced me to an American woman named Meg who lives in Germany and rescues dogs in Kosovo. That’s how we ended up with Noyzi, our Kosovar street dog. Noyzi was found by a young man from Pristina. He was a four week old puppy, all alone and screaming in the street. The young man named Noyzi after an Albanian rapper and gave him to Meg, who kept him for about two years, until Noyzi finally found his way to Germany through Bill and me.

Next month, we will have had Noyzi for a year. It’s been such a pleasure and honor to watch Noyzi go from being a terrified and confused dog, to a loving companion and family member who surprises us every day. No, Noyzi isn’t a beagle, and he’s not like any of our other dogs. He’s very special and much loved. So, on that level, I could relate to Heidi Speece’s story about adopting her “Turkey Dog”. By all rights, Ernie, like Noyzi, should not have survived puppyhood. But look at both of these dogs now! They are living their best lives. In a way, it’s a reminder that the American Dream can be a very real thing– even to species other than human!

I suppose if I had to offer a criticism of My Journey With Ernie, it’s that I’m sure some people will point out that there are plenty of homeless dogs in the United States. But personally, I am not going to offer that criticism, since I have a dog from Kosovo, and he’s changed and improved my life. I can tell that Ernie has given Heidi Speece the change she needed in her life. And Ernie has no doubt made a lot of people smile, which is the job that dogs do best.

If you love dog stories, I would definitely recommend Heidi Speece’s book, My Journey with Ernie: Lessons from a Turkey Dog. I’m glad I read it, especially since I have so much in common with the author. I think it will appeal to anyone who has ever loved dogs and adventure. It’s a quick, easy read, entertaining, and often hilarious. And it really does touch my heart to know that Ernie and Limerick have found new lives in America. Dogs are wonderful for bringing people together and helping them form friendships. I feel like I have a friend in Heidi Speece, even if we’ve never met!

Well, Noyzi the Kosovar street dog is now pestering me for a walk. I’m sure Arran will join him soon. I guess this ends today’s fresh content. I hope you’ll read Heidi Speece’s book and let me know what you think!

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true crime, Virginia

Repost: The Colonial Parkway murders… and a near miss on the Parkway for me…

I am planning to write some fresh content today, but I wanted to repost this piece I wrote on March 23, 2015. It’s here “as/is”. I think it will be interesting to people who know the Williamsburg/Yorktown/Gloucester areas in Virginia, as well as those who knew me when I was young.

Today’s post is inspired by an article I just read in the Huffington Post…  The featured photo is a picture from the National Park Service of the Parkway in spring…

I have mentioned before that I grew up in Gloucester, Virginia, not too far from Williamsburg and Yorktown.  I spent much of my young life traveling on what is known as the Colonial Parkway, a 23 mile stretch of scenic road between Yorktown and Jamestown.  As a kid, I’d ride with my mom on the Parkway to get to Williamsburg.  We often went there to go shopping or stop by the Naval Weapons Station, which used to have a small commissary my mom favored over the larger ones at Fort Eustis and Langley Air Force Base.  It’s a beautiful drive.  I actually enjoyed making that drive when I was younger and had jobs in Williamsburg, though sometimes I would take an alternate route just to shake things up a bit.

I grew up in the 1980s.  During that time period, there was a series of murders that took place on the Colonial Parkway.  The first one happened in 1986, when I was fourteen years old.  The two victims, 27 year old Cathleen Marian Thomas, and 21 year old Rebecca Ann Dowski were last seen hanging out in a computer lab with friends at the College of William and Mary.  Three days later, a jogger on the Colonial Parkway spotted Thomas’s car on the edge of an embankment.  The women had been strangled and their throats were cut.  The killer was never found.

As time passed, there were more murders.  I’m not going to detail them in this blog post because you can read the article I linked for more accurate information than I can possibly offer.  I will mention one other pair that were killed because I remember them the best.  On April 9, 1988 20 year old Richard “Keith” Call and 18 year old Cassandra Lee Hailey went out on their first date.  They were both students at what is now Christopher Newport University.  They disappeared after that fateful first date and haven’t been seen since.  They are presumed to have been victims of the Colonial Parkway killer.

