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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true crime

Repost: Another “crime blast from the past”…

Here’s another repost from my original blog. This one was written on January 15, 2019. I’m leaving it as/is.

This morning, as Bill and I were enjoying biscuits and gravy, we got on the topic of Jayme Closs, the thirteen year old girl who was abducted from her parents’ Barron, Wisconsin home on October 15, 2018.  Jayme Closs, whose parents Denise and James Closs were murdered by her 21 year old captor, Jake Patterson, managed to escape her kidnapper last Thursday.  She was being held about 70 miles from her home and Patterson apparently got complacent.  Jayme got help from a woman who was walking her dog past the place where Patterson had been keeping her.

I will admit, I haven’t really been keeping up with this story, since I’ve been busy with our move.  However, I did read about her escape and I remembered hearing about her abduction in the fall.  I made the mistake of reading some of the comments on the news articles written about this case.  A lot of people were posting that they thought maybe Closs and Patterson had an affair.

For the record, I DO NOT believe that to be the case.  I think even if that was the situation, Closs would be a victim.  Closs has said she hadn’t known Patterson before he took her and murdered her parents.  Patterson has, himself, apparently told police that he spotted Closs getting on a school bus and decided he “wanted” her.  I don’t think Jayme Closs aided and abetted Patterson in any way.

Talking about this case and the speculation that Closs had something to do with it did make me remember a case that happened in Virginia back in 1990, though.  The incident occurred in Middlesex County on November 10, 1990.  I was a freshman in college and was about a month from finishing up my first semester before I would be coming home to Gloucester County for Christmas break.  To get home from Longwood University, I’d be skirting nearby Middlesex County, although I don’t think the route I took actually took me through there.  I did drive through Middlesex years later when I lived in northern Virginia and came to Gloucester to visit.

On that November day in 1990, 14 year old Jessica Wiseman and her boyfriend, 17 year old Chris Thomas, killed Wiseman’s parents, 32 year old James B. and Kathy Wiseman.  The Wisemans had objected to Jessica and Chris seeing each other, so the young couple decided Jessica’s parents needed to die.  Chris and Jessica went into her parents’ bedroom and shot them both, although Kathy Wiseman was able to run into Jessica’s bedroom.  She was shot again, and that killed her.

At the time of the crime, no one in Virginia under age 15 could be tried as an adult, regardless of how serious the crime was.  Jessica Wiseman was tried as a juvenile in a closed court.  She was declared a delinquent and spent the rest of her teen years in a juvenile detention facility.  She was freed on July 26, 1997, which was her 21st birthday.

Chris Thomas was 17 years old, though, so although he was technically a juvenile, he was eligible to be tried as an adult.  He pleaded guilty to killing James Wiseman and not guilty to killing Kathy Wiseman.  He was convicted of both killings and sentenced to death.  At the time, Virginia juries were not permitted to sentence a killer to life in prison without the possibility of parole.  They were faced with the choice of sentencing Thomas to death or allowing for parole, which could have meant he would have been released as soon as twenty years after conviction.

Attorneys for Thomas have said that he was trying to protect Wiseman by taking the blame.  Two women who were imprisoned with Jessica Wiseman also said that she was the one who had actually pulled the trigger, not Thomas.  I’m not sure exactly where the truth lies, although it does seem unfair to me that Jessica got to live her life while Thomas lost his to state supported homicide.  Thomas was scheduled to be executed in June 1999.  The execution was put off until January 10, 2000, when Thomas was 26 years old.  He ate fried chicken for his last supper.  

I remember when this case was news.  In those days, I used to read the Daily Press every day.  There was a columnist named Jim Spencer who wrote opinions for the paper.  My dad didn’t like him because Spencer was an outspoken liberal.  I, on the other hand, was drawn to Spencer’s columns.  I usually read them whenever I noticed them.  In 2003, Spencer moved on to Denver, Colorado, where he wrote for the Denver Post.

