A blog about murder, theft, and other wickedness.

Dec. 20 2013 2:30 PM

Finally, Some Cops Recorded a Shoplifting-Themed Version of “Jingle Bells”

You could make a good case that “Jingle Bells” is the quintessential holiday song. You could also make a good case that shoplifting is the quintessential holiday crime. I guess it was only a matter of time, then, before some musically inclined individuals went and recorded a shoplifting-themed version of “Jingle Bells.” And I’m glad that these guys from the Hampton, Va., police department were the ones to do it.

Of all the off-kilter public safety videos I’ve featured on the Crime blog, this is probably the sweetest, and that has everything to do with the immensely likeable babyfaced cop who serves as the lead singer. With his goofy dance moves and enthusiastic vocals, I completely believe that this guy spends his shifts daydreaming about Santa Claus. I bet he’s also very active in community theater, and that he really looks forward to giving Hampton schoolchildren his annual bike-safety lecture. It’d be a joy to get arrested by this guy.

But there is much else to like about the video. From the endearingly terrible green-screen effects to the dream-sequence framing device to the handcuffed “shoplifter” dancing in the background, it’s full of holiday magic. Watch it again and again, and take to heart its sound advice: “Shoplifting is a crime / And Santa doesn’t play / So if you see a criminal / Call HPD today!”

Dec. 20 2013 12:23 PM

Six Ways Christmas Carolers Can Stave Off Attacks by Vicious Criminals

The Washington Post published a very un-merry story on Thursday about a group of D.C.-area Christmas carolers whose efforts to spread seasonal cheer were recently thwarted. According to the Post’s Peter Hermann and Dana Hedgpeth, the Thomas Circle Singers were holding a charity benefit concert when some Grinch sneaked into the church’s basement, went through the choristers’ coats and purses, and made off with 15 debit and credit cards. “While we were trying to help people in need we were being robbed,” one singer told the Post. “It was terribly disappointing. … We didn’t even think someone would want to do that kind of harm.”

As a man who has caroled in large groups before and hopes to do so again, this story struck fear into my bass-baritone heart. Whether you’re singing in the so-called sanctuary of some local church or harmonizing on the mean streets of your city or town, you should never forget that street crime doesn’t take a holiday. How can Christmas carolers protect themselves? Here are six suggestions.

Don’t be overcome by the music. It is easy for holiday carolers to become lost in the music they are singing, and imagine the entire world as some joyful and munificent winter wonderland. This is called “letting your guard down,” and you shouldn’t do it. Never forget that Christmas carols are filled with lies, and that you should always remain alert and suspicious even as you are singing songs of love and good cheer. Perhaps also consider adding some crime-conscious carols to your group’s repertoire, like “A Carjacker’s Christmas” or “Santa Got Robbed.” I don’t know if those songs actually exist, but if they don’t, you should write them.

Be aware of your surroundings. If caroling on public streets, keep track of where you’re headed, so that you’ll know if you have inadvertently strayed into a rough neighborhood. Carol during the daylight hours; if you must sing at night, stick to well-lit places. You should also constantly pinch yourself while singing, to remind yourself that the real world can be a cold and painful place. You can also ask the person standing next to you to pinch you every now and then, as long as you make clear that your request is not a sexual thing, but a public safety thing.

Keep your valuables close. The Thomas Circle Singers made a critical mistake by leaving their wallets in an unsecured basement room during their concert. Never do this! Whether you’re singing in a church or in someone else’s home, never presume that your host has taken appropriate safety precautions. You are responsible for your own security. So keep your wallet in your pocket, and if you don’t have a pocket, perhaps consider using a money belt, or one of those around-the-neck thingies that old people use to store their passports when visiting Europe.

Take requests. “Give the people what they want” is a valuable life strategy in general, but it’s especially applicable to holiday caroling outings. If an insistent audience member keeps yelling for “Silent Night,” don’t enrage him by sticking to your set list. Fulfill his request. Make him happy. Take the following maxim to heart: A satisfied audience is an audience that is much less likely to rob you.

