The Murderous Trail of Lois Riess

lois-riess

Lois Riess

Lois Riess is 56 years old. In a driver’s license photo released by police, she looks like a kindly grandmother. She has a pleasant smile, blonde hair, brown eyes. She doesn’t look like a killer.

Police say she is a killer, and she’s on the run, and no one is safe.

Riess is the alleged killer of Pamela Hutchinson, age 59. The Bradenton, Florida woman was only guilty of one thing: resembling Lois Riess.

Police in Fort Myers Beach, Florida found Hutchinson dead from gunshot wounds last Monday. As reported by multiple media sources including the Associated Press, no one is aware of any social connection between Riess and Hutchinson. Riess may have killed Hutchinson to assume her identity. A Lee County official reportedly said Hutchinson’s purse “was found to be in disarray and all cash, credit cards and identification appeared to be removed.”

The buried lede is this: Hutchinson isn’t Riess’s alleged first victim. Her first victim may have been her husband, David Riess.

In late March, David Riess was found shot to death at the Blooming Prairie home he shared with his wife. After she allegedly wrote checks amounting to $11,000 on David Riess’s account, Lois Riess—who is said to have a gambling addiction—visited an Iowa casino, then vanished for a while.

Investigators think she popped up again in Florida, where she met Pamela Hutchinson.

The AP reports that after abandoning her Escalade, “Riess is believed to be driving Hutchinson’s car, a white Acura TL with Florida license plate Y37TAA.”

So far there have been sightings of the Acura TL in Louisiana and  Texas.

Can a gambling addiction make someone snap like that? Several reports quote police as saying Lois Riess’s m.o. is to steal identities—as if she’s done it before.

She may look like a plump, friendly middle-aged woman, but it sounds like Lois is as dangerous as any wild-eyed psycho.

‘Let me get my heads’

Screengrab from news video about arrest

Roena Cheryl Mills just wanted to get her heads. The AP reports police in Princeton, WV have charged the 41-year-old woman with the murder of Bo White, age 29. White was reportedly decapitated. It’s unclear as to whether that was the cause of death. The AP reports the blood-soaked woman had came out of the woods and went to someone’s home. Naturally they called police, since no one wants a blood-soaked woman hanging around their yard. Mills was taken in. During interrogation, she reportedly said, “you have to take me back and let me get my heads.” Mills and White were acquainted, police say, though the nature of their relationship isn’t clear. She’s in jail and being held on a nearly quarter-million dollar cash bond. I’d like to know why she said “heads” instead of “head.”

[AP]

Dismembered Body Found in Brooklyn Park

He thought it was a doll. Or maybe a mannequin. But the last thing a man walking his dog in a Brooklyn Park expected was a dismembered woman’s body. Police say after the man saw the body he called them from home,perhaps really realizing what he’d seen. She was found face down, no arms or legs. Today New York is a surprisingly safe city, so a dead body alone would have been a shock, but dismemberment is rare. The New York Times had few other details as of early Tuesday morning.

[nyt]

Casey James Lawhorn Allegedly Kills Two, Posts Confession on Facebook

Casey James Lawhorn, age 24, allegedly killed his mother Vi Lawhorn and friend Avery Gaines then confessed to the crime on Facebook, reports ABC. Lawhorn’s profile has since been removed, but his post was preserved as two screengrabs. You can read it here but it is very disturbing (which is why I elected to not simply post the grabs). Lawhorn said he was going to commit suicide, and indicated suicidal ideation for years, dating back to his time as a student at Middle Tennessee State University. He said in the post that he’d killed his mother and his friend with a rifle. He said his friend died immediately but he shot his mother several times. Lawhorn said he did not harm his pets. He seemed serious about committing suicide, saying “how should I be expected to not kill myself?”