As I was reading up on the Wiseman murders this morning, I happened to find an old column Spencer wrote for the Denver Post in 2007.  He was reporting on another murder that had happened in Denver that reminded him of the Wiseman case, which he’d also written about.  I did know that Spencer had moved out of Virginia, although I hadn’t been following his career from afar.  I went to see if Spencer was still in Denver, but it appears that he was a victim of downsizing.  I think he has managed to find another job in journalism, although it took awhile and he had to detour into a different field.  Looks like he now reports in Washington, DC after a stint in Minneapolis.

It actually makes me a little sad to read about Jim Spencer’s situation.  Good journalists are a dying breed.  Nowadays, people don’t want to pay for a newspaper subscription.  While it’s true that more writers can be read with the advent of blogging and self-publishing, it’s much harder for legitimate authors to make a decent living.  These old stories become relics of the past, with fewer skilled people to write them.

I find true crime fascinating.  Everyone has a story.  People involved in true crimes especially have stories.  Some of the stories are more tragic than others.  What happened to Chris Thomas doesn’t seem fair to me.  I am not a fan of the death penalty in all but the most extreme cases.  I don’t think he should have been executed for killing the Wisemans.  Moreover, he was technically a juvenile when he committed his crimes.  While I would expect most juveniles to know that killing is wrong, I also know that young people do not have fully functioning brains until they’re older.  It also doesn’t seem fair that Thomas was executed while his girlfriend only did about seven years in a juvenile facility.  But then, I guess there is a pretty big difference in a person’s maturity levels between the ages of 14 and 17.

As for Jayme Closs, I have nothing but compassion for her.  She must have gone through hell.  What a blessing it is that she was able to find help after escaping her captor.  He is in Wisconsin, so unless there is a federal angle applied to his case, he’ll probably rot in prison for a long while.  Wisconsin no longer has the death penalty.

I may have to start following the Closs/Patterson case now…

Here are the original comments from this post.

jonoJanuary 17, 2019 at 5:42 PM

Since it happened not too far from here (as the crow flies)it has dominated the local news. Jake will not likely see the light of day again other than obligatory time in the prison yard.

We have been watching the long, slow death of real journalism for some time now. There are still many good ones out there, but the masses seem to prefer entertainment to good reporting. It is very sad.

  1. I hope he doesn’t. He needs to be put away for a long time.
politicians, politics, true crime

Terrorism isn’t the answer.

This morning over breakfast, I read yet another news story about someone who is in trouble with the law for cyberstalking a public official. A 40 year old man from Virginia took it upon himself to threaten Tulsa, Oklahoma Mayor George T. Bynum. The Virginia man, name of Adam Maxwell Donn, sent dozens of menacing emails and made as many abusive phone calls to the mayor, warning him to cancel Donald Trump’s rally last June.

Donn implied to Mayor Bynum that harm would come to him and his family if he didn’t put a stop to the event. He also threatened to publish the official’s home address, cellphone numbers, and computer passwords. According to The New York Times:

“You are putting everyone in Tulsa at risk so Im gonna put your family at risk,” Mr. Donn wrote in one email, according to a criminal complaint filed in U.S. District Court in Tulsa. “Maybe show up to meet at your next bible study??”

The threats began on June 11th and police were summoned June 18th. In most of the emails Donn sent, there were vulgarities and insults. Donn wrote that he hoped Bynum and his family were infected with the coronavirus. The family eventually moved to a different location because they were so rattled by Donn’s continued harassment.

Trump’s planned rally event, held on June 20th, went on as scheduled. Most of the attendees dispensed with wearing face masks. We all know how that turned out for the unlucky among them who got COVID-19.

By now, a lot of people have already read about how six men in Michigan and Wisconsin, angry with Michigan Governor Gretchen Whitmer’s decision to shut down businesses due to COVID-19, plotted to kidnap her, try her, and leave her alone in a both in the middle of Lake Michigan. There was also discussion about kidnapping Virginia’s Democratic Governor, Ralph Northam, who has similarly pissed off people over COVID-19 restrictions.