I believe Keith Call was from Gloucester, so I remember hearing more about him and Cassandra Hailey than the other victims.  I remember seeing the posters asking for information about their whereabouts.  That same year in Gloucester, a teenager named Laurie Ann Powell was also reported as missing.  She was a graduate of my high school and was last seen alive on March 8, 1988.  She was found in the James River April 2, 1988.  I remember there were posters on the walls at my school about her, too.  I remember reading her “senior will” in the Dukes Dispatch school newspaper and thinking how eerie it was.  She had written this memorial to her high school days, not knowing that she wouldn’t have many days beyond high school.  I never knew her because she was a few years ahead of me.  Over twenty-five years later, the murders still haven’t been solved.  The killer(s) must either be dead or locked up somewhere, since as of around 1989, the murders seem to have stopped.

It never occurred to me to be afraid to drive on the Colonial Parkway.  I did it all the time.  I remember having a job in Williamsburg and my boss– a woman I couldn’t stand and who likewise couldn’t stand me– used to scold me for driving that way to work.  Coming from Gloucester and needing to get to the part of Williamsburg where I was working, the Colonial Parkway was the quickest and easiest route.  And again, it was (and still is) a very lovely drive.  Fortunately, I never broke down on it, though I did end up in a very scary situation once that involved the Parkway.

I’m about to veer off topic a little bit, since this incident has nothing to do with the Parkway murders.  It does have to do with a sleazy person, though, who scared the shit out of me while driving on the Colonial Parkway.

From late September 1997 until mid August 1999, I lived with my parents in Gloucester County.  I was fresh from the Peace Corps and dealing with some rather serious depression and anxiety issues.  Because my father was an alcoholic and we didn’t get along, I needed support.  At my mother’s suggestion, I started attending Adult Children of Alcoholics meetings in Williamsburg.

The meetings were held every Wednesday night at a large Methodist church near the College of William and Mary.  I looked forward to attending the meetings because most of the people who regularly showed up were nice folks and it was helpful to talk with them.  One of the guys in it actually hooked me up with the therapist who helped me get over depression.  Because he had issues with depression and ADD, this guy knew all the shrinks in the Williamsburg area and said Dr. Coe was the best.  I have long since lost touch with the guy who recommended Dr. Coe, but Dr. Coe is now my friend rather than my shrink.  At the very least, I will always be grateful to ACOA for that connection.  

There was a guy named Peter who used to attend the ACOA meetings.  Peter lived in Surry, which is a community not far from Williamsburg, but in order to get there efficiently, he had to take a ferry across the James River.  He was a swarthy guy with dark curly hair and luminous hazel-brown eyes.  I don’t know what his ethnicity was, but I would guess he was of Italian or Greek descent.  Perhaps he had gypsy blood.  He wasn’t bad looking, but my initial impressions of him were not positive. 

I didn’t like Peter.  He used to make fun of me and harass me during the meetings.  I didn’t think he liked me; but in retrospect, he must have thought I was somewhat attractive.  His way of showing his “attraction” was to be annoying, snarky, and critical.  One time, he looked in the front seat of my car at some books I had picked up at the library.  One of the books I had borrowed was called Sex For Dummies.  He thought that was funny and felt the need to make rude comments about it.

After awhile, he either became less obnoxious or I got used to him.  For awhile, I didn’t dislike him as much as I had.  I even started bantering with him.  Though he had a lot of baggage owing to being raised by an alcoholic, he would tell us interesting stories about his plans to build a house out of straw.  Eventually, he hooked up with some woman and they had a baby girl, though they never got married.  I remember one night, they came to the restaurant where I was working and had dessert on the terrace.  I think I even waited on them.

In August 1999, I went to grad school.  I came back home for fall break.  A male friend of mine from college was in Williamsburg for a teacher’s conference, so we made plans to get together.  It was a Wednesday night, which was also the night of ACOA meetings.  I decided to stop by and see old friends I knew from that group, then meet my old college friend at his hotel room. 

Well, it turned out that night, ACOA was cancelled.  Since I no longer lived in the area, I didn’t know.  Peter also didn’t get the message.  He showed up at the church and we sat around and talked for awhile.  He made a comment about how “good” I was looking.  I had lost a lot of weight working at a restaurant in Williamsburg and hadn’t yet had time to regain it at school.  He asked me if I wanted to go see his baby. 

