Tuesday, June 17, 2008

Scott Peterson and Why They Kill Their Wives

Scott Peterson is back in the news, again. Though he was found guilty of murder in 2004 and sentenced to die, he'll go through many years of automatic appeals before that sentence is carried out. Soon he'll face trial in a civil suit for wrongful death brought by Laci's family. But even this second proceeding is unlikely to tackle the single largest question hovering over the case: the question of "why?"

The motive, the "why' question puzzled nearly all of those who followed the case in the media -- a question talked about endlessly "off-camera" among those of us who covered the criminal trial -- was why someone like Scott would choose to murder his wife and unborn child rather than, simplify, get a divorce.

The real answer to this question helped lead me to a very different understanding of this type of killer because the typical motivations for murder -- financial gain, to be with another woman, jealousy, "snapping" -- just don't fit.

Scott himself made the comment in one of the many phone conversations secretly recorded by Amber Frey, in which he explained with his characteristic mix of evasiveness and revelation that his plan had been to "simplify" his life. What Scott says on these tapes may make little sense to the unschooled listener. But these strange conversations take on great meaning when one understands the inherently twisted logic of the psychopath, for whom emotionally-laden words are often mismatched and incorrectly processed because their emotions are only skin-deep. Nothing connects to any genuine feeling inside.

By analyzing all available records on hundreds cases, I have come to see that Scott Peterson and other eraser killers do not kill for the reasons normally ascribed to spousal murderers. They eliminate the women, and sometimes children, in their lives because they no longer serve any useful purpose to them. They view those they once claimed to love as inconveniences, impediments to the kind of life they covet and fantasize for themselves. They see them, quite literally, as dead weight. In the mind of this type of murderer, it is quicker, easier, and more satisfying for him to simplify one's life by murder than to get a divorce.

Wednesday, June 11, 2008

Victims of Eraser Killers?

All of the women listed below are dead or presumed to be dead. All were murdered or are believed by authorities to have been murdered by a husband or a boyfriend, falling victim precisely because of their physical and emotional vulnerability to their killer. All “went missing” under mysterious circumstances, but none of these women was ever truly lost. They didn’t wander off, run away from home, suffer amnesia and forget where they belonged. They were deliberately “disappeared” by someone who had good reason to try to make sure they would never be found, someone who wanted to erase them from the face of the earth. Some are found, some never have the dignity of a an actual burial. Though the media has sometimes complained about excessive coverage of supposedly "young white missing women," these cases have received very little coverage beyond their immediate communities and the victims match no profile of ethnicity, age, or race.

• Hattie Bergeler, called "Fern" by friends and family, was found floating in the bay near her Florida home in August 2002 with a bed sheet wrapped around her head and cinderblocks tied to her neck and ankles. Her multimillionaire husband, Donald Moringiello, a retired aerospace engineer, claimed the two had lost sight of each other while driving in separate cars to visit his children. But he had still not reported her missing by the time her remains were identified—a month after he claimed to have lost her in traffic. Despite a wealth of physical evidence—the sheet, rope, cinderblocks, and the gun used to kill Fern, also fished from the water behind their Fort Myers Beach home, were all tied to her husband, and cleaned up blood was found in the house—it took two trials to convict him of second-degree murder. A man of Moringiello’s intelligence and character would not have made so many stupid mistakes, his attorney had argued.

Isabel Rodriguez, 39, vanished in November 2001 two weeks after seeking a protective order against her estranged husband, Jesus, whom she said threatened to kill her if she was awarded any money from him in their divorce. In the days before her disappearance, her husband ordered 10 truckloads of dirt and gravel delivered to his five-acre farm on the outskirts of the Florida Everglades. On the day she went missing, a witness saw a fire burning for hours on the property. Jesus had told all his farmhands not to come to work that day, explaining to one that he was planning a Santeria “cleansing” ritual on the property. Police believe he killed his wife that day, burned her corpse on the farm, and scattered the ashes under the dirt and gravel. He claims she returned to her native Honduras, abandoning their two children, but there is no record of her leaving the U.S. or entering Honduras. Not long after his wife disappeared he began seeing another woman who looks uncannily like his missing wife, whose name even happens to be Isabel.
Prosecutors are still preparing for a third trial after two previous efforts ended in mistrial.

