CHALK GHOST—When your neighbor dies and nobody notices

Chalk-Ghost-KindleOne mystery that haunts me all year, not only on Halloween but all the time, is how a person can die in a home or apartment surrounded by neighbors, but no one notices for days and days and days.

Since 2009 I’ve worked on a mystery story called CHALK GHOST. At first it was a short story, which I posted as a serial on, where it co-won the Grand Prize. After that I tried to expand the story to novel size and failed until I realized that a novel required something very different: my nightmare evolved into SNOW GHOST, a work still in progress. But CHALK GHOST refused to die. Now I’ve finally finished the novella, and it’s available for free on Amazon Kindle for Halloween through November 1. After November 1, 2012 CHALK GHOST is available for a mere pittance of $0.99 or the equivalent at Amazon U.K., Germany, and elsewhere. In late January it will be available in most ebook formats.

Please download a free copy of CHALK GHOST . Review it! Comment here! A U.K. reviewer gave CHALK GHOST 5 stars and wrote: “Excellent book for a quick read’ good story line. Downloaded this to my phone. Would recommend it.”

Indian Country Justice—Part V

I know I’ve been wrong many times, but recently I learned just how very wrong I can be: I learned I’ve been wrong all my life about who I am.

In July 2011, my mother Wanda Jean Granot Cole passed away and left me to serve as the executor of her estate, which was promptly challenged in probate court. Since then there have been endless negotiations, an extensive inventory of personal property, and numerous third-party appraisals of the unexpectedly large collection of artworks, fine crafts, and historical documents my mother collected. In the process I’ve had to finger through 87-years worth of my mother’s papers, which include extensive genealogies she prepared for both sides of my family. A few times this dusty digging through her papers has turned up rather sad memories, but more often it has produced fascinating glimpses into the past.

Among my mother’s papers are about 100 letters written by and to my father Elmer Bob Cole while he served in the Army during World War II and after that in the Army of Occupation. My mother always told me that my father fought in the Battle of the Bulge—but that simply wasn’t true. Instead he served in the 103rd Division (Cactus Division) of the Third Army, field artillery, and fought in the Battle of the Upper and Lower Vosges.

I did a little research and learned that, like my father, mystery writer Tony Hillerman also served in the Cactus Division. Like my father, Hillerman was born in a small town in Oklahoma. So I bought a copy of Hillerman’s memoir, Seldom Disappointed, which includes vivid tales of  the war in Central Europe—very similar to the tales my father wrote home about. I also learned that Hillerman is of German ancestry, not Native American, as I had thought.

My mother left dozens of notebooks filled with her genealogical research, including a little research into her mother-in-law’s family, the Atteburys. I am named after my father’s mother, Katherine Attebury. Granny, as I knew her, believed herself to be as much as one-eighth Cherokee, because her father Thomas claimed to be (according to my mother) either “one-quarter or one-third” Cherokee (the math is my mother’s, not mine). My father also firmly believed himself to be at least one-sixteenth Cherokee—and so did I and everyone else in the family—both sides—so much so in fact that it was a source of friction between my proudly all-white Scots-Irish grandmother and my father.

To give myself a break from probate hell, I joined and began to track my great-grandfather Attebury’s roots. It didn’t take long for me to find him in a pre-Civil War census in Arkansas (Indian Country) with a child slave in his household. This didn’t surprise me (although it offended me) because I knew that Cherokees were slave owners.

Then, several months ago, began offering its subscribers DNA tests for ethnic origins. I got on the waiting list, and one day received a package in the mail with instructions to spit into a tube and then mail my spit to a DNA testing lab. I wanted to know just how much Cherokee I had in my DNA.

I imagine you can guess the answer. Exactly zero.

All my ancestors (except 2% unknown) are from the British Isles, Scandinavia, and Central Europe. I’m a Celt by way of the British Isles and Scandinavia and a Viking by way of the British Isles, Scandinavia, and Europe around the Baltic. Even my Jewish grandfather (whose name was Sephardic) seems to have had nothing but Central European origins.

It’s really a shock. As a child I grew up very proud of my Cherokee heritage (in those days I didn’t know they were slave owners). I also suffered from several humiliating incidents involving my racist grandmother, who thought I was “a dirty Indian.”