In retrospect, I should have said no.  My friend was waiting for me and, honestly, I didn’t even like Peter that much.  But we were getting along and, for whatever reason, I was curious about his baby.  I guess I also didn’t want to be rude.  He and his girlfriend had broken up, but she allowed him liberal visitation.  He called her and said he was coming over to see the baby and she agreed.

I stupidly let Peter drive me in his truck rather than following him in my own car.  We went to the ex girlfriend’s house and saw the baby.  The ex girlfriend was noticeably tense and seemed upset with Peter.  I seem to remember her telling him he was a jerk.  I paid little mind to it.  The baby was really cute and I was entertained by watching Peter thrill her by holding her up high and twirling her around.  The baby seemed to enjoy Peter’s roller coaster moves and responded by smiling and laughing.  She had Peter’s eyes and coloring.  She has probably grown up to be very exotic looking.

After our visit with the baby, we got back in Peter’s truck.  We were chatting casually.  I was telling him about school.  I expected him to take me back to the church.  He headed for the Parkway instead.  I told him I needed to get back because my friend was waiting for me.  He said he thought maybe I could blow off my friend.  I insisted that I wanted to get back.  He said he wanted to “hold me” for awhile.       

Suddenly, my brain was crystal clear.  I somehow managed to stay cool as I insisted that he take me back to the church so I could get my car and go.  I reiterated that my friend was expecting me and would call the police if I didn’t show up.  Now, in truth, I doubt my friend would have called the cops.  He probably would have worried, but ultimately might have thought I had simply stood him up.  However, he also knew I wasn’t the kind of person to stand people up, especially him.  He was one of my best friends. 

I sternly informed Peter that if I didn’t show up for our appointment, my friend would be looking for me.  All Peter knew was that my friend was a guy.  He may have even figured my friend could beat the shit out of him.

Peter argued with me, then started lecturing me about how I let other people control me.  What was the harm in blowing off my old friend and having a little fun with him in his truck?  I thought that was a pretty rich comment, since I had made it clear that I didn’t want to be with him in the way he was suggesting.  Indeed, it was obvious he was upset because I wasn’t allowing him to control me.  Fortunately, my tone of voice convinced Peter that he needed to do what I said.  He finally took me back to my car and I will never forget the overwhelming sense of relief I felt when I was no longer in his truck with him.  I swear, I felt like I was about to shit my pants.  I was petrified.

I remember being polite to Peter as we said goodbye.  Then I went to see my friend.  I was really shaken up and upset.  We tried to go out, but I was too freaked out to enjoy the evening.  Later, I was really pissed off.  I have mentioned before that I have never been much of a dater and I don’t generally attract abusive people.  Most of the guys who have liked me are nice to a fault.  Peter didn’t like me.  He saw me as someone he could talk into fucking him.  He was a colossal asshole.

Not long after that incident, I visited friends at the restaurant where I had once worked.  I was pretty shocked when I saw Peter on the waitstaff.  He didn’t last long, though.  He came over to say hi to me.  I am sure he could see it written all over my face how much I despised him for what he tried to do.  Perhaps he didn’t have any criminal intentions toward me, but he showed extreme disrespect.  And it’s that experience, not the Parkway murders, that makes me think less of the pretty 23 mile drive.  I haven’t been to another ACOA meeting since. 

I wonder if Peter’s ex girlfriend continued to be so liberal about letting him visit their baby.  That girl is now a teenager.  Hopefully, Peter wasn’t a terrible father to her and my instincts about him were wrong.  I can’t help but feel sorry for his ex girlfriend, though.  I would hate to have a child with a man like Peter.  Clearly, he was aptly named, too.  

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true crime, Virginia

Double repost: the tragic case of Crystal Ragin

Here are two posts that originally appeared on the Blogspot version of this blog. I wrote the first one, not knowing anything more about the case than what little was in the paper. One of Ragin’s relatives sent me a private message. She was initially upset about my comments, but then told me more about what had actually happened and asked me to write more. So I did… and I am including the second post with the first. As usual, these posts are mostly unedited and appear “as/is” from 2014.

This is a truly tragic story…

I like to read The Daily Press sometimes.  It’s the newspaper I grew up with and I used to read the paper version of it every day when I was growing up.  Today, I check it a few times a week to see if anything interesting is going on in the area where I grew up.  Today, there was a very sad story about a woman who made a very poor choice in husbands.  Now she and three of her four children are dead.