Lay off the wassail. For many people, a caroling party is less about the music than the wassail, or the eggnog, or the spiked cider, or whatever warm and liquored-up beverage you use as a vocal lubricant. There’s nothing wrong with enjoying some overproof holiday cheer, but don’t overdo it. Not only will excessive wassail consumption cause you to sing off-key, it will also make you less alert and more susceptible to malefactors. Wait until the caroling is concluded before hitting the punch bowl.

Do not sing “The Little Drummer Boy.” This is the worst holiday song in history, guaranteed to enrage all those who hear it. Whenever I hear “The Little Drummer Boy,” I can’t help picturing it as a cloying Disney holiday film with some kid like Haley Joel Osment in the title role, and then the bile starts rising and I start to contemplate sinister things. If a group of sloppy mouthbreathers stood outside my window and unleashed a volley of unbidden pa-rum-pum-pum-pumming, I would probably respond with violence, and I can’t imagine I’m alone on this. So, carolers, avoid antagonizing your audiences with the sappiest of all songs.

Dec. 19 2013 5:29 PM

Why Would Anyone Want to Steal a Bud Light Lime Straw-Ber-Rita?

Alleged crimes: Petit larceny, misdemeanor criminal mischief.

Fatal mistake: Not being able to find three lousy dollars.

The circumstances: As everyone who has ever seen a beer commercial knows, American men will go to great lengths to acquire the inexpensive domestic malt beverages they crave. But there’s harmless beer-commercial stupidity, and then there’s depressing real-life beer-product-related stupidity. Bryan Fitzgerald at the Albany, N.Y., Times Union brings us the sad story of Kevin Grinnell, an upstate New York man whose thirst for a Bud Light Lime Straw-Ber-Rita tallboy was allegedly matched only by his inability or reluctance to acquire that product legally.

What is a Bud Light Lime Straw-Ber-Rita? is the question you are probably asking, because you are not a 19-year-old sorority sister with underdeveloped taste buds. As Fitzgerald notes, the Anheuser-Busch website describes the Straw-Ber-Rita as a “flavored malt beverage that blends the refreshment of Bud Light Lime with the taste of an authentic strawberry margarita.” Authentic! Basically, this is the perfect drink for someone who dislikes wine coolers because they are “too bitter.”

There are apparently a lot of those people, though, and Grinnell was allegedly one of them. Recently, Fitzgerald writes, Grinnell allegedly “not only smashed through a convenience store cooler to grab a 25-ounce Straw-Ber-Rita, but was found by troopers sitting outside the store sipping the sugary beer-margarita mix.” The Times Union story does not specify whether Grinnell allegedly smashed through the cooler because it was locked, or simply because he did not understand how to open the cooler door. I like to think it’s the latter, but I guess it’s unimportant: State troopers hauled Grinnell off to jail, where the doors are not so easily smashed through.

As I was writing this story, I wondered if perhaps I was being unfair to both Grinnell and Anheuser-Busch. After all, I had never actually tasted a Bud Light Lime Straw-Ber-Rita. I’m no beer snob, and I drink Anheuser-Busch products by choice, fairly often. Maybe the Straw-Ber-Rita wasn’t as bad as I assumed; maybe the drink was actually worth stealing. I went out this afternoon and bought a $3.00 Straw-Ber-Rita tallboy in order to see for myself. (Look for that receipt in my next expense report, Slate accountants!) Friends, I can tell you that the Bud Light Lime Straw-Ber-Rita tastes like neither beer nor a strawberry margarita. It tastes like dulled wits and tooth decay, like a xenophobic child’s vision of Mexico, like a dumb criminal’s rotted-out cerebrum. I did not finish it, but I will likely do so later tonight, and I’ll hate myself for it.

How he could have been a lot smarter: Gone to a convenience store, opened the door, selected and purchased a beer, and consumed it in typical human fashion.

How he could have been a little smarter: Taken the Straw-Ber-Rita home and enjoyed it there, preferably in the dark, so that nobody could notice and mock his terrible taste in alcohol.

How he could have been a little dumber: Stolen an expired can of Straw-Ber-Rita that no longer had that smooth Straw-Ber-Rita taste.