• Kristine Kupka, was just two months away from graduating with a degree in philosophy from Baruch College in New York City when she vanished without a trace in 1998.
It turned out that she was also five-months pregnant. The father of the child was one of her professors, Darshanand “Rudy” Persaud, who had been dating her, but concealed the important fact that he was married, not single. He only revealed this after she told him she had became pregnant. He was so adamant that she get rid of the baby that she began to fear he might hurt her. Kupka left her apartment with Persaud on the day she disappeared. While he admits seeing her that day he denies harming her or having any knowledge of her whereabouts and no charges have ever been brought against him or anyone else. She is still listed as missing. Rudy Persaud is a free man.

• Lisa Tu of Potomac, Maryland, a 42-year-old Chinese immigrant caring for two teenagers and her elderly mother, disappeared in 1988. Tu’s common-law husband, Gregory, a Washington, D.C. restaurant manager heavily in-debt from business failures and gambling losses, said she never returned from a trip to San Francisco to visit a sick friend. But police believe he killed her as she slept on their couch then attempted to assume a new identity, traveling to Las Vegas, forging checks under her name, stealing from her son’s college fund, and enjoying the services of prostitutes.
A first-degree murder conviction was overturned when an appeals court ruled that evidence seized from his Las Vegas hotel room was improperly admitted. In the retrial, he was found guilty of second-degree murder. Lisa Tu has never been found.

• Pegye Bechler, a physical therapist and mother of three, disappeared in 1997 while boating off the Southern California coast with her husband to celebrate their fifth wedding anniversary and her 38th birthday. Eric Bechler claimed she was piloting a rented speedboat and towing him on a boogie board when she was washed overboard by a rogue wave. Although Pegye was an expert swimmer who completed in triathalons, he claimed she never surfaced and no sign of her has ever been found. After sobbing for the cameras about his devastating loss, Bechler took up with another woman just three months after his wife’s disappearance, an actress and lingerie model who agreed to wear a wire for police. Recorded describing how he bashed his wife over the head with a barbell then attached the weights to her body and dumped her at sea, he was convicted of first-degree murder.

• Lisa Thomas’ rocky marriage turned strangely amicable in the summer of 1996 when she and her husband of eight years finally agreed to divorce. Then she vanished on the same weekend she planned to begin looking for her own place to live. Her husband, Bryce, seemed remarkably nonchalant about the fact that his wife was missing and refused to allow police into their Bakersfield, California apartment. Lisa’s frantic twin sister, Theresa Seabolt, broke in and found the underside of the couple’s mattress soaked in blood. Only then did Lisa’s husband move into action, setting up a tip line and pleading for the public’s help in finding his wife. Although Lisa’s body was never found, a jury convicted her husband of second-degree murder. But the verdict was almost immediately thrown into question when one of the jurors accused fellow panelists of not following the judge’s instructions. Facing the possibility of a new trial, Bryce Thomas attempted to hire a hit man from his jail cell (who was actually a sheriff’s investigator) to eliminate his wife’s twin, the woman he believed responsible for putting him behind bars. Dictating a scenario identical to the one he carried out against his wife—presumably in the hope that it would appear the same person killed both sisters, he asked the purported hit man to kill his sister-in-law in her sleep then make her body disappear, leaving just a little trail of blood “because that’s similar to what happened to the one I’m accused of murdering.” Ultimately, the trial judge allowed the conviction for killing his wife to stand, and handed down a sentence of 15-years-to-life. He was subsequently convicted and sentenced to another 12 years for trying to arrange the murder of Theresa Seabolt.

Jami Sherer, 26, mother of a 2-year-old son, disappeared in Redmond, Washington in 1990 the day after telling her husband, Steven, she wanted a divorce and was moving back in with her parents. At her husband’s insistence, she had gone to meet him one last time but never returned. Within hours of that meeting, days before her car was discovered abandoned with her packed suitcase still inside, he began telling family members that his wife was “missing.” Ten years later, still maintaining that his missing wife was alive somewhere as a jury found him guilty of murder, he lashed out at his wife’s family: “When Jami does turn up, you can all rot in hell!”