Just yesterday, a man in Maryland was arrested for plotting to kidnap and kill Joe Biden and his running mate, Kamala Harris. 42 year old James Dale Reed decided to leave a threatening note at a home in Frederick, Maryland which had many Biden signs in the front yard. Fortunately, the homeowners had a doorbell camera and managed to get a picture of the unhinged man, who now faces up to five years in prison for threatening a major political candidate. Reed’s note read, in part:

“We are the ones with these scary guns, we are the ones your children have nightmares about,”

And finally, a woman in Wichita, Kansas was arrested for threatening Wichita’s Democratic Mayor Brandon Whipple with kidnapping and murder. Meredith Dowty, aged 59, sent the mayor a descriptive and detailed note vowing to locate him, slit his throat, hang him and turn him into fertilizer.

Although I’m sure that threats against politicians aren’t anything new, especially during election years that involve changing the presidency, they seem to be a lot more widespread this year. People are decidedly unhinged. There are a lot of reasons for people to be on edge. We have a global pandemic that has been poorly handled, resulting in many thousands of deaths and even more people who are sick and may stay sick for a long time. We have a lot of people who are hungry and unemployed, and a president who doesn’t seem too concerned about them. At the same time, a group of people are fretting about the idea of a new president, who will roll do his best to roll back the changes brought forth by Trump.

I know a lot of people like Trump, for whatever reason. I’ve found that a lot of the people who like Trump the most are folks who can’t stand the idea of more taxation and what they see as “government overreach”. A lot of them are people who don’t travel. They don’t see a need to visit other places and see how other countries work. They believe the United States is as good as it gets. To them, that is reality, and Joe Biden represents changing something they think is the best. They ignore Donald Trump’s obvious shortcomings because they see him as the best way to change the country to what they think it should be, even if cheating, threatening, and outright sabotage is unfair and unAmerican.

While I personally believe that travel is the best way to erase prejudice and expand one’s perspective, I get that not everyone likes traveling. That’s fine. What isn’t fine is threatening to harm or kill people who are running for office because you think they’re a threat to your way of life. I understand the frustration that comes with the power public officials have. But is the satisfaction of threatening them really worth going to prison? Because those threats are going to be very difficult to carry out, especially when they are made against people like Donald Trump or Joe Biden.

2020 has definitely been a strange and somewhat horrible year. It hasn’t been entirely horrible for me, personally– but a lot of it has really sucked for many people. People are pissed off, fed up, and some are just plain mentally ill and have no way of getting any help or finding hope. So they lash out in extreme ways. I’m sure some of the people who have been arrested are not entirely bad people. They probably think, on some level, that making these threats are reasonable and even heroic. They might believe that stopping “evil” leaders from ruining the country is worth the risk of losing their freedom.

While I’m not at the point of desperation myself, I can empathize somewhat with how some people might be feeling right now. There have been times in my life when I’ve been broke and scared. I’ve been frustrated and felt like I’ve had no options. I’ve never gotten to the point of sending threatening letters to anyone, but I’ve definitely had fantasies. I think a lot of people have. But ultimately, I’ve always concluded that no person was worth going to prison. Besides, I am not a violent person. I’m just cranky.

I’ve heard from my friends and a few family members in the United States who tell me I’m lucky to be in Germany. I have to agree with that. It’s been great to be spared the political shitstorm that always spins this time of year and hits a fever pitch when the race includes new candidates for president. I’m sure it’s way worse this year than it’s ever been. I just think it’s a shame that people are sinking to threats, intimidation (vote for a certain candidate or you might lose your job), and outright efforts to cheat (burning collection boxes for votes). Those measures will not amount to anything good.

I think we should try to have more faith… I know it’s hard, given what happened the last time America voted for a new president. But taking matters into your own hands won’t work and may even land you behind bars. Take a deep breath and go do something that isn’t illegal. If you have to write a note, write one you’ll never send. Then burn it or delete it or otherwise destroy it. Terrorizing people isn’t the answer.