How he could have been a lot dumber: “You know what’s even better than a stolen Straw-Ber-Rita? This Straw-Ber-Rita dipping sauce I’m brewing up for the seven-layer burritos I also stole.”

Ultimate Dumbness Ranking (UDR): Sometimes, dumb criminals are dumb because their crimes are ineptly executed. Sometimes, dumb criminals are dumb because the items they steal have no value. Sometimes, they are dumb because they do things that make you want to grab their shoulders and yell, “Get yourself together, dude! Show some self-respect!” This story qualifies under all of those rubrics. Grinnell isn’t the dumbest alleged dumb criminal I’ve featured thus far, but he might be one of the saddest. 5 out of 10 (and one half-finished Straw-Ber-Rita tallboy) for him.

Dec. 19 2013 1:34 PM

Everything You Think You Know about Mass Murder Is Wrong

There are a lot of things we think we know about mass shootings: that they come about when mentally unstable individuals suddenly snap; that there are more and more of them every year; that smarter and stricter laws can help prevent them. A new article in the journal Homicide Studies says that all of those assumptions are wrong.

In the article, titled “Mass Shootings in America: Moving Beyond Newtown,” Northeastern University criminologists James Alan Fox and Monica J. DeLateur examine existing research and data to refute 11 common assumptions about mass murder—which the FBI defines as any single, sustained incident that takes the lives of four or more victims. Many of their points seem like the starting point for a conversation rather than the end of one. But if we’re going to have a national conversation about mass shootings—and we’re already having it—then it might as well be based on data rather than assumptions.  

The biggest myth they claim to bust? The idea that mass murder in America is on the rise. Fox and DeLateur specifically challenge a recent Mother Jones project that claimed “a recent surge in incidents and fatalities” from mass shootings. The authors argue that Mother Jones arbitrarily limited its analysis to certain types of mass shootings—ones occurring in public places, committed by lone gunmen with no robbery motive or gang affiliation—and that by limiting the data set the magazine came away with skewed results. By expanding their analysis to include all mass shootings regardless of location or motive, Fox and DeLateur found that the rate of mass shootings has remained steady from 1976 to 2011, at about 20 incidents per year, and that “the facts clearly say that there has been no increase in mass shootings and certainly no epidemic.” I read the Mother Jones piece when it appeared, and I found it tragic and convincing. But Fox and DeLateur also sound convincing when they argue that “including mass shootings in all forms can only add to our understanding of extreme killing.” At the very least, Fox and DeLateur’s findings add nuance to a topic that is often oversimplified.

The authors also dispute the notion that shoot-‘em-up video games and other forms of violent entertainment somehow encourage unstable individuals to commit mass murder, noting that “the ability to document a direct causal link indicating that consuming violent entertainment leads to violent behavior has eluded social science researchers for years.” I’ve written about this very topic multiple times for Slate, usually in reference to the notion that Sandy Hook shooter Adam Lanza’s fondness for violent video games was causally connected to his real-life crimes. I find this argument unsatisfying, and so do Fox and DeLateur, who write that Lanza’s “gaming may be more a symptom of his personality and temperament than the cause.”

And, perhaps most dispiriting, the authors argue that pretty much every policy proposal intended to reduce mass shootings has been worthless. Increased funding for and access to mental health treatment? A well-meaning idea, but likely ineffective in preventing mass murder, given that, “with their tendency to externalize blame and consider themselves as victims of mistreatment, mass murderers see the problem to reside in others, not themselves,” and thus would likely avoid all opportunities to receive psychiatric help. Would renewing the 1994 federal assault weapons ban do any good? Probably not: “a comparison of the incidence of mass shootings during the 10-year window when the assault weapon ban was in force against the time periods before implementation and after expiration shows that the legislation had virtually no effect, at least in terms of murder in an extreme form.”

What about implementing stricter security measures in schools and other public places? Actually, “most security measures serve only as a minor inconvenience for those who are determined to cause mayhem.” As an example, the authors cite a pair of Arkansas middle school students who pulled the fire alarm in their school and began shooting people as they came outside. What about expanding criminal background checks for firearms purchasers? “Most mass murderers do not have criminal records or a history of psychiatric hospitalization. They would not be disqualified from purchasing their weapons legally.”