• Peggy Dianovsky, 28 at the time of her disappearance, vanished from her suburban Chicago home in 1982, leaving no trace of her existence even a quarter century after her disappearance. Her husband, Robert, admitted striking her during an argument with enough force to splatter blood on a stairway in the couple’s home. But he insisted she packed a bag and left that night never to be seen again—without taking her car or her three children. Twenty-two years later he was acquitted of her murder in a bench trial, despite testimony from two of her now grown sons, who said they witnessed their father hit their mother and hold a knife to her throat in the hours leading up to her disappearance. A family friend also testified that several months before Peggy went missing, Robert Dianovsky asked him to help dispose of his wife’s body and outlined a plan to make her killing look like suicide. The friend declined to participate in Dianovsky’s schemes, telling him that he would never get away with it—an incorrect assumption, as it would turn out. Peggy Dianovsky is listed still as a missing person and she never made any attempt to contact her three sons. Robert Dianovsky is a free man and under the law, is judged "not guilty" of a crime for which there are no other suspects.

Wednesday, May 7, 2008

Do healthy women "accidentally" drown in their own bathtubs?


Contrary to what you sometimes here about "accidents in the home" and the dangers of the family bathtub, tubs do not pose a significant threat except to the very young and people with seizure-type disorders or people using large amounts of depressant drugs or alcohol. But the idea of the "deadly bathtub" seems to make it a clever staging ground for men who want to secretly kill their wives.

There is a case under investigation right now in Illinois. No charges have been filed. But a leading forensic examiner believes that an earlier autopsy of the third wife of Drew Peterson--already under a cloud of suspicion in the mystery disappearance of his fourth and current wife, Stacy--came to mistaken conclusions. At the time, Kathleen Savio's death was simply passed over as an accidental drowning in the bathtub. Now, it appears that she was murdered. Her death has been officially declared a homicide, following exhumation and a new autopsy (backed up by a third autopsy done at the behest of Savio's relatives by former New York City medical examiner Michael Baden).

There are two important things to know about this "drowning in the bathtub" business. First of all, it is very difficult for an autopsy to clearly determine drowning as a cause of death. The leading forensic medical textbooks make this quite clear. "Investigation of a body recovered from water can be challenging," writes Dr. Werner Spitz in the widely-used textbook he authored on death investigation. "Autopsy findings alone may be misleading and can cause the inexperienced pathologist to render a diagnosis of drowning when inappropriate."

As Dr. Baden told Greta van Susteren, speaking about the Savio case, "Healthy adults don't drown in bathtubs accidentally."

To make a long and gruesome story short, the forensic autopsy needs to rule out everything else before reaching a finding of "drowning," much less "accidental drowning." While someone might be found dead in a bathtub, even with water in their lungs, it is vital to determine whether or not they had been knocked unconscious, drugged, or simply held under water until they succumbed. Dr. Baden states that Savio had been viciously beaten with bruises still visible on her body even upon exhumation, and had clear signs of a lacerated scalp.

Nevertheless, coroners may rely too heavily on "initial impressions" of a first responder who reports a dead person in a bathtub and fail to to do a thorough autopsy.

In "Erased," I review a case in which a man killed one wife by staging a "bathtub drowning," got away with it even though no water was found in her lungs, then killed his second wife years later in much the same way. Only after the second death did anyone look carefully at the first case.

Elaine Boczkowski was a healthy woman, married to Tim Boczkowski, but was found dead in her bathtub in their North Carolina home.One might have thought that the fact that the bathtub was empty and dry might have given pause to the medical examiners, but it did not.

Four years later, remarried and living in Pennsylvania, Tim killed his second wife, Mary Anne, simply changing the scene of the "tragic accident" he staged to an outdoor hot tub. At least there was water in the tub the second time. Tim told emergency responders that Mary Anne had been drinking heavily and must have passed out and drowned, just as he had claimed with Elaine. Once again, however, no water was found in her lungs, and no alcohol in her system either.

The autopsy in the second case found clear evidence that Mary Anne's death was no accident. The medical examiner was able to determine that the second Mrs. Boczkowski had not drowned but had been strangled to death. She had apparently fought for her life, leaving scratch marks on her husband's torso, which he would feebly claim were the result of her giving him a "scratch massage." The Pennsylvania findings prompted authorities in North Carolina to re-open and re-investigate the death of Elaine four years after the fact, which was also determined to have been a homicide. Boczkowski was eventually tried and convicted of murdering both his wives.