Texas Serial Criminal Anthony Shore Admitted to Golden State Killer Copycat Crimes Before Execution

Before his execution, serial killer Anthony Shore told investigators from the Texas Rangers about crimes he’d committed when he was a teen living near Sacramento in the 1970s—crimes he said were inspired by the rapist and murderer now known as the Golden State Killer. The Houston Chronicle reports Shore “admitted to participating in another serial crime, as a copycat of the East Area Rapist, a Sacramento-area criminal active in the late 70s and early 80s.” He claimed he began with groping women on bike trails. The Rangers report indicated he progressed to truly terrifying assaults. Via the Chronicle, a quote from the Rangers gives some idea of  the horrific acts to which Shore confessed. He said he bound a couple, then “made the man ‘watch’ as he sexually assaulted the woman.”

Shore was called the “Tourniquet Killer” and targeted women in and around Houston during the 80s and 90s. He was convicted of killing four. He was put to death in the electric chair on January 18, 2018.

Source: [Houston Chronicle]

Oklahoma Airport Employee Shot, ‘Sniper’s Nest’ Found Nearby

UPDATE— An unnamed suspect in this homicide has reportedly been found dead in a truck, according to OKC police.


ORIGINAL POST

On Tuesday afternoon Michael Winchester, a 52-year-old Southwest Airlines employee, was shot and killed just outside Will Rogers World Airport in Oklahoma City, OK. Winchester was also reportedly the father of James Winchester, a member of the Kansas City Chiefs pro football team.

The airport was essentially locked down following the shooting, and the New York Daily News reported that some sources indicated a “sniper’s nest” was found in a parking garage near the scene of the shooting. A law enforcement spokesman wouldn’t confirm anything regarding evidence Mr. Winchester was the victim of a long distance shooter to the Daily News.

Southwest released a statement about the crime stating that the “Southwest Airlines Family is deeply saddened” by Mr. Winchester’s “passing.”

Will Rogers World Airport was frozen as police figured out what was going on, with passengers and staff sheltering in place.

I said I’d be updating this site more. I’m still not sure as to what approach to take, but I wanted to make note of this crime in part because the mention of a possible “sniper’s nest” was exceptionally strange.

The Daily Mail reported that as of Tuesday evening the airport was still shut down with departures and arrivals on hold “until further notice.”

[NY Daily News]

Vanessa Marcotte and Karina Vetrano: Are They Connected?

marcotte-vetrano-comparison

Left: Vanessa Marcotte/Right: Karina Vetrano

On August 2, 2016, 30-year-old Karina Vetrano disappeared while running in the Howard Beach community of Queens, New York. The attractive and fit aspiring writer was found about four hours after she vanished. She’d been dragged off a trail and assaulted, then strangled to death. She fought her attacker all the way, losing a tooth in the process.

Five days later and just under 200 miles away, 27-year-old Vanessa Marcotte—who worked for Google in New York—vanished while on a run in rural Princeton, a small community northwest of Worcester, Massachusetts. Marcotte was found murdered hours later. She was nude, part of her body burned. Police said she fought her killer hard enough that he likely had visible wounds from the encounter. Like Vetrano, it’s possible she was sexually assaulted.

I know, I know. It’s a question that at the moment seems more of interest to some pretty sketchy websites that traffic in hyperbolic posts meant to gin up more traffic to their ads. Still, as the investigations into the murders drag on, it’s hard to avoid wondering: could these horrific murders somehow be connected?

The victims’ similarities are unmistakable: A general physical resemblance; both smart and likely highly-motivated as well as confident. In a tangential way—because the city is so densely populated—even Marcotte’s job and weekday home in New York seems worth noting. Also, as my former Maxim colleague Gabriella Paiella wrote about for New York Magazine, the question of physical safety is always looming for women who run alone—it had surely bothered both Marcotte and Vetrano in the past. Yet both women were confident enough in themselves to push past that kind of anxiety and get out there and run. They presented tough victims to sexual predators, who—like many criminals—often target perceived weaknesses and vulnerabilities.

The killer or killers of Vanessa Marcotte and Karina Vetrano were even more strongly motivated than the average sexual predator and had to have had a lot of confidence in what they were doing. It’s easy to believe that in either case—and multiple reports indicate neither the NYPD nor the Worcester County, MA DA have not ruled out a connection—the victims fell prey to someone who had committed similar crimes in the past.