What, then, can be done to stop mass shootings in America? Maybe nothing. “Eliminating the risk of mass murder would involve extreme steps that we are unable or unwilling to take—abolishing the Second Amendment, achieving full employment, restoring our sense of community, and rounding up anyone who looks or acts at all suspicious,” the authors conclude. “Mass murder just may be a price we must pay for living in a society where personal freedom is so highly valued.” Well. Merry Christmas, I guess.

Dec. 18 2013 5:16 PM

A White Lawyer Tries and Fails to Get Arrested for Graffiti in NYC. So What?

When debating policy, anecdotes are like landfills: There are a lot of them, they take up a lot of space, and they’re all garbage. I think that’s why I can’t lend my voice to the chorus of praise for this recent Atlantic article about alleged inequities in the New York City criminal justice system. In the piece, a white former prosecutor named Bobby Constantino puts on a suit, heads to Brooklyn, and deliberately tries to get arrested for possession of graffiti instruments. But no one will arrest him, and Constantino concludes that the justice system works very differently for white people than it does for black people. Constantino’s conclusion is undoubtedly true. But I’m not sure that his story does very much to prove it.

Under the headline “I Got Myself Arrested So I Could Look Inside the Justice System,” Constantino writes that he worked as an assistant district attorney in Boston until he grew disheartened about constantly having to prosecute young black men for petty crimes for which white men never would have been arrested: “riding dirt bikes in the street, cutting through a neighbor’s yard, hosting loud parties, fighting, or smoking weed.” Determined to test the limits of white privilege and hopefully “see the system in action,” Constantino acquired some spray paint and a large graffiti stencil and walked around various Brooklyn neighborhoods (never spraying the paint) trying—and failing—to get arrested. Double standards in action, right?

Well, maybe. But the problem is that this was an uncontrolled experiment, and we have nothing to directly compare Constantino’s results against. Did the cops refrain from arresting him because he was white? Was it because he was wearing a suit? Or was it just that, contrary to Constantino’s claim that “carrying those items qualified as a class B misdemeanor pursuant to New York Penal Law 145.65,” the law actually says that possessing graffiti instruments is only a crime if they are possessed “under circumstances evincing an intent to use same in order to damage such property.” Maybe, in the cops’ eyes, Constantino wasn’t “evincing an intent” to tag any buildings. Maybe they could sense that he was pulling some sort of stunt, and that they didn’t want to be involved in it. Maybe, as Constantino concludes, they don’t think white guys are going to spray the paint. We just don’t know.

After failing to get arrested in Brooklyn, Constantino raises the stakes and actually spray-paints “NYPD Get Your Hands Off Me” on the walls of New York’s City Hall—during which, in an admittedly unbelievable moment, he is spotted by a cop who then proceeds to drive away without making an arrest. Constantino then returns to City Hall the next day to surrender himself. Instead of being arrested, he is turned away; and the same thing happens each of the next four days. “I was expecting them to recognize me from eyewitness descriptions and the still shots taken from the surveillance cameras and immediately take me into custody,” he writes. “Instead, the guard politely handed me back my license, explained that I didn’t have an appointment, and turned me away.”

Constantino interprets his inability to get arrested at City Hall as the cops’ reluctance to arrest a white man. But isn’t it just as likely that the City Hall guards were just confused by the whole situation? Misdemeanor criminal suspects don’t normally surrender themselves at City Hall. They do so at the police station, and, wouldn’t you know, there is actually a police station only steps away from City Hall. If Constantino would have surrendered himself there, only to be turned away again and again, well, that would be a story. But surrendering yourself at City Hall is sort of like demanding that the Department of Agriculture process your tax returns. Just because they won’t do it doesn’t mean that the government doesn’t want your money. (As for the cop who drove away: Do I think that a black man spray painting a message to the NYPD on the side of City Hall would have gotten that cop’s attention? Yes. Do I know that the cop drove away because Constantino is white? No.)

