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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true crime

Two wrongs don’t make a right…

G.O.M.N! Get out of my neighborhood!

A few days ago, I read about Sergeant First Class Johnathan Pentland and his wife, Cassie, confronting a young Black man who was in their neighborhood, near Columbia, South Carolina. I was interested, not just because Pentland is in the Army, but also because I used to live in Columbia. In fact, I used to work at a country club located near the area where Pentland’s home is, so I am familiar with the area. And yet again, someone caught a middle-aged White person on film, behaving badly, and put it on Twitter for the world to see and judge.

The video coverage of Pentland looks terrible. He’s talking to the young man as if he was on duty as the drill sergeant he is… (or was). He’s clearly being physically aggressive, trying to intimidate the young man. I don’t condone Johnathan Pentland’s conduct or behavior, although I also don’t know what led up to it before the camera started rolling. I hear him demanding that the guy leave his neighborhood, cursing at him, and looking like he’s about to beat on the much younger and smaller Black man. Given that the younger guy is on the sidewalk and not on Pentland’s property, I figure he has a right to be where he is, although I don’t know why the guy is hanging around instead of walking away. I figure common sense would dictate moving on to a different location rather than engaging someone who is obviously threatening, especially when one is standing outside of a homeowner’s house. But, that’s just me.

Someone called the police, and the officer who initially responded said, at the time, that he could only ticket Pentland for destroying the young man’s phone. Pentland had apparently broken it while confronting the guy. But then later, after an outcry on the Internet, Pentland was arrested and booked for third degree assault and battery. If he is convicted, he could be forced to pay a $500 fine and spend up to thirty days in jail. Based on what I saw in the video, I would agree that those charges are certainly justified. However, I don’t agree with what came next.

Pentland and his family, which includes two children, have had to be relocated from their home. Massive protests took place there, with large groups of people congregating outside of Pentland’s home with bullhorns. The home was vandalized, and people are demanding that Pentland be fired. I’m sure there have also been death threats issued.

This cop reminds me of being at home. I kind of miss America sometimes…

I absolutely agree that Pentland should be held fully accountable for his actions. However, I strongly disagree with people issuing death threats, destroying property, or doxxing the Pentlands. I also feel sorry for Pentland’s neighbors, who didn’t sign up to have masses of people coming into their neighborhood, starting riots, vandalizing property, and creating trouble. While I don’t know what it feels like to be a person of color, I do think that if anything is ever going to change, people have to work together for peaceful conflict resolution. Destroying property and disturbing the peace are not the ways to make those changes.

I liked living in Columbia. I met some great folks there, and had a really good experience studying at the University of South Carolina. And while I’m not a big fan of videoing people and making them go viral, I do think that if there is an obvious crime going on, video is a good thing to hand over to the police. Video shows what exactly happened and what was said. However, I don’t think it’s a good thing for private citizens to take it upon themselves to be judge, jury, and executioner, trying to make a name for themselves by sharing stuff and promoting unproven theories or half truths based entirely on assumptions.

Having watched Pentland’s video a few times, I wonder what in the world led up to this confrontation. Based on the energy in that video, it doesn’t look like Pentland saw the guy and simply decided to come out and yell at him. That could have happened, but I find it unlikely. Does Pentland make it a habit to just confront random people walking around in his neighborhood, or was there some kind of history between these two people before the video started?

I also wonder if this encounter was entirely based on racism. I didn’t hear Pentland using overtly racist language toward the young man. Yes, Pentland was threatening him, bullying him, and shoving him, but I can’t come to the conclusion that he did so solely because the young man is a person of color. That could have been the case, but I don’t know that for sure. I can only assume, as I think a lot of people have, probably because of the many racist encounters that have been in the news recently. According to the Washington Post, Pentland said that he feared for his and his wife’s safety because the young man had been accused of earlier assaults.

From the Washington Post:

Two reports of alleged assault were also made against the young man after deputies responded Monday, according to the sheriff’s department, and they are being investigated. The young man has “an underlying medical condition that may explain the behavior exhibited in the alleged incidents,” the agency said.

On April 8, one incident report says, the man allegedly put his arm around a woman’s waist, put his hand down the right side of her shorts and then put his arm back around her waist as her pants were partly down. On April 10, another report alleges the man repeatedly picked up a baby without permission and tried to walk away.

Pentland told officers who had responded to a “physical dispute” Monday that he pushed the man “in fear for his safety and the safety of his wife,” according to the incident report.

Deputies were told that the man approached “several neighbors in a threatening manner” and that someone had asked Pentland to “intervene,” the agency said in a statement.

Based on these statements, I would think it would have been better for the Pentlands to simply call the police and report the guy, especially given that there had supposedly been prior incidents leading up to the assault last week. But nowadays, calling the police when a person of color is involved is also discouraged, thanks to the fact that so many Black people have been injured or killed by the police. It is also notable that these alleged incidents involving the young man were apparently made after Pentland confronted him, rather than before. Was that because some people are making up stories trying to defend Pentland’s actions and discredit the young man? Or did the folks involved in the groping and “baby stealing” incidents decide they needed to report the guy.

Either way, I wish the public would stop spinning narratives based on videos that get posted by bystanders. While the videos show what happened in an objective sense, the people who see them have a tendency to insert their own subjective narratives. The vast majority of the time, the people who see this stuff on social media don’t have all the facts.

I, for one, would like to know more about what led up to this attack. I agree that Pentland behaved terribly, and he should certainly be held accountable. But I’m not quite ready to see his and his family’s lives destroyed over this incident. If there is any truth to the reports that the young man in the video was harassing women and tried to walk away with someone’s baby, there could be more of an explanation regarding Pentland’s conduct. And regardless of what happened, I don’t think people should be descending on private property, committing vandalism, issuing death threats, or disturbing the peace. A planned, peaceful, orderly protest is acceptable. Issuing death threats and driving people from their homes shouldn’t be… and all people– regardless of race– should have the right to a fair trial before being “convicted” by the public.