Unfortunately, I think that no matter who wins in November, things will probably get worse before they’re better. I have to admit, sometimes I think my cousin’s spouse, Dustin, was the lucky one getting to “peace out” a few days ago rather than continue to endure the weird dystopian times we’re in right now.

On the bright side, thanks to The New York Times, I just discovered jazz pianist, Keith Jarrett… but sadly, I discovered him because of an article about how he can’t play piano anymore due to recently suffering two strokes that have left him partially paralyzed on his left side. He can now only play piano with his right hand. His left hand can barely hold a cup of water. Sigh… well, at least I can listen to his older recordings, even if his days of making new music are probably over. That brings me a little bit of joy.

If you like jazz and don’t know Keith Jarrett, I recommend checking him out. He’s inspired me on many levels this morning… and in ways that are more positive and hopeful than sending threats to public figures. Lots of videos are on YouTube.

book reviews, true crime

Repost: The sordid story of Jodi Arias and Travis Alexander…

Here’s my second repost for today, another book review I wrote for award winning true crime author, Shanna Hogan. Ms. Hogan is currently in critical condition, having suffered a devastating pool accident in her home. She’s married and has a young son, and I’m sure her family would appreciate any good vibes or prayers you can spare.

This review was originally posted on Epinions. com on January 9, 2014. I reposted it on the original Overeducated Housewife blog on July 28, 2015, and I’m reposting it again as/is in 2020.

Like the rest of America, I probably got my fill of seeing convicted murderer Jodi Arias on television in 2013.  However, I didn’t follow her exhausting court case like some people did.  Since I am both interested in Mormonism and true crime, I read Shanna Hogan’s 2013 book, Picture Perfect: The True Story of a Beautiful Photographer, Her Mormon Lover, and a Deadly Obsession.  I came across this book after having watched a Lifetime TV movie about Jodi Arias and her murder of Travis Alexander, a former Mormon missionary and up and coming businessman in Mesa, Arizona.

The tragic story…

Travis Alexander was the last person anyone would have guessed would one day be a murder victim.  He had grown up poor in California, one of eight kids his unreliable parents had brought into the world.  Raised by his Mormon grandmother, Travis Alexander had embraced the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints’ teachings from a young age.  He served a Mormon mission in Denver, Colorado, didn’t drink alcohol or smoke cigarettes, and went to church every Sunday.  He had many friends, was popular with women, and, at the time he met Jodi Ann Arias, was an up and coming performer at the multi-level marketing company, Prepaid Legal Services.  He was also a popular motivational speaker.  Most people who knew Travis seemed to like him.  He appeared to have a bright future ahead of him.  Though Travis Alexander had started his career in California, he eventually decided to move to Mesa, Arizona, to take advantage of the untapped and heavily Mormon populated market where he figured he could sell more Prepaid Legal Services.

Jodi Ann Arias had also grown up in California.  Three years younger than Travis Alexander, she was very beautiful, but seemed to have trouble making friends and launching herself into a suitable career.  She drifted from job to job, until one day she decided to try her hand at multi-level marketing.  In September 2006, Arias attended a conference in Las Vegas, Nevada offered by Prepaid Legal Services.  That’s when she first saw Travis Alexander, a man who would soon be the object of her obsessions. 

Although Travis Alexander was supposedly a devout Mormon, a religion that strongly discourages premarital sex and casual dating, he apparently had a weakness for women.  He met and was charmed by Jodi Arias and the two had a one night stand.  Jodi was smitten with Travis Alexander, but Travis apparently didn’t feel the same way about her.  However, he didn’t mind seeing her, since she wasn’t LDS and was willing to have sex with him.  Meanwhile, Travis Alexander realized he wasn’t getting any younger and needed to find a good Mormon wife.  A good Mormon wife would be wholesome, pretty, young, and most importantly, a virgin.