I’ve been writing about stop-and-frisk all year, and the reason why the stop-and-frisk lawsuits were so maddening is because they revealed an obvious, impossible-to-ignore pattern of racist behavior on the part of the NYPD; a decade’s worth of civil rights violations targeting specific ethnic groups. Constantino’s story says nothing relevant about anyone or anything other than Bobby Constantino and the circumstances of his stunt crime. Would a black man have had an easier time getting arrested for the same actions? Probably. But we know that because of the myriad statistics showing that blacks are arrested at a higher rate than whites in New York, not because of Constantino’s anecdotal evidence and presumptions.

Constantino eventually does get himself arrested, and, in the Atlantic piece, he spends a great deal of time describing the dire conditions in the police holding cell where he is taken. You should read the whole article if you haven’t already. Maybe you’ll find his anecdotes compelling. I don’t know. The story is interesting, and it’s clear that Constantino means well, but, in the end, I just don’t think it says anything significant.

Dec. 18 2013 2:11 PM

Train Robber Ronnie Biggs, the Guy Who Got Away With It, Dies at 84

Ronnie Biggs, the last of the international criminal folk heroes, has died at 84. Biggs was one of the least important members of the British super-gang that stole approximately 2.6 million pounds—worth about $60 million today—from a Royal Mail train in 1963, a heist that was later dubbed the Great Train Robbery. But he was certainly the most famous, thanks to his daring escape from prison in 1965 and his subsequent getaway to Brazil, where he lived for decades, trading on his infamy and thumbing his nose at British authorities. His success at skirting capture earned Biggs a reputation as one of Britain’s master criminals. But the truth about Ronnie Biggs never quite lived up to the legend.

Biggs was a Royal Air Force washout and petty criminal when he met a man named Bruce Reynolds in 1950 while both were serving time in Lewes Prison. Reynolds was an articulate charmer who dreamed of big, memorable heists. The two men became friends, and, according to Colin MacKenzie’s book Biggs: The World’s Most Wanted Man, it was in Lewes that Reynolds first told Biggs of his plan to one day rob a Royal Mail train. More than a decade later, Biggs, who had been working as a painter, was short on cash, and approached his old friend Reynolds for a loan. Reynolds countered Biggs’ loan request with a proposition: He was finally assembling a gang to pull the Royal Mail job, and he wanted to bring Biggs in on it.

Nobody else in the gang thought this was a good idea. The train robbery group was formed by merging two existing outfits: Reynolds’ South West Gang, and another crew called the South Coast Raiders. Both groups were made up of professional thieves who were experienced in big, complicated jobs. Biggs was an amateur, and, worse, a stranger to everyone but Reynolds. Consequently, he was assigned a very small role in the heist: Find an engineer to drive the train after it had been robbed. He failed miserably. Biggs recruited a friendly, overconfident retiree who had plenty of experience with older models of locomotives but had absolutely no idea how to operate the train being heisted. On the day of the robbery, the engineer proved useless, and he and Biggs were simply in the way.

A Scotland Yard file photo of Biggs, circa 1970.

Photo by STF/AFP/Getty Images

Despite having failed at the one job he had been assigned, Biggs received a full share of the robbery’s proceeds. Like most of the gang, however, he didn’t stay free long enough to spend it. The police discovered the train robbers’ hideout, which was covered in fingerprints, Biggs’ among them. He was arrested shortly thereafter, and sentenced to 30 years in prison.

He only served two years before escaping, in 1965, by scrambling up a rope ladder that accomplices had dropped over an exterior wall at Wandsworth Prison. Biggs made his way to Australia, where he lived in anonymity with his wife and family until 1969, when the police picked up his trail. Biggs moved on to Brazil alone, and Scotland Yard eventually caught up with him there, too, arresting him in 1974—but they were unable to bring him to justice. At the time of his arrest, Biggs’ Brazilian girlfriend was pregnant with his child, and the government of Brazil was loath to extradite the father of a Brazilian citizen-to-be. The British detectives went home empty-handed and Biggs remained a free man: the only known member of the Great Train Robbery crew who was still at large. He was a semi-celebrity in an equatorial paradise, a living refutation of the idea that crime doesn’t pay.