It must be said that there are adverse health conditions that can be triggered by long immersion in a hot tub, which can, in fact, contribute to drowning. But it is almost impossible to drown in a normal bathtub. Yet alleged death by drowning in the family bathtub remains a popular eraser killer ruse.

Rants by Ronni: Erased--Missing Women, Murdered Wives

Rants by Ronni: Erased--Missing Women, Murdered Wives

Crime blogger Ronni, discusses "perfect storm" of psychological dysfunction

The "perfect storm" of dangerous psychology, which Ronni mentions, is a good way to describe my use of the term the "dark triad" which I have borrowed and adapted from some very technical psychological research. The dark triad is a name for this linkage of three traits that are closely related but also distinctive: Machiavellianism, narcissism, and psychopathy. One could say extreme manipulativeness, a malignant form of self-centeredness and psychopathy.

Although Ronni quotes me, I like her description: "Psychopaths, we know about. Daumer. Bundy. Duncan. These "cold killing machines" who have no empathy. The thing about Peterson that didn't fit this label was the fact that he had never been in trouble before. Psychopaths tend to get in trouble with the law early in life, and stay that way. Not all of them, of course, but most. The narcissist, on the other hand, is not usually a killer. He likes to reinvent himself, and he needs a constant supply of adoration and positive reinforcement, but his usual pattern is to just disappear when the supply dries up. However, when Machiavellianism is added to the mix. The Machiavellian is a master manipulator."

Cases in my book which explore in detail these traits include Scott Peterson (of course), L. Ewing Scott (made his wife 'disappear' in mid-fifties Los Angeles), Perry March (Nashville), Robert Durst, John David Smith (husband of Fran Gladden Smith of New Jersey), Justin Barber, and many others.

Sunday, May 4, 2008

Why They Kill (Part 1)

In all of the “missing wife” cases I have investigated, it became clear to me that “getting away with murder” was an essential force, but not the only force, driving these killers. One might assume that every killer, every criminal of any sort, wants to get away with his crime. But the majority of domestic homicides don’t happen that way. Most are not planned, not carefully calculated and covered up. In fact, in most intimate partner murders, there is no real attempt to "get away with murder." Many men who kill their wives or partners in a violent argument, the heat of the moment, or in an act fueled party by drugs or alcohol, the killer actually experiences considerable remorse. One recent study suggests that up to 40% of men either committed suicide afterwards, tried to do so, or thought about it. Many other wife killers simply run from the crime scene.

Eraser killers aren't like that because they are most likely "calm" (in the kind of calm that only psychopaths can exhibit) as they commit the murder. Scientific studies of psychopaths indicate that they experience little or no fear in resonse to situations or images that would make most of us very fearful.

The meticulous planning and supreme self-control exhibited both before and after these crimes seemed to be a significant aspect of these men’s characters, far beyond the murderous aspect of their personalities. The expertise at lying and manipulation needed to live a double life is indicative of a high degree of Machiavellianism. While political scientists and others sometimes use this term, psychologists have developed a formal category and accompanying tests and measures for people whose psychological makeup ranks high in Machiavellian traits.

Other malignant personality traits seemed to be involved as well: cold-blooded psychopathic tendencies and extreme degrees of narcissism. But there was something else curious about these men’s characters. Erasing their victims appeared to be not just a means to an end but and end in itself. Once they made the decision to kill, they began purging all trace that the victim ever existed from their lives. Many began getting rid of the woman’s possessions within days of her disappearance, pulling up stakes, changing their lifestyles dramatically. Some immediately replaced their missing wives or girlfriends with other women—sometimes with look-alikes for the disappeared. And, most shockingly, some later attempted to get away with murder again, erasing another wife or girlfriend, sometimes in exactly the same manner as their first crime.