Jodi Arias realized that Travis Alexander wanted to get married and start a family.  She also realized that as a proper Mormon man, he would want a proper Mormon wife.  So she decided to take missionary discussions and convert to Mormonism.  Converting to Mormonism is not a simple thing; it requires adhering to strict lifestyle standards, attending church regularly, and paying tithing, among other things.  But Jodi was determined to win over Travis, even though he had already moved on to dating women who would be more suitable Mormon wives.

Jodi Arias became obsessed with Travis Alexander.  She would show up uninvited at his home in Mesa, Arizona and, once she determined she wanted to be his wife, eventually moved there herself.  She called and texted him incessantly and violated Travis’s privacy by hacking into his social media accounts and reading his text messages, many of which came from other women.  Jodi’s lack of respect seemed to get on Travis’s nerves, but apparently not enough that he stopped allowing her to visit for trysts.  The two traveled together and were even planning to go on a Prepaid Legal Services business trip to Cancun, Mexico, before their relationship hit the skids.   

On June 4, 2008, days before Travis was going to go to Mexico with another woman he had been dating, Jodi stopped by his house.  They had fun with Travis’s digital camera.  There were photos of Jodi naked, her hair in braids, apparently just after the two had sex together. Later, Travis took a shower and Jodi had a look at his cell phone again.  She realized he would never accept her as anything more than a sex partner.  Travis’s last act before Jodi murdered him was to pose for photos as he showered, several of which were taken just minutes before Jodi savagely attacked him with a knife and shot him in the head.  He was found naked in his shower days later by his very concerned friends.

Though Jodi Arias was at Travis Alexander’s memorial service and acted like just another grieving friend, she was soon arrested on suspicions that she had murdered him.  Many of Travis Alexander’s friends suspected she’d had something to do with the murder, but Jodi Arias actually sealed her own fate because she took photos of her crime.  She had claimed to be nowhere near Arizona when Travis Alexander died, but the photos she had taken put her at the scene of the crime on the day the murder occurred.  And there were plenty of Travis’s friends who would testify that she was obsessed with him.   

In May of 2013, Jodi Arias was convicted of Travis Alexander’s murder, but jurors could not come to a unanimous agreement as to whether she should be put to death or spend the rest of her life in prison.  Her fate remains unknown as she prepares for a do-over of the penalty phase of her trial.

My thoughts on Shanna Hogan’s book  

Shanna Hogan is an award winning journalist who lives in Phoenix, Arizona.  She is a graduate of Arizona State University’s journalism school.  With a pedigree like Hogan’s, I would have expected a really good book about Travis Alexander and Jodi Arias.  For the most part, I think Picture Perfect delivers on that promise.  Shanna Hogan writes well and I didn’t have too much trouble staying focused on the sordid tale of the returned Mormon missionary and his friend with benefits. 

I did notice a few editing glitches as I read Hogan’s writing.  At one point, she refers to the “tenants” of Mormonism.  I think she meant “tenets”.  There were some typos and a few confusing parts that seemed like they needed a round with an editor.  At one point, she describes Alexander as “religious” as if it was a virtue.  But in my experience, simply being religious doesn’t make a person good or bad.  In fact, a lot of crimes have been committed in the name of religion. 

I also noticed that Hogan seemed to buy into Travis Alexander’s legend, just as his friends did.  On the surface, Alexander seemed like a really good guy.  He was handsome, hard working, successful, and earnest.  However, looking deeper, it’s not too hard for me to see that Travis Alexander was also a jerk.  He put on a good show of being a good Mormon man, but in reality, he was a liar who basically used Jodi Arias for sex.  Of course Alexander didn’t deserve to be brutally murdered for being a womanizing jerk, but I felt like Shanna Hogan was too generous when she described his character.  She makes him out to be this really fine person, but his actions suggested otherwise.  Hogan did not seem to be very objective in her description of Travis Alexander. 