The New York Daily News reported Thursday that Karina Vetrano’s father believes police are close to an arrest in her case. Police said they don’t have a suspect, but Philip Vetrano even addressed a woman he said was the killer’s relative, saying, “We know there is a family member of the killer that we need for them to come forward, to finalize this very quickly, and she is in great distress…We know she wants to make that call.”

Hopefully the grieving father is right and at least one arrest in these strangely parallel crimes is in the offing. If that happens and both women were killed by the same man, he’ll have had previous victims, too. If the killers were different after all, there will still be another very dangerous man still out there, and it wouldn’t be surprising if he struck again.

 

Parabon Snapshots of Unknown Killers: Truth and Promise

tinsley1

Part of note from killer

April Tinsley vanished on Good Friday, 1988. According to the FBI page on her disappearance and murder, the 8-year-old Fort Wayne, Indiana girl was on her way home from visiting a friend when she was kidnapped. April’s killer raped then murdered her. She was suffocated to death.

April’s killer has never been caught. Police have a description, an approximate age range, and a psychological profile indicating he is likely a “preferential” pedophile — a pedophile who is specifically attracted to children, likely within April’s age range. There are different kinds of pedophiles, according to most profiling research, and this kind can find it harder than others to hide their attraction to children.

The man who killed April Tinsley even left behind plenty of evidence. Including communications, beginning with a message scrawled on a barn door, reading in part, “I kill April Tisley (sic)… I kill again.”

Michelle McNamara wrote about April’s “communicative” (Michelle’s apt description) killer in a blog post at True Crime Diary in 2012:

Investigators say they believe whoever wrote the message was April’s killer.  They haven’t said why, but there are two possibilities.  The writing implement, said to be crayons, was found nearby, and DNA from the crayons could have been matloched to a sample found on April’s body.  The second possibility has been discussed on message boards, but not confirmed by investigators.  It’s alleged that when April’s body was found she was fully clothed but missing one shoe.  The rumor is that above “ha ha” was the question, “did you find the other shoe?”

As Michelle reported in that post, 7-year-old Sarah Bowker would disappear not long after that message on a barn door. She met the same fate as April. Strangely, while the coroner who examined both girls concluded their murders were related, the FBI disagreed.

The Tinsley murder had long been a cold case by the time April’s killer made himself known again in 2004. He did this by leaving seemingly barely literate notes inside baggies, accompanied by used condoms in various areas, clearly targeting little girls anew.

Still, the FBI didn’t become fully involved until 2009. They created a profile of the killer. CNN reported on some of the FBI’s conclusions about his psychological makeup:

Police believe he is a white male currently in his 40s or 50s who prefers and desires sexual contact with children, particularly little girls.

“This offender has demonstrated that he has strong ties to northeast Fort Wayne and Allen County,” the profile said. “This is where he likely lives, works and/or shops. You may be standing next to him in line at the grocery store, sitting beside him in the pew at church, or working beside him on the production line.”

Such profiles can be helpful in that they might spur local residents to tell police, “You know, I always wondered about this one guy (…)”

Criminal behavioral analysis — profiling — is a fascinating if imperfect art. In development since the 1970s, it’s accrued an aura of myth, thanks in part to great fiction like Silence of the Lambs. The truth about behavioral analysis is that it’s one tool in a vast investigative suite of them, and is rarely the factor that solves the case — it’s simply one helpful way to narrow down a field of suspects.

tinsley2

“Snapshot” of Tinsley suspect

With the advent of easy and inexpensive DNA testing and the parsing of human genetic makeup, a new form of profiling has been filtering into news accounts of cold cases in the last couple of years, and it was recently applied to the DNA of the killer in the Tinsley case.