Thursday, May 1, 2008

Profiler Roy Hazelwood, the organized killer, and "high praise"

Murder scenes are hard to miss. Unless they've been staged by a clever killer. Those who aren't going to visit them in person can look at Vernon Geberth's Homicide Investigation book, but not before dinner. It was Roy Hazelwood, then at the FBI's famed (and controversial) Behavioral Science Unit who first proposed a fundamental distinction between types of homicide scenes--those which were disorganized versus the organized scenes. The disorganized murder scenes showed unmistakable signs of spontaneous violence, uncontrolled attack, often including breakage, overturned objects, perhaps a prolonged struggle. Most murder scenes are like that. Organized scenes show signs of planning and extended premeditation. Usually far less of a mess, because the killer had the great advantage of the planned, "sneak attack." But what Hazelwood did was to propose that there were two basic types of killers one can postulate based on the crime scenes they leave behind as their "signatures"--and that the crime scene would usually indicate either a "disorganized killer" or an "organized one," that is, one who planned his actions carefully.

This distinction turned out to be critical when I reviewed crime scenes in domestic homicide cases. The group I later termed "eraser killers" matched many characteristics of Hazelwood's "organized crime scene" and mentally "organized killer."

I was pleased then when after finishing the book, Hazelwood wrote me with high praise--especially because I am an investigative reporter not a profiler. Hazelwood said:

"Finally! An exceptional writer brings a new perspective to the ancient crime of domestic homicide. Once many years ago, Jeffrey MacDonald, a highly intelligent and physically attractive physician, was convicted of killing his pregnant wife and two small children. When asked why he committed such a heinous crime, I answered 'Because he didn't need them anymore.' This is a very powerful book and Ms. Strong deserves high praise indeed!"

Hazelwood is also author of The Evil that Men Do and Dark Dreams

Wednesday, April 30, 2008

What Makes Eraser Killers Different (Part I)

Most men who kill their wives or partners do so recklessly, in the midst of a rapidly escalating and violent confrontation, and after months, years, or decades of physical and emotional abuse inflicted on their victim. These kinds of killers have been studied and researched and categorized, although they have not received the amount of research or attention that much smaller, though more sensational groups (serial killers, for example) have received.

But a subgroup of domestic homicides are committed by men who are not driven by the "heat of emotion" by instead by an utterly cold, calculated design. These are the cases I call "eraser killings." Based on research from about 100 cases (only about 40 of which are actually included in my book) I have drawn a psychological portrait based on the common features we are able to tease out of the data. These killers represent a previously unrecognized subset of intimate partner murderers, different in distinct ways from other domestic killers:

• The eraser killer is a master of deceit and expert manipulator. His killing is carried out in total secrecy (unlike many domestic homicides which often are committed even though there are witnesses present) and then very highly “staged,” to use the investigators’ term for a crime scene which is arranged like a stage set to create an illusion intended to confuse the police and send them down a wrong trail.
• Most domestic homicides involve jealousy, money, another woman, or explosive and vengeful rage felt by the killer because the woman is planning to leave him. While there subsidiary motives involving monetary gain or other women, the eraser killer is not “driven” by these things. His real motivations stem from the unique psychology of men with a particular set of dangerous traits which psychologists have recently named “the Dark Triad.”
• He is killing because the woman in question has become inconvenient. In his eyes, she no longer meets his needs or stands in the way of something he wants. She is not allowed to leave him or take away anything he holds dear, be it a home, or children, or the lifestyle he has come to enjoy. He will only let her go on his deadly, unilateral terms.
• He plans his killing well in advance, once again distinguishing him from the standard wife-killer. Far fewer than half of all wife-killings are actually planned in advance of the final encounter according to available research.
• Eraser killers exhibit key elements of psychopathy such as lack of empathy and lack of remorse, but they do not necessarily rank in the high levels of psychopathy the way a serial killer or sexual sadist does. The eraser killer’s personality traits may be more usefully described as high levels of narcissism and a high level of Machiavellianism, blended with the psychopathic traits. (As will be explained in the next chapter, these three traits are closely linked, partly overlapping, and often shared in eraser killers.)
• The eraser killer will exhibit neither mourning, nor real signs of emotional loss, and will almost always exhibit strangely inappropriate behavior and speech after the mysterious death of his wife or girlfriend. (Sometimes he even starts speaking about her in the past tense before he has killed her.) At the same time he will be using his full array of skills to direct any inquiries or police investigation toward fictitious threats and other suspects even if he himself is participating in the “search” for the missing woman.
• He may have hidden his contempt for the object of his enmity, especially if doing so gives him tactical advantage when the moment of attack arrives. But once he makes up his mind to erase her, his determination is all consuming. When the act begins—once he puts his hands around her throat or strikes her as she sleeps with a heavy object—there is no turning back, no hesitation, no twinge of conscience or compassion.
• He is generally intelligent, though he also greatly overestimates his talents. He believes he is smarter and better than the rest of us, certainly smarter than the police and more deserving in all ways than his victim. He often has considerable familiarity with the law and how police work. He may have read up on these matters diligently to help him with his plan. Or he may have used his unusual ability for absorbing things around him, observing with the cold eye of a lizard in the desert how other predators kill and get away with it, because getting away with murder is his goal.
• To achieve that goal he may follow one of two distinct strategies. Either he can erase the victim’s body by destroying it entirely or secreting it where it won’t be found, or, he can rearrange the crime or stage a wholly false scenario to erase all connection between himself and any criminal act. Either way, he appears to remain free and clear of any involvement in a his act.