Moreover, Shanna Hogan presents a lot of what Arias said as “truth”, when it’s pretty clear that Arias isn’t a very reliable witness.  I would hesitate to guess which personality disorders Arias has, though based on her actions, I’m pretty sure she’s got at least a couple on the Cluster B spectrum.  And people who suffer from personality disorders are notoriously good at stretching or even obliterating the truth to further their own agendas.  On the subject of Travis Alexander and his relationship with her, Jodi Arias is not very objective, either. 

Hogan does a pretty good job of covering Arias’ murder trial, though she doesn’t spend as much time on that aspect of the story as she does Jodi’s and Travis’s trysts.  I’m actually okay with that, though; I generally find reading about what goes on in court less interesting than reading about what actions lead to the courtroom.  Hogan includes some photos, though many of them were ones I had seen before on the Internet.   


If you’re interested in reading more about Jodi Arias and Travis Alexander and their tragic relationship, I think Picture Perfect is worth reading.  Hogan is a competent author and if you didn’t watch the trial (and I mostly didn’t), you will learn what happened.  However, I don’t think this book is very objective, so it should be read with a grain of salt.

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book reviews, true crime

Repost: Dr. Martin MacNeill… doctor, lawyer, Mormon bishop, and murderer

I am reposting a couple of reviews I wrote about a couple of books by true crime writer, Shanna Hogan. I just learned this morning that three days ago, Ms. Hogan had a devastating accident at her home when she fell into her pool and hit her head. Her husband found her, administered CPR, and she’s now in the hospital in critical condition.

Shanna Hogan has written several award winning books, including a couple which have been optioned by Sony TV. She’s also the mother of a fourteen month old son, who was at the pool at the time of the accident and is fine. If you have any good vibes to spare, please do. Today, I’ll repost the reviews I’ve written of her books, plus add a new post.

This particular review was posted June 8, 2015. About a year later, a former Mormon bishop left me a comment, claiming I’m a “bigot” who paints the LDS church with a “broad brush”. It’s always fascinating to me when people who are complete strangers to me claim I’m “bigoted” based on just one thing they’ve read. I guess they don’t see how the pot calls the kettle black.

I just finished reading Shanna Hogan’s book, The Stranger She Loved: A Mormon Doctor, His Beautiful Wife, and an Almost Perfect Murder.  This book was released on March 31, 2015.  It’s the sad story of Dr. Martin MacNeill, a man who seemed to have everything a person could want.  MacNeill threw it all away when he decided to kill his wife, Michele.  He thought he would get away with his crime, but he now sits in a Utah prison, probably for the rest of his life.

At 50 years old, Michele Somers MacNeill was still a beautiful woman on the day she died in Pleasant Grove, Utah.  She was mother to eight children and had been married to Dr. Martin MacNeill for almost thirty years.  She had just undergone plastic surgery and was recovering at home.  On April 11, 2007, eight days after the surgery, Michele’s young daughter, Ada, found her mother unresponsive in the bathtub. 

Two of the four medications Michele had been taking, Diazepam and Oxycodone, would not normally be prescribed; Michele had them because her husband had requested them of her surgeon, who agreed to prescribe them only because Martin MacNeill was also a doctor.  Michele had been concerned that her husband was having an affair.  She had also been concerned that he was trying to drug her.  Daughter Alexis, then a medical student, had taken charge of administering the medications as her mother recovered.  The day before Michele died, it seemed like her mother was doing well enough not to need as much of her daughter’s help.  Alexis went back to school.

An autopsy revealed that Michele MacNeill had the beginnings of heart disease.  Initially, cardiovascular disease was the reason given for Michele’s death.  It wasn’t until Michele’s family pressed the Chief Medical Examiner to study her toxicology reports that the lethal combination of drugs was found in her system.  It was an almost perfect crime.  Martin MacNeill had administered the drugs in a way that made it difficult to detect them once Michele had died.

Dr. Martin MacNeill was an apparently religious man who had served as a Mormon bishop and was both a physician and a lawyer.  Underneath that respectable exterior lurked a monster who was eventually convicted of murdering his wife and obstructing justice.  Aside from being a killer, MacNeill is an identity thief, sexual predator, and philanderer.  For many years, he kept these dark aspects of his identity shrouded, only letting those closest to him see him for who he is. 