He traded on his notoriety for decades. As a known felon, Brazil granted Biggs provisional liberty, which meant, among other things, that he was not allowed to hold a job. He had to make money somehow, though, and he did so by entertaining visitors in Rio, who would pay to hear Biggs tell his story. “Stopping off at Ronnie Biggs’ house” became a standard part on any adventurous British tourist’s Rio itinerary. In 1978 members of the Sex Pistols came by, and together with Biggs, they wrote and recorded a song that went to No. 7 on the U.K. singles charts. “No One Is Innocent,” a hymn to the world’s “worthless creeps,” featured Biggs on warbly, off-key lead vocals, and a chorus that went “Ronnie Biggs was doing time until he done a bunk. Now he says he’s seen the light and he sold his soul to punk.”

As he aged, though, Biggs grew weary of life on the lam. He gave interviews asserting that his greatest wish was to “walk into a Margate pub as an Englishman and buy a pint of bitter.” In 2001, at age 71, out of money and in poor health, he took steps to make that happen, boarding a flight to Britain and voluntarily surrendering to police. If Biggs was expecting mercy due to his age and his ancient crime, he was mistaken: He was ordered to serve the remainder of his original 30-year sentence. For years, it looked like he would die in prison, as the British government resisted all calls to commute Biggs’ sentence. Then, in 2009, with Biggs’ health failing, the government suddenly reversed its position and set the train robber free, days before his 80th birthday. He lived out his remaining years a very sick man before dying early Wednesday morning.

Biggs liked to talk of himself as a “gentleman crook,” which was a self-serving and inaccurate description: He was no gentleman, and he wasn’t even much of a crook. What Biggs actually was is perhaps less important than what he represented. He was the guy who got away with it, and every generation needs someone like that. Frustrated salarymen could live vicariously through Ronnie Biggs, dreaming that they, too, might one day quit their job, rob a train, and escape to paradise.

Dec. 17 2013 5:10 PM

How Do You Kill Someone on the Streets of Midtown Manhattan and Get Away With It?

It’s been a year since 31-year-old Brandon Lincoln Woodard was shot in the head at midday on a midtown Manhattan street. And it’s also been a year since I first wrote about Woodard’s murder, in a piece that ended with this jaunty, overconfident sentence: “Even though [Woodard’s killers] got away at the time, it’s only a matter of time before these guys get caught.” Well, here it is, a year later, and they still haven’t been caught. Is it really that easy to kill a man in broad daylight in the middle of America’s biggest city and get away with it?

Here’s what we know about the case so far. Brandon Woodard was a law student from Los Angeles. He had a history of small-time arrests, and, at the time of his death, police believed he may have been involved in the drug trade. In a June New York Times article about the case, an anonymous law enforcement official suggested that Woodard may have incurred the wrath of some violent drug dealers, perhaps over an unpaid debt or a missing shipment. We don’t know for sure.

Since the entire attack was caught on camera, we do know that, on Dec. 10, 2012, Woodard left a hotel in Midtown, turned onto 58th Street, and was looking at his phone when a man in a hoodie stepped up and shot him once in the head. The shooter got into a waiting Lincoln sedan, and the car was seen entering the Midtown Tunnel a little bit later. From there, the shooter and the driver appear to have vanished. How is that possible?

For one thing, Woodard’s killers appear to have been pros. Many murderers aren’t. They leave physical evidence behind for police to find, or they commit a similar crime later, or they talk about the crime to the wrong people, or their friends talk to the wrong people, and that’s how detectives develop leads that help them solve a case. Woodard’s killers—and their associates—made none of these mistakes. Yes, they shot their man in the middle of the day, but it’s not as if they left a fingerprint-covered gun lying next to Woodard’s body. A daylight shooting, a midnight shooting: If you leave no evidence and there aren’t any witnesses, it doesn’t matter what time of day you shot someone.