Chicago Area Newspaper Reports on "Erased"

On a recent trip to Chicago, I was interviewed by a reporter for one of the Sun Times newspapers--the paper based in Joliet which serves the neighborhoods from which both Lisa Stebic and Stacy Peterson went missing.

Author: Peterson, Stebic may fit 'eraser' profiles

In her research of murders and mysterious disappearances of women, journalist Marilee Strong discovered a pattern.

Men were killing their partners, not for money or jealousy, but because the women were no longer convenient. Their relationships had no history of violence, but the women either vanished without a trace or were victims of staged suicides or accidents.

The men left behind are expert liars, she said. Manipulators who are hungry for attention.

Strong calls them "eraser" killings...Fresh from covering the trial of Scott Peterson, the California man convicted of killing his pregnant wife, Laci, in 2004, Strong took note of Peterson's demeanor. Confident and narcissistic, Peterson fit the "eraser" profile.

for the whole article.


From Laci Peterson to Lisa Stebic to Stacy Peterson

It started for me with Laci Peterson. From the first bewildering reports that a young pregnant woman had vanished from her home on Christmas Eve 2002 in a town in California’s Central Valley, I sensed that something greater and even more disturbing was at play than an already overwhelming individual family tragedy, although at the time I could not identify exactly what that was.

After more than five years of research and reporting, interviewing dozens of experts and investigating over 100 cases, I found I had uncovered not only the hidden story of what really motivated Scott Peterson, but in the process I had discovered a startling pattern that connected a seemingly endless number of cases that have never been “connected” by investigators before. I use the name “eraser killing” to identify and describe these crimes which, until now, have never been studied as a “type” because they didn’t fit any pre-existing pattern.

In my new book, Erased: Missing Women, Murdered Wives, I put forward a theory that tries to make sense of what have been seen only as a series of individual tragedies and aberrations. I believe that there is a method to the self-serving “madness” of these men who kill their vulnerable partners–sometimes disposing of them because they are pregnant, and always using the most cold-hearted of calculation.

What I have learned is that these master manipulators are not like “ordinary” murderers who kill in a fit of passion or in period of rage or revenge partly fueled by drugs or alcohol. These are men (and the vast majority are male) who use cunning, trickery, and audacious lying to manipulate friends and family of the dead (often missing) victim, to manipulate the media and the police, and ultimately to manipulate the legal system itself by targeting the “soft spots” in the law just as they used the deadly “soft kill” methods to eliminate their own wives.

While some of the cases made major news headlines and became “famous” in their tragedy…most remain unknown or forgotten except to their own communities of friends and loved ones. How many remember Lisa Tu, Janet March, April Barber, Pamela Mead, Fran Gladden Smith, Peggy Dianovsky, Lynda Singshinshuk, Isabel Rodriguez. They are women from every part of the country, every social class, every ethnic background. I believe that the behavior, the words, the psychology of their killers all fit a pattern.

Although there have been no arrests and no formal charges, in my opinion the "disappearances" of Lisa Stebic and Stacy Peterson--both from the same area of suburban Chicago--will fit the same pattern.