Fort Eustis Army Sergeant Crystal Ragin was an exemplary soldier who was going to go to school to become a drill sergeant.  She was well-known for being very good at her job, responsible, punctual, and very hard working.  A mother of four, she had been married to her second husband, John Moses Ragin, since 2006.  They met in South Carolina, when Crystal was a guard at the prison where John Ragin was serving a 15 year sentence for manslaughter.  He had killed his childhood best friend.

Once John Ragin was released, Crystal, who by then had joined the Army, was free to marry him.  She did, and he became a father figure to the three children she had with her first husband, Mike Burton.  Then Crystal and John had a child of their own, I’Kaos.

John Ragin was apparently a very jealous and controlling husband.  He insisted on Crystal calling him often.  He never wanted her to go out alone.  He demanded that she live according to his wishes, which included swearing off eating meat.  He was very suspicious of the men Crystal worked with in the Army.

On August 19, 2011, John Ragin had apparently had enough.  He brutally murdered his wife and her three older children, Sierra, La’Kwan, and Rasheed, stabbing them 74 times, and setting their home on fire.  Then he took I’Kaos and went back to South Carolina, where he was arrested the next day.

Ragin now may face the death penalty and his son is being raised by his maternal relatives in South Carolina.  What an awful thing for that family to have to deal with… and what a terrible legacy that little boy now has.

I’m sure Crystal Ragin was a wonderful woman, based on the article written about her.  I wonder why she was attracted to John Ragin.  I can’t imagine finding a killer attractive, but I realize that these things aren’t always based on logic or common sense.  Sometimes people can change…  or so they say.  I can’t imagine I’d want to have my children around someone who had done time for killing someone, but I know that sometimes there are mitigating circumstances.

I just think it’s very sad that this woman, who had four beautiful children and a promising career, ended up with someone who obviously couldn’t control his rage or impulses.  I don’t know what Crystal’s reasons were for choosing to marry John Ragin.  It would be easy for me to blame her for being unwise.  But really, she just sounds like someone who trusted someone who was ultimately untrustworthy.  She and her kids paid the ultimate price for that choice.  Her young surviving son will now have to carry on with a father in prison or dead and a mother and siblings who were brutally murdered.

My experiences being Bill’s wife have taught me that people sometimes make very poor choices when it comes to finding mates.  Bill made a bad decision to marry his ex wife and he paid a dear price.  But at least he’s still alive and healthy.

Reading about this case reminds me of the old story about the scorpion and the frog.  A scorpion wants to cross a stream, but doesn’t know how to swim.  So he asks the frog to help him.  The frog worries about being stung, but the scorpion points out that if he stings the frog, they will both die.  So the frog trusts the scorpion and halfway across the stream, gets stung.  As the doomed duo start to sing, the frog asks the scorpion why he did it.  The frog says, “You knew what I was when you picked me up.  It’s nature.”

With some of these people, I have to think that it’s in their nature to be violent and controlling.  In some cases, no amount of love and understanding can overcome that.  I wish Crystal’s family much peace.    

AND the follow up piece… Originally, I had a link to the 911 calls regarding this case. Unfortunately, those were taken down. Listening to those recordings really drove home how dangerous John Ragin was and how Crystal Ragin and her children were completely failed by the Newport News police department.

How the police failed Crystal Ragin and her kids…

A few weeks ago, I wrote a blog post about Crystal Ragin, a soldier at Fort Eustis in Newport News, Virginia who, along with three of her four children, was brutally murdered by her husband, John Moses Ragin on August 19, 2011.  The lone survivor was the youngest child, a boy named I’Kaos, Crystal Ragin’s son with John Moses Ragin.

I must admit, what I knew about that case was based on one article I read in the  Daily Press, which is the local newspaper for the Newport News area.  Though I was born and raised in the Hampton Roads area, I haven’t lived there since 1999.  I only occasionally read the news that comes from there, and that article from the Daily Press was the first I had heard of Crystal Ragin.  This morning, Ragin’s former sister-in-law contacted me on Facebook and asked me to take another look at the story.  So I started reading more about the tragic relationship between Crystal Ragin and John Moses Ragin.  What I’ve learned is very disturbing.