Martin MacNeill had a troubled upbringing and seemed determined to escape his past.  He joined the LDS church and the Army, but washed out of the service very soon due to psychological problems.  Two years after enlisting, MacNeill was put on disability leave.  He collected military benefits for many years. 

MacNeill earned a college degree, then found a way into medical school in Mexico.  He later transferred to a school stateside, earned his medical degree, and embarked on his career.  He worked at Brigham Young University’s health center for a time and had an affair with a student.  He got his law degree from BYU, but didn’t practice law.  Though he was married to a beautiful, kind, lovely woman, he cheated on her constantly.  MacNeill was having an affair when he killed his wife.  He was involved with a woman named Gypsy Willis who had some criminal proclivities of her own. 

For most of his life, MacNeill was able to fool many people into thinking he was a good man worthy of their trust– a man of faith esteemed enough to be a Mormon bishop.  He even presented the image of a generous father of a large, attractive brood.  Michele bore him four children and they adopted four more from Ukraine.  But then Martin had one of the daughters, Giselle, sent back to Ukraine, supposedly to visit her birth relatives.  There, he abandoned her and stole her name and social security number for his girlfriend, Gypsy Willis.  The new identity allowed Gypsy to erase her poor credit and tax liens… which no doubt made life easier for MacNeill and his big plans.  He even got military benefits for Gypsy by using Giselle’s identity.

I can’t help but realize that the LDS church seems to attract converts from the ranks of the seriously troubled.  My husband’s ex wife, a Mormon convert, had a terrible childhood.  She grew up wanting to present a certain respectable image and she felt joining the church was the best way to have that clean, wholesome image.  The church was like a sweet frosting on a cake made entirely of shit.  On the surface, Bill’s ex wife seemed like a good, respectable, church-going woman.  Under the surface, she was controlling, abusive, violent and dishonest.  Although she is not a criminal on the same level as Martin MacNeil is, I see a lot of the same very disturbing traits in her. (ETA: Incidentally, Bill’s daughter tells us that her mom has since kind of abandoned Mormonism, now that it no longer serves her purposes.)

Like any organization, the LDS church has many good people within it.  I think a lot of these good people are attractive prey to sociopaths like Martin MacNeill, who find a willing and trusting supply to satisfy their narcissistic demons.  It also seems to me that in order to get ahead in the LDS church, one must have the right look, the right job, the right income level, and at least a veneer of respectability.  Dr. MacNeill ticked all of the boxes.  He had pulled himself out of an impoverished childhood, become a doctor and a lawyer, married a beautiful Mormon woman, and had become a pillar of the community.  No one dug deeper to find out who he really was and he managed to skate past people, blinding them to who he really is through glib charm, like a wolf in sheep’s clothing. 

Incidentally, MacNeill’s only son, Damian, apparently shared his father’s sociopathic tendencies.  He committed suicide in 2010.  He was 24 years old and a law student, but had already been deemed a person with homicidal tendencies who enjoyed the act of killing.

I’m glad I read Shanna Hogan’s book.  Her writing is very readable and she does a great job with a very complicated case.  Pictures are included as is an extensive commentary on the court case.  I think this is a good read for anyone who enjoys interesting true crime stories, but especially for those who are familiar with Mormonism.  Hogan doesn’t go too far into the church– if she had, the book would have been very long.  Hogan is an award winning journalist who has written two other books that were New York Times bestsellers.     

The whole truth about Martin MacNeill came out during his long awaited trial, which began on October 17, 2013, over six years after Michele died.  On November 9, 2013, MacNeill was found guilty of his crimes.  In December 2013, MacNeill attempted suicide by slashing his femoral artery with a disposable razor blade.  Guards found him and rushed him to the hospital, where his life was saved so he can enjoy the rest of his life behind bars.