That leads into my next point: The killers were good, but they were also very lucky. There were no cops around to hear the gunshot and respond instantly. There were no eyewitnesses to call police with the killers’ descriptions and license plate number. The getaway car made it through the city without getting snarled in traffic. The shooting was caught on camera, but the footage wasn’t very clear. If police have found other, better footage of the murder, they haven’t made it public, and it hasn’t led to any arrests.

And, now, time is on the killers' side. The most dangerous moments for the culprits were the hours immediately following the murder, with Woodard’s name in the headlines and the case at the top of the NYPD’s list of priorities. Now, with every month that goes by, the case becomes harder to solve, if only because other, newer cases are taking precedence. Detectives will pick Woodard’s murder back up if new information comes in. But logistics dictate that the case is not being worked as actively now as it was last December.

This doesn’t mean that the shooter will never be brought to justice. If Woodard’s shooting was indeed drug-related, then it’s entirely possible that police will eventually arrest someone who, in order to save his own skin, might volunteer information about the Woodard homicide. And if the case is eventually solved, I’m guessing it’ll be solved that way—thanks to a random informant who comes to the police, rather than the police unearthing this information on their own. But, then, I’ve been wrong about the Brandon Woodard case before.

Dec. 17 2013 11:47 AM

The Life and Death of a Real-Life “Omar”

Justin Fenton at the Baltimore Sun had a fantastic story this weekend about the life and death of a Baltimore man named Marcus Lesane, a “stick-up boy” who robbed drug dealers for a living until he was shot to death this spring in a robbery gone wrong. If you know anything about Baltimore’s stick-up boys, it’s probably from watching The Wire, which featured a recurring character named Omar, played by Michael K. Williams. Like Marcus Lesane, Omar robbed drug dealers for a living, and, over the course of the series, he emerged as one of the series’ most likable—and, in his way, most heroic—characters. (In a 2012 interview with Grantland’s Bill Simmons, President Obama named Omar as his favorite Wire character.) Fenton’s story shows that the lives of actual stick-up boys can be just as compelling as (and far more complicated than) those of their fictional equivalents.

If you’re thinking that “robber of drug dealers” sounds like only slightly less insane a career choice than, say, “crash test dummy,” you’re not wrong. Drug dealers are often heavily armed, and generally have no qualms about shooting someone who tries to rob them. The stick-up boys aren’t particularly gun-shy, either, which only serves to heighten these already-tense encounters. “City police say the stick-up crews drive a considerable number of homicides and shootings,” writes Fenton. Why choose such a risky occupation?

The money, obviously. As Fenton notes, stick-up boys “represent a niche in particularly chaotic and thriving drug markets in cities like Baltimore,” where there are lots of street-level dealers, not all of whom take the proper steps to guard their wares. A successful robbery can yield thousands of dollars in cash and narcotics, and your victim is unlikely to contact the police. If you’re feeling lucky, or bold, sticking up a drug dealer sure beats sticking up an Old Navy.

An unsuccessful stick-up can end in the death of the robber, or the intended victim, or both. Marcus Lesane was successful until he wasn’t, and Fenton does a wonderful job reconstructing the police investigation into his death. There’s a great scene where police enlist Lesane’s brother in an attempt to convince Lesane’s former stick-up partner to cooperate in the homicide investigation:

For two hours they sat at the table on the fifth floor of police headquarters, two guys from Southwest Baltimore burning through a pack of cigarettes. Finally, Baskerville broke down and described what happened.
Baskerville said he and Marcus Lesane had hopped into the LeSabre on the night of April 10 with a plan to rob a man named Antonio Braxton at an apartment building in the 2400 block of Loyola Northway. Braxton, 21, had agreed to sell them $1,000 worth of cocaine, Baskerville told police -- but they planned to steal it instead.
Braxton hadn't brought the full amount to the meeting spot, so Marcus Lesane led him at gunpoint to a home in the 2500 block of Oswego Ave. to get the rest. Baskerville said he stayed outside, then panicked and took off.

Marcus Lesane stayed inside, and there he died after being shot in the back with his own gun, killed by a frightened 19-year-old high school student who had come to Braxton’s house to smoke marijuana and play video games. The teen claimed he acted in self-defense, and the police believed his story; no charges were filed against him. Both Braxton and Baskerville are currently in jail on unrelated homicide charges. Marcus Lesane is dead. In the Baltimore drug trade, the same sad stories happen again and again. We’re lucky that Fenton and his Sun crime-beat colleagues are around to record them. Great work on this piece.