In June of 2011, John assaulted Crystal and threw her to the floor.  She hit her head on a dresser.  The week of the murders, Crystal faced John in court on the assault charge resulting from that attack.  A judge found that there was enough evidence to convict John, but for some reason, decided to defer sentencing for two years.  This decision was especially strange, since Crystal Ragin met her husband in a South Carolina prison; she was a guard and he was an inmate serving time on a manslaughter charge because he’d shot and killed his best friend in 1991.  He was released in 2005 after serving just 14 years.  John Ragin already had a history of violence that, somehow, the court didn’t take into account.

After the hearing, Crystal Ragin filed a protective order against John, saying she “feared for her life”.  As it turns out, her concerns for her life were entirely valid.  However, it took over 24 hours for a Newport News Sheriff’s Department Deputy to attempt to serve John Moses Ragin with the protective order.  Between the time the order was granted and a deputy made an initial attempt to serve it, John Moses Ragin stabbed his estranged wife and stepchildren 74 times and then tried to cover up the crime by setting their apartment on fire.

By the time the deputy had arrived at the apartment to serve the papers, it was already a devastating crime scene.  This makes me wonder, too, how was it that the deputy didn’t already know about what had happened?  Don’t the police agencies communicate with each other?  Or was it the deputy who initially discovered the crime scene?  Given that there was a fire involved, I wonder why no one called the authorities until after the fire was out.  Didn’t the other residents at the apartment complex notice the fire?

Crystal Ragin called 911 on August 18, 2011, while she was at a Shell gas station with the kids.  John Moses Ragin confronted her and wouldn’t let her leave.  According to a Daily Press article, John Ragin was confronting Crystal because he wanted his son, I’Kaos.  He planned to take the boy to South Carolina and was blocking Crystal from her truck because she wouldn’t let him have their son.

Crystal told the 911 operator that there was a pending order of protection she had filed that hadn’t been served.  In the background, you can hear John Ragin repeatedly telling Crystal to “stop lying”.  He sounds very menacing, yet Crystal is very calm as she speaks to the 911 operator.  She sounds like a well trained soldier, keeping cool in a crisis.  I think if I had been in her shoes, I would have been hysterical.  I can’t imagine how very terrified she and the kids must have been.

Though Crystal Ragin had a protective order pending against John Moses Ragin, when a police officer arrived at the scene where he had been threatening her, they let him go. The second call is from maintenance supervisor Johnny Kennedy. He’s calling about the apartment that the Ragins shared, which looked like it had been on fire. Mr. Kennedy could see a body and was calling to report his findings.

Officer E. Jenkins of the Newport News Police Department was one of the police officers who came to the gas station after Crystal made her 911 call.  Officer Jenkins describes Crystal Ragin as obviously scared and “shaking”.  He called a dispatcher in an attempt to find the protective order that had not yet been served.  Somehow, despite looking for 35-40 minutes, the dispatcher was unable to find the pending protective order.  John Ragin claimed he knew nothing about it and, in fact, he said he and Crystal had had sexual intercourse the night before.

Crystal denied having sex with John Moses Ragin and claimed that he was “crazy.”  The police officer offered to escort John Ragin to the apartment so he could pick up his belongings.  Somehow, that didn’t happen and Ragin was able to get to Crystal and her kids, where he violently ended their lives.

I read an article from May 2012 about how angry Crystal Ragin’s family is about how the protective order was handled.  Apparently, because the protective order was signed late in the afternoon, the police department’s policy was to wait until the next day to attempt to serve it.  Ragin’s family asserts that the Newport News Sheriff’s Department’s tardiness may have played a direct role in the murders.  I don’t have any direct experience with Newport News police; I’ve never even gotten a speeding ticket in Newport News.  But if it takes them 24 hours to act on a protective order, I have to wonder how much good the order would have done in this case… or any other case, for that matter.      

Though it’s terrible enough that John Moses Ragin killed four people, it’s even worse that they really suffered before they died.  Crystal Ragin was stabbed 18 times.  According to Commonwealth’s Attorney Howard Gwynn, one of the stab wounds went through Ragin’s face, “from one side to the other”.  Crystal Ragin’s daughter, Sierra, was burned so severely that her lips “curled back from her teeth”.  Sons La’Kwan and Rasheed were repeatedly stabbed.  Their deaths were not instant.  The medical examiner who testified in this case described the conditions that led to their deaths, noting that there were stab wounds in their heads, necks, and torsos.  Some of the wounds were so deep that they actually went through the bodies.  Rasheed was only six years old and weighed just 40 pounds, yet he had 27 stab wounds.