Parabon is an outfit in Virginia and they’ve been doing a steady business creating suspect portraits using an unknown subject’s genetic history as revealed through DNA. Here’s how they describe what they do with a product they call Snapshot:

Snapshot is a revolutionary new forensic DNA analysis service that accurately predicts the physical appearance and ancestry of an unknown person from DNA. It can also determine kinship between DNA samples out to six degrees of relatedness. Snapshot is ideal for generating investigative leads, narrowing suspect lists, and identifying unknown remains.

Parabon, as best as I can tell, uses the same data that Ancestry.com and 23andMe utilize from submitted DNA samples to develop a portrait of unknown killers as well as John and Jane Does. It’s a smart and understandable use of new technology and when I first learned of it, I was blown away. Anyone who has ever obsessed over a cold case in which there were known samples of the killer’s genetic material hears about what Parabon is doing and gets a little thrill at the prospect: What would a Parabon Snapshot of the Zodiac Killer look like? Or the vicious Golden State Killer, whom Michelle McNamara was writing a book about when she passed away?

My wife and I have had our DNA analyzed by both Ancestry and 23andMe. It wasn’t until I took a deep dive into what 23andMe concluded from my DNA sample that I thought about Parabon’s Snapshot profiles and felt a sudden twinge of disappointment.

As Parabon attempts to make clear in profiles such as the one they’ve released in the Tinsley case, their workups — highly detailed suspect sketches, basically — are based on the suspect’s most probable appearance, based on what their genetic material tends to predict.

Here’s the cold water about this kind of thing: even if your genetic material tends to indicate you’ll look a certain way, there is no guarantee you will. I learned this from my 23andMe experience.

23andMe breaks reports from your DNA down into numerous reports. These include:

  • Ancestry Composition (I am 99.2% northern European and 0.7% Sub-Saharan African)
  • Muscle Composition — I am a “likely sprinter,” my muscle composition primarily “fast-twitch” muscle fibers
  • Caffeine Consumption — I’m likely to consume less. I do not consume less. I consume large quantities of it.
  • Individual reports on your likely hair color, physical characteristics, and skin.

The reports in the last bullet point are where things get interesting.

According to 23andMe’s analysis of my DNA, I am most likely to have “light brown or blond hair.”

On my hair report, 23andMe actually states, “You are not likely to have red hair. 94% of customers who are genetically similar to you do not have red hair.”

I was born with coppery red hair. It’s gotten blonder as I’ve aged, but there’s no doubt about it. The report nails my hair type (lightly wavy), that I’m likely to be balding (I am), and the fact it’s light colored. But that’s it.

It seems like nitpicking but if the same data was used to make an unknown suspect profile, he wouldn’t have red hair — a highly distinctive feature.

My 23andMe profile correctly predicts I have light-colored eyes (green), but the part of the report that details potential facial characteristics of someone with my genetic makeup states clearly: “Steven, you are not likely to have a cleft chin.62% of customers who are genetically similar to you do not have a cleft chin.”

One of my most obvious facial characteristics is a clearly cleft chin.

23andMe also concluded I would have light skin, which I do, but not many freckles. That part is debatable. I don’t have nearly as many as some redheads, but I’ve certainly got some.

So far, it’s not hard to guess that a Parabon Snapshot reaching conclusions similar to 23andMe from my genetic data would have me — a redhead with some freckles and a cleft chin — as a light brown-haired man with few freckles and a square, un-cleft chin. My DNA tends to predict those things. I simply was an outlier and ended up born with the less likely traits. Just as many people are, every day, everywhere.

This is not a knock on Parabon. I think they’re doing very necessary work and hope they keep refining and improving their product. It’s a reality check for the many true crime devotees like me who see intriguing news stories about Snapshot-generated profiles and don’t bother to look past quickly turned-out reports breathlessly hinting that this might the thing that solves the case.

It’s a long-needed and possibly fundamental tool. Truth be told, I have no doubt a Parabon Snapshot or some similar forensic product will one day play a key role in solving a major case, especially when combined with a service that has Ancestry.com’s capacity for identifying possible familial relations, up to 3rd, 4th, 5th cousins.