Now the mystery I have to solve is: Why did Thomas Attebury, a Confederate Civil War veteran, tell everyone in Oklahoma that he was at least one quarter Cherokee?

I have several speculations, but it’s going to take some in-depth research to uncover the truth.

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“If the law makes you a witness . . .”

“If the law makes you a witness, remain a man of science; you have no victim to avenge, no guilty or innocent person to convict or save. You must bear testimony within the limits of science,” said Dr. Paul Brouardel (1837-1903). 

Of course he said it in French over one-hundred years ago. In modern English it would probably be “Forensic-science expert witnesses must bear witness to nothing but the truth.”

If only the “hired gun” expert witnesses in high-profile trials of the past decade had followed Brouardel’s admonition. (Cable TV’s Dr. G springs to mind. Remember how she declared that poor little Caylee Anthony had to have been murdered because of the proximity of her skeletal remains to a black, plastic garbage bag? A pronouncement like that is hardly within “the limits of science.” Dr. G clearly thought she had a victim to avenge.)

I learned about Brouardel from a video lecture series sold by

Review of The Great Courses “Trails of Evidence,” by Elizabeth A. Murray

“Trails of Evidence” is a 36-part series of half-hour video lectures by Dr. Elizabeth A. Murray on all aspects of state-of-the-art forensic science, which I highly recommend to all trial lawyers and trial watchers. Brouardel’s admonition lies at the core of all of Dr. Murray’s forensic science investigations and teaching (she’s Professor of Biology at Mount St. Joseph College of Cincinnati).

Throughout the series, Dr. Murray cautions against foundationless forensic science. For example, in lecture 22 (“Decomposition—From Bugs to Bones”) she questions the usefulness of cadaver dogs, which of course were critical to Scott Peterson’s conviction and were also employed in the Casey Anthony investigation to prove that Caylee’s corpse had once been in the Anthony’s back yard, among other places.

Dr. Murray points to a case in which she located a clandestine grave by crawling on her hands and knees over a suspect patch of earth, which had previously been sniffed by cadaver dogs without success. She located the grave based on changes in the ground level and other soil indications. A body was buried there, but the cadaver dogs couldn’t even sniff out that a corpse had ever been near the place. In addition, Dr. Murray recounts the tale of dishonest dog handler, Sandra Murray, who involved herself in many high-profile cases but was eventually convicted of planting evidence for her dogs to find.

If the Drew Peterson jury had listened to Dr. Murray’s lecture 28 (“Human Memory and Eye-Witness Accounts”), they could not have convicted Peterson of murdering his ex-wife. Dr. Murray explains very clearly what is wrong with hearsay evidence, even when it’s presented from the witness stand by a pastor: human memory is a personal construct. No one remembers anything exactly as it happened. No one remembers any conversation word-for-word. The further in the past an event occurred, the less likely it is that anyone will remember it correctly.

Sidebar: Recently, Donna Bridge, a post-doc at Northwestern University’s Feinberg School of Medicine, published in the Journal of Neuroscience her recent findings about the way human memory works. Bottom line: The more often a person recalls a past event, the less accurate the memory becomes. That’s right, the more often an eye-witness to a crime, for instance, is asked by the cops and the lawyers to repeat what he or she saw, the less accurate the testimony becomes. This explains why Judge White (the first judge in the Drew Peterson case) found one hearsay witness not to be credible, but trial Judge Burmila did: by the time she took the stand she had repeated her story so often that she was convinced it was accurate—and her “conviction” convinced the jury.

Throughout “Trails of Evidence” Elizabeth Murray’s refrain is: To be a good forensic scientist you must first become a rigorous scientist. In fact, she recommends that would-be forensic scientists not study forensics or criminal justice in college, but instead major in one of the biological or physical sciences, then go on to graduate school and get a Ph.D. in forensics-related science before becoming an applied scientist, that is, a scientist who specializes in forensics. That’s what she did: she studied biology, anatomy, and anthropology before she became a criminal investigator.

COMING JUST IN TIME FOR HALLOWEEN: Chalk Ghost, a novella: “a mystery that only the dead can solve.”