Dec. 16 2013 4:00 PM

The Work-Shirking Secrets of the World’s Laziest Government Employee

The “American dream” is a nebulous concept. Some say that the phrase refers to the idea that, in America, anyone who works hard can find great success. I, however, maintain that the real American dream is to find great success while doing as little work as possible. By that definition, I’d say that John C. Beale is one of the greatest heroes in American history.

Michael Isikoff of NBC News brings us the absolutely bizarre story of Beale, a workplace fabulist for the ages, who, on Wednesday, will be sentenced for defrauding his employer out of hundreds of thousands of dollars in the most ridiculous manner imaginable. Beale was the highest-paid employee at the Environmental Protection Agency, a climate expert who had worked as a senior policy advisor on global warming and carbon emissions issues for decades. But as Isikoff reports, he was also apparently a very, very lazy man who would do anything to avoid doing his job.

Beale would disappear from the office for months at a time, drawing his full paycheck while doing no work whatsoever. He covered his tracks with the mother of all phony excuses:

To explain his long absences, Beale told agency officials—including McCarthy—that he was engaged in intelligence work for the CIA, either at agency headquarters or in Pakistan. At one point he claimed to be urgently needed in Pakistan because the Taliban was torturing his CIA replacement, according to Sullivan.
“Due to recent events that you have probably read about, I am in Pakistan,” he wrote McCarthy in a Dec. 18, 2010 email. “Got the call Thurs and left Fri. Hope to be back for Christmas ….Ho, ho, ho.”

But Beale wasn’t actually a CIA operative. He had never even been to Langley. Instead, NBC reports that Beale “spent much of the time he was purportedly working for the CIA at his Northern Virginia home riding bikes, doing housework and reading books, or at a vacation house on Cape Cod.” (Oddly, this sounds very similar to the plot of the next James Bond movie, The Spy Who Loved Clam Chowder.)

Beale’s story eventually fell apart. He pleaded guilty to theft of government property in September and will be sentenced on Wednesday; prosecutors want Beale to serve at least 30 months in prison. And yet I can’t help but be impressed by his chutzpah. I’d bet that all of us, at one point or another, have told a lie in order to get a day off from work. But we usually try to keep those stories within the boundaries of plausibility—“I am very sick today,” for instance. Beale, however, went in the opposite direction and offered the most ridiculous excuse possible. And yet people believed it, for years! In my opinion, the real fault here lies not with Beale, but with his superiors, who failed to realize that real CIA operatives don’t boast about their missions in casual intra-office emails.

Dec. 13 2013 2:00 PM

A Terrifying Holiday Warning From 1962

The holidays are a time for merriment, altruism, and, most of all, harrowing public safety announcements. The good people at the Texas Archive of the Moving Image have unearthed this classic safe-driving PSA from 1962, and it’s surely one of the best of its kind. It features one of Texas’ most beloved holiday figures, Maj. Hutchison, commander of the Northwest Region of the Texas Department of Public Safety, who comes bearing a valuable message about roadside tragedies. The whole thing concludes with that classic Christmas message: “Don’t let the names of your loved ones show up on our teletype network.” 'Tis the season!

There is much to praise about this film. Consider the mangled female doll at 0:38, which, on first viewing, is easy to mistake for an actual human corpse. There’s also the mysterious question-mark poster on the wall at the beginning, which is likely a souvenir of the time Maj. Hutchison tangled with the Riddler. But the best part is certainly the haunting teletype clatter that runs at low volume throughout the PSA, only to spike at the very end as the camera zooms in, as if to emphasize the dangers that await us all on our local roadways (and perhaps suggest that this teletype machine is itself evil). Much like the ominous hammer that concluded the Dragnet credits, the ear-splitting teletype noise forces you to contemplate your own inevitable doom. And isn’t a renewed sense of your own mortality the greatest Christmas gift of all?