But Parabon’s Snapshot is not a magic bullet. Reading the fine print on Parabon reports it is clear they are aware of this. Reading interpretations of their work in the press, it’s clear that the media is not. Sober, realistic assessments of possible breaks in long-unsolved and deeply unsettling cases like the murder of April Tinsley don’t traffic quite as well for a TV station or newspaper website.

Pima Jane Doe: Her name was Brenda Gerow

On the last day of 2014, a man named Bill Gerow wrote this comment on my only story in this blog to date, “Pima Jane Doe and the Flower Girl“:

My name is Bill Gerow and the picture of the girl is my sister Brenda, she is from NH and we have been looking for her since 1980, I was contacted by a Det Mark O Dell 2 weeks ago and informed about this recent development ,I had no idea that Brenda was found murdered in Arizona 34 years ago, we are deeply saddened by this recent news to say the least,I am going to post this on all social media that I can so that we can prosecute (Jack) and keep this animal behind bars till he is dead Jack left NH with my sister in 1980 and that was the last we saw of him or her it is with great sadness that we learned of her murder recently,if you need moreback ground on her or Jack please contact me…

Untold attempts at trolling me through the years and the general chicanery that can accompany blogging about crime made me reflexively skeptical of Bill’s comment, even though in hindsight I can see why I shouldn’t have been. I did email him, though, because there was a note of sorrow in his comment that seemed too profound to be totally insincere.

Bill’s first reply to me erased most of my skepticism. A portion of the email:

[Her] full name is Brenda Marie Gerow. Her Birthday is Feb, 18 1960 the last time I heard from her was July 20 1980, and yes Jack left NH as a wanted criminal, that is why he fled with my sister. She contacted me 3 months after she left my parents home with Jack, I have looked extensively looked for her since, I believe there was no missing person report filed at the time she left, she was 20 and of legal age at the time, I was 16 when she left He did go by the name Jack at that time (…)

I was unsure as to what to do. It felt like a major scoop. But it also seemed like there must be a reason police weren’t releasing such a solid lead. I assumed they were working to build a solid case against Kalhauser. And maybe I just wasn’t ready to dive into it, for whatever reason. So after another exchange with Bill, I left it alone. And I left this blog alone, even though it seemed like a pretty good idea.

It’s almost October, nearly 10 months after Bill Gerow left his comment. The story has been confirmed. From Boston’s NBC affiliate, WHDH:

Pima County Sheriff’s detectives now have her name, who she was with before her death, and where she lived.

 “We’ve been able to identify Jane Doe as Brenda Gerow. She was born and raised in Nashua, New Hampshire,” says Pima County Detective Mark O’Dell. “She was about the age of 20 when she left Nashua with John Kalhauser.”

So—from a journalistic perspective, I had the story almost a year ago and I blew it. I sat on it, in part out of respect for Bill Gerow, whose subsequent emails to me made it clear he was in the throes of a deeply emotional struggle. In part out of a hesitance to dive even deeper because it felt like a vastly depressing labyrinth.

That’s the eternal challenge in these kinds of crime stories. They have, as they’ve lingered over the years, developed layers of sorrow that are hard to fathom from the comfort of your living room, typing in a blog edit box.

And I think about, too, the possibilities with a psychopath like Kalhauser. He said something to one of his exes that upon re-reading tonight I found doubly chilling, given his history of dead, anonymous or completely hidden victims:”‘While I was in high school,’ (Janet) Renk said, ‘he told me he was going to take me to some woods in New Hampshire and tie me to a tree and leave me there to starve.'”

“[Woods] in New Hampshire” made me think of the still-unsolved mystery of the Allenstown girls. An adult woman and 3 girls, all unknown, found wrapped in plastic inside barrels near a trailer park. It seemed like a lot of work, even for Kalhauser—but who knows, at this point?

That’s the kind of rabbit hole I’ve been down before when covering crime. It can challenge sanity. I wasn’t sure I was ready a year ago. Maybe no one is ever ready.

At least it’s official. At least Brenda Gerow has her name back. At least her brother can bring her bones home, finally, to this green country, so far from the desert where she was found.