John Moses Ragin was charged and convicted with three counts of capital murder in the deaths of the children.  In the death of Crystal Ragin, he was charged and convicted of second degree murder.  He was also charged and convicted of felony arson and unlawful stabbing.  Though the death penalty was considered in this case, shockingly enough, Ragin was sentenced to three life sentences in the deaths of the children, 40 years for the death of his wife, a life sentence for arson, and five years for each count of unlawful stabbing.  The jury was unable to come to a unanimous decision to sentence Ragin to death, so he will spend the rest of his life in prison. 

I am no fan of the death penalty, though I stop short of saying that it’s never appropriate.  I have no idea why the jury wasn’t able to come to a unanimous decision for death in this case.  John Moses Ragin is obviously an extremely violent and dangerous man and it’s very clear that he’s guilty as charged.  Moreover, Crystal Ragin’s family was hoping he would get the death penalty and clearly made their wishes known to the court.  Yet there were people on the jury who did not feel the death penalty was appropriate, so by law, the judge had to sentence Ragin to life in prison.

Perhaps the people of Virginia can take some comfort in knowing that John Moses Ragin will never be a free man again.  He’ll likely eventually end up at a supermax prison in Virginia’s coal mining country.  Though things may have improved there since 1999, it’s my guess that Ragin’s time won’t be easy if he ends up going to either Red Onion or Wallen’s Ridge prisons.  Given Ragin’s propensity toward violence, it won’t surprise me if he winds up in Wise, Virginia with the worst of the worst, like Lee Boyd Malvo, one of the D.C. snipers.  

In the wake of this case, the Newport News Sheriff’s Department now serves protective orders at night.   
As for Crystal Ragin’s family, there have already been more casualties related to this case.  According to Crystal’s former sister-in-law, two family members have already died with broken hearts.  The family has known no peace since the terrible day they lost Crystal Ragin and her three oldest children.      

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law, politics, rants, Virginia

Virginia… turning into a place I don’t recognize! And that’s not a bad thing!

Yesterday, as the evening was turning into nighttime, a friend of mine shared a Washington Post article about my beloved home state of Virginia making a couple of very noteworthy changes to the law. The first change is that the legislature voted to ABOLISH the death penalty! That is HUGE news. Virginia has a history of being a very pro death penalty state. And now, it’s joining more progressive states that have done away with the barbaric practice.

I distinctly remember in twelfth grade, visiting the Virginia State Penitentiary in Richmond, just months before it was demolished. My government teacher arranged this field trip, which allowed us a tour of the prison, as well as a visit to what was death row. We saw the electric chair, and some of my classmates even sat on it. I remember touching it, feeling the hard wood and thinking about all of the men who had died sitting there. Sadly, a lot of people were laughing… including teachers. At the time, I didn’t consider the gravity of it. I was still pretty conservative and black and white in my thinking in those days. It kind of gives me chills, now.

The other change is that the legislature has voted to legalize marijuana. Again… big news! Marijuana is a legitimately useful drug for many people with medical conditions. It’s also potentially fun for some folks. While some people have issues with weed consumption, marijuana is, by and large, less harmful than either tobacco or alcohol are. Virginia is a big time tobacco producing state, so there’s a lot of money tied up in tobacco. But tobacco is not that good for anything but killing people. Marijuana, by contrast, may not be healthy to smoke, but does help improve symptoms in many medical conditions– everything from glaucoma to seizure disorders to multiple sclerosis to cancer. I have seen, with my own eyes, how CBD oil has helped my dogs who have had mast cell cancer. There’s no THC in CBD oil, so there’s no high. There’s only the benefits that come from the oil.

I enjoy marijuana. I have only had it a few times, and each of those times took place during a 2015 visit to The Netherlands. I probably wouldn’t mind using it for recreational purposes, but I am most excited that it will be used for medical purposes. That will help a lot of people. What’s more, potheads are usually much less violent than alcoholics are.

I looked at a few comments about these two revelations this morning. Most of the readers were very enthusiastic about them. One guy was upset about doing away with the death penalty, claiming that taxpayers shouldn’t be saddled with supporting convicted killers for life. I was a bit flabbergasted by that comment. Many people are under the mistaken impression that the death penalty is somehow a money saver. It’s not.