It would take almost a year for the trial and sentencing to conclude.  Martin MacNeill was sentenced to 15 years to life for murder and 1 to 15 years for obstruction of justice.  The sentences are to be served consecutively.  He will not be eligible for parole until September 2031; by that time, he will be in his mid 70s.  There is no doubt that his daughters, particularly Alexis, who has taken her mother’s maiden name, will be fighting to keep him in prison until he dies. 

Edited to add: Martin MacNeill was found dead.  May he rot in hell.

And here’s the comment I got from a guy named “Bryce”, who thinks I’m a bigot.

BryceMay 25, 2016 at 9:57 PM

You paint an entire group of people with an ugly broad brush. You wrote “I can’t help but realize that the LDS church seems to attract converts from the ranks of the seriously troubled.” and base that on exactly one person. Wow. Bigotry. You should try to meet more LDS’s before making sweeping judgments. By the way, I was a Bishop. I had the smallest house in the ward and an average income. I like to think I’m honest and my family has enjoyed having me around.ReplyReplies

  1. knottyMay 26, 2016 at 7:10 PMHey Bryce,

    You clearly missed the part where I wrote that like any good organization, the LDS church has many good people within it. As a matter of fact, my husband was Mormon when we met. I didn’t have any negative opinions whatsoever about the LDS church until I married my husband and saw how badly he was treated in the wake of his divorce from his ex wife and when he later decided the church wasn’t for him.

    Thanks for calling me a bigot. You don’t even know me, though, so now who’s painting with a broad brush? Fortunately, I’m a grownup and can take insults from random people who don’t know me. I’ve also been called worse names by people whose opinions matter a whole lot more to me.  

    I’m glad you’ve found happiness in your church. I recommend you spend more time doing things that make you happy and less time trying to school bloggers. You’re not very good at it.

    I appreciate the time you took to comment, but I have a right to my opinion and the right to express myself on my personal blog. If you’re offended by what I write here, perhaps you shouldn’t read. 
  2. AlexisARMay 26, 2016 at 10:53 PMKnotty’s account of the calibre of many LDS converts – at least in the U.S. = was spot-on if mildly expressed. MacNeill seemed to have joined in the “golden age” of Mormonism – from the 50’s t0 the late 70’s or so, after which a great deal seemed to have changed. Back then, even MacNeill probably would have seemed a bit of a marginal convert. (Didn’t one bishop warn Michele’s parents that he was trouble?) For one thing, the church and is missionary department here seemed to have reached its saturation point. The number of stable and high-functioning individuals willing to take Mormonism seriously seemed to decline sharply after that. Now, in this age of information, we’re just not having a lot of educated and established people signing on with the church in the mainland of the U.S., or at least not sticking with it if they do join. Don’t ask me for statistics to support this because I don’t have them, but look around and see what converts are being baptized in mainland USA in recent days.

    Martin MacNeill was not portrayed by Knotty as anything resembling a typical LDS church member. Rather, she pointed out indirectly that a somewhat extreme religion occasionally attracts marginal converts. She didn’t identify the reason as being one of birds of a feather flocking together, nor did she in any way suggest that ALL Mormons are as messed up as MacNeill.

    One thing the LDS church seems to love to do is to embrace and to practically put on billboards sucessfully and famous members of its church. They don’t want to own the fallen, though. This is probably just human nature (I don’t remember the Disciples of Christ rallying around Jim Jones), and the LDS are possibly no more or less guilty of it than are members of the next church, but still the trend is notable. 

    Some members of churches with numbers placing them in a distinct minority (at least here in the US) and particularly those with religious practices veering pretty far in one direction or another cannot tolerate the mildest of criticism. Others thrive on it and cannot wait to claim “persecution.” I’m not sure which if either case Larsen applies to former Bishop , but in whatever case, he would do well to grow a thicker skin. Churches in general, including but not limited to the LDS church, are now fair game for criticism. It will probably get a lot worse before it gets better.

    I can scarcely believe that monster, Mormon or otherwise, killed such a lovely person.

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