I’ll be keeping my eyes peeled to see what comes next in this case.

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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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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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book reviews, true crime

Repost: Repost of my review of Natascha Kampusch’s 3096 Days in Captivity: The True Story of My Abduction, Eight Years of Enslavement, and Escape

And finally, my reposted review of Natascha Kampusch’s book. Natascha Kampusch was also abducted and kept in a dungeon in Austria for years. Incidentally, today is the 23rd anniversary of Natascha’s abduction.

I always wanted to be a mother, but given the recent awful stories about child abductions that have become so widely publicized, maybe it’s better that I’m not one.  Thanks to the constant influx of news we get these days, I think if I were a mother, I would worry all the time about my kids.  When I was growing up, I had the freedom to pretty much do as I pleased.  I was all over my rural neighborhood and sometimes didn’t come home until after dark.  Today’s kids, by and large, don’t seem to have that same level of freedom.  Sometimes I think it’s ridiculous… until I read about people like Jaycee Dugard, Elizabeth Smart, or Natascha Kampusch

In 1998, Natascha Kampusch was a chubby ten year old girl living in Vienna, Austria with her mother.  As she writes at the beginning of her book, 2010’s 3096 Days in Captivity: The True Story of My Abduction, Eight Years of Enslavement, and Escape, Natascha’s early life wasn’t very fulfilling.  Her parents were divorced and did not co-parent very effectively.  Her mother wasn’t especially kind to her, especially about her weight issues.  Her father was uninvolved and treated her like an inconvenience. 

In fact, on March 2, 1998, the day her life changed, Natascha was fresh from an unsatisfying visit with her father.  She dressed for school, ate breakfast, and headed on her way.  She had no way that Wolfgang Priklopil was waiting for her with his white van.  The kidnapper grabbed Natascha and forced her into the vehicle.  He then drove her to his home, where he had built a tiny dungeon especially for her.  The dungeon had just five square meters of space, but it would become her home for the rest of her childhood. 

Over the next eight years, Natascha would come to love the simplest things in life, things that many people take for granted.  She grew to love listening to the radio, which the kidnapper had originally set to only pick up stations that came from the Czech Republic.  Not knowing Czech, Natascha had no access to information.  Natascha grew to relish the very few times when she had a full stomach.  Wolfgang Priklopil had an eating disorder and misery loves company, so he shared his food issues with Natascha.  He forced Natascha to stick to very strict starvation diets, which caused her to lose all that extra weight her mother used to criticize her for.  The kidnapper hated women, which may have been why he forced his captive to starve.  When she started to get too “strong” for him, the kidnapper would withhold food again, until she was on the verge of collapse.  He meant to keep her weak, compliant, and I daresay, boyish, a look that even extended to Natascha’s hairstyle. 

The kidnapper was extremely paranoid of anyone finding out that he had Natascha with him.  Conscious that crimes are often solved by hair samples, Priklopil forced Natascha to wear bags on her head.  Later, he forced her to cut off all her hair until she was bald.  He convinced her that if she tried to escape, people would die.  He claimed that all the doors and windows in his house were rigged with explosives.  In time, the kidnapper forced Natascha to do work.  

Natascha Kampusch did not leave the kidnapper’s house until she was 18 years old, and even then, he was always with her, warning her against alerting anyone that she needed help.  He would not let her call herself by her name or talk about her life prior to her time with him.  Like so many other kidnappers, Priklopil knew that he had to erase his victim’s past.  And yet, somehow, she was able to keep a sense of dignity.  When her kidnapper demanded that she kneel and refer to him as “My Lord”, Natascha refused to do it.  On August 23, 2006, she finally found the strength to escape.     

My thoughts

Natascha Kampusch relates her amazing story in highly intelligent, dignified, and descriptive prose.  Despite being pulled out of school at 10 years old, Natascha Kampusch is very educated, in part because the kidnapper gave her books to read.  At the end of the book, there is a note that Natascha Kampusch wrote the English version of her book.  It is very well written, albeit in a rather formal style.

I appreciated Kampusch’s analysis of what had happened to her.  She relates the experience in a rather detached way, yet manages to offer a clear story of who her kidnapper was.  In riveting detail, she explains what it feels like to starve.  She relates how terrified she was when the kidnapper would become enraged and beat on her. 

I also found it interesting to read about how people treated Kampusch when she was rescued.  At first, people were very kind to her.  But when she didn’t hate her kidnapper the way the public felt she should, they turned on her.  Some people accused her of suffering from Stockholm syndrome, which she denies.  I have to admit, her reasoning makes a lot of sense.       

Priklopil committed suicide right after Kampusch escaped.  When Kampusch heard the news, she was supposedly grief-stricken about it.  The public didn’t understand how she could grieve for a man who was so cruel to her.  But Nastascha explains that for eight years, her whole world revolved around her kidnapper.  Her time with him was a significant part of her life and he wasn’t always cruel.  There were times when he showed her small kindnesses, for which she was always very grateful.  It seemed to me that Natascha came to the very true realization that no situation is all good or all bad.  And no person is all good or all bad. 

I admire Natascha Kampusch’s logic and dignity and wonder at her ability to survive and analyze such an ordeal.  I read from a different source that after Priklopil died, Natascha Kampusch became his heir.  She now owns the house where she was held prisoner… a place she never wanted to live in for which she now must pay utilities and taxes.  Life is bizarre.

Overall

As horrible as Natascha Kampusch’s experiences were, I am grateful that she wrote this book.  I found her story fascinating. 

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