Consider this. A person who is sentenced to death is going to get an automatic appeal. Since a lot of the people who end up on death row are also unable to pay for their own legal defense, taxpayers end up paying for that, as well as the associated court costs. Death penalty cases often require more attorneys, some of whom have special training for death penalty cases. Attorneys cost money.

Also consider that death penalty cases usually involve DNA testing, which isn’t cheap. The DNA testing is necessary, since we want to make sure the right person is being held accountable, especially since innocent people have been executed or just put on death row in the past.

A person who is on death row also requires more security and special housing. That also costs taxpayers money. And consider that it often takes many years for death sentences to be carried out. I’m not sorry about that, since there have been recent cases of people being exonerated due to the evolution of DNA and other scientific testing. Imagine being sentenced to death in 1989 and being exonerated decades later. That HAS happened.

In the 80s, we thought we had state of the art technology. Obviously, we didn’t. Meanwhile, some poor person has been languishing on death row in prison for many years. How does one apologize for a mistake like that? Often, the wrongly convicted person sues and wins a settlement, which also costs taxpayers money. I don’t think they’re wrong to sue, either. I would sure want to, if I’d spent decades rotting in prison, in fear for my life, for a crime I didn’t commit. All too often, prosecutors are focused on conviction rather than actual justice. It’s fine to want to win a case, but it’s crucial to make sure the right person faces justice, particularly when it involves an execution.

The bottom line is, I only think the death penalty is appropriate in cases in which there is absolutely NO DOUBT of the accused’s guilt, no doubt that the person would kill again, and public safety is definitely at risk. Most death penalty cases don’t fit that criteria. So I’m glad to see that Virginia is going to abolish the death penalty… at least until someone comes along and decides it needs to be reinstated. But hopefully, that will never happen.

I noticed another person commenting about how Virginia now isn’t a “Southern” state, but a “Mid-Atlantic” state. Or, really, what he said in very excited, hyperbolic terms is that we should stop referring to Virginia as part of the South. He doesn’t want Virginia to be lumped in with the Carolinas or Tennessee or Kentucky, mainly because Virginia went from red to blue.

I kind of bristle when people say that. I am a southerner, and I was born and raised in Virginia. I don’t think that has anything to do with a person’s political leanings. A person can be southern and not be a Trump supporting, racist, sexist, redneck. The southern United States has an ugly past. Virginia was very much in the thick of it. Trying to whitewash or deny that past isn’t useful. Moreover, not everything about the South sucks. I, for one, miss southern cuisine very much… and southern accents, which I hear every time my mom speaks. I used to hear it from my dad, too. And I have read some thought provoking, imaginative books by southern writers, who have a way with words… and have listened to great music inspired by the South. Being southern isn’t necessarily a bad thing.

No, Virginia is not like Mississippi or Alabama or Georgia (which has also turned blue, though perhaps temporarily). I’ve been to all of those places… and there are wonderful things about each of them. And they’re all going to have the history of the Confederacy in common forevermore. Changing and denying Virginia’s culture and whitewashing its history isn’t going to change its past. Why not let Virginia stay southern while cheering on its progression into the 21st century? Why not recognize that there are some proud southerners who are not like the worst southern stereotypes?

It seems to me that turning “southern” into a dirty or pejorative word is kind of an antithesis to progression, isn’t it? Don’t progressives like to embrace inclusiveness? Aren’t we always preaching about tolerance? Isn’t it a sin to dismiss an entire region and culture based on the bad actions of a few? And aren’t there racists and backwards people everywhere? I mean, if a person doesn’t want to be considered southern because he or she is from Virginia, that’s their right. But I am not unhappy to be a southerner. I’m a southerner who doesn’t embrace the backwards and toxic history of my origins. That’s a good thing, right? I don’t have to divorce my heritage to be able to do that… although if I’m being technical, I’m not really American, either. I’m a European who happened to be born in the South. But that’s a topic for another day.

Anyway… kudos to Virginia. Maybe, if we ever get back to the United States, we will move back to the place that will always be my home.

Today’s featured photo is of glorious Goshen Pass near Lexington, Virginia. I took that photo during my latest trip “home”, in November 2014.

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