PTSD in Policing: A Story of Survival

By Brian Thiem:

Retired Oakland P.D. Lieutenant Rachael Van Sloten is one of the strongest women I know. When I was retired and working on my first novel, I reached out to Rachael, then working as a detective sergeant in Homicide, to help me create an authentic woman homicide detective character. She’s remained one of my most trusted beta readers, one I can trust to ensure my female characters are realistic and my stories hold together.

I first met Rachael in the mid-1990s when I was a lieutenant at Oakland PD and a watch commander on the swing shift. One evening, after having completed the field training program, she reported to my lineup briefing for her assignment as a beat cop. My first thought was wondering if this cute, little, blonde woman had what it takes to survive as a cop on the streets of Oakland.

As the watch commander, I was a worrier. The evening shift had around a hundred officers and a dozen sergeants, about half of them working any given day. And I worried about every one of them. I normally ended my briefings with the immortal admonishment of that old, crusty sergeant on Hill Street Blues, “Be careful out there.”

I knew every officer at OPD was exceptionally qualified. Only 2% of those who apply are hired. Many are weeded out in the academy, and more don’t make it through the field training program. I learned Rachael was a graduate of University of California (Berkeley), a school that only accepts the best, and she held a black belt in martial arts. Despite my initial concerns, her sergeants reported she was smart and tough and did a great job.

A while later, Rachael found herself in a fight for her life. The following is in her words.

On this day 25 years ago, 11-24-97, I was working patrol in west Oakland, when an officer put out he was about to do a car stop for a minor traffic violation. I responded to assist. Within seconds, the vehicle took off and crashed into a driveway and the driver fled on foot. I took a perimeter position.

My life changed that night—from wide-eyed rookie officer to fighting for my life. Twenty-five years later and I can remember every moment of that incident. I can describe details for you but not what was going through my head nor what my body was feeling. I remember those feelings vividly, but it’s too difficult to describe.

The suspect jumped out from over a fence where I was standing. Other officers believed he was running in a different direction. I tried to put it out but couldn’t broadcast over the emergency traffic on our outdated radios.

I had him controlled—I thought—but the tables turned quickly. He was a very experienced fighter. He had fought the police on many prior occasions, I learned later.

One second I was standing, the next second he had body slammed me to the ground, ripped my radio mic off my shoulder so I couldn’t call for help, kicked me in my face, shattering my nose, and kicked me multiple times in my ribs as he stood over me. Then he went for my gun, which was now holstered and thankfully secured with the snaps. I had holstered my weapon when I saw he was unarmed, and I was switching to a less lethal tool. That was the moment when he attacked me. Was that a mistake? Probably.

I remember thinking, this is just a fight. Then I felt the tug on the grip of my gun and heard the security snaps on my holster snap open. That was when, deep inside me, I knew he was going to try to kill me. This was not just another fight—this was a fight for my life. I had seen these fights on police videos where the officer is getting beat and screaming for his life. They are horrible to watch. I was about to experience it. This man was not armed, and I was about to die. He was winning this fight, and if he won, I would be dead.

But only if he succeeded in getting my gun. I knew I could survive broken bones but not a gunshot to my head. I had been taught gun retention in the academy, and somehow in the middle of all this, my body remembered what to do. I knew I had to hold onto the holster where the snaps were, and I squeezed around the holster so the man could not rock my gun back and pull up. He was trying so hard to do that. But I held on. I held on as he lifted me off the ground by the grip of my own gun as he tried to get it from the holster. I held on as he slammed me into the cement over and over again, chipping a bone in my shoulder. I held on as he kicked me over and over again, damaging some of my ribs.

I held on while he spoke to the crowd of citizens who surrounded us. He kept saying, “Don’t hurt me, officer! Don’t hurt me,” as he beat on me and tried to get my gun. It made no sense. He was playing for the crowd, and they cheered him on. They yelled as I fought to survive, “Kill her, go on kill her.”  Those words still echo in my head. Why was no one helping me—a 100 lb., 5’2” woman? It was because I wore the uniform. I was new to the job. They did not know me. I hadn’t earned their respect yet, so I guess in their minds, I was not worth saving. Even worse and sadly, in their minds, I was worth killing.

At one point, I rolled over my radio mic which was underneath me. I heard it broadcast my screams for help. And yes, I screamed for help. I remember screaming, “Get off me.” I remember screaming other officers’ names. Hoping they would hear me and come help. No one heard me. No one helped me. They didn’t know where I was. When I rolled over the mic again, I yelled “I’m north of you, he’s trying to get my gun.” This fight continued for 3.5 to 4 minutes. It felt like it would never end. I wasn’t sure I would survive, but I wouldn’t let go of the holster. He kept trying to get the gun. Later on, we would learn he had cut his hand when he jumped over the fence, and his bloody prints were on the security straps of my holster and his bloody palm print on my gun grip.

 I couldn’t grab for other weapons—my baton or pepper spray—because if I let go of my holster, he would have my gun, and I would be dead. I did what I had to do. I bit him. Gross, yes, but when you think you are about to die, you do what you need to survive. I remember that I just kept biting at him. That was my only weapon I could use without letting go of my holster. Somehow that worked. He took off running.

The adrenaline was so strong, I got up and chased after him. I was an officer and that was my job. A lieutenant approached me, got me to take a breath, got me focused again. Other officers arrived. They set up a perimeter and ultimately caught him. We arrested him without incident (without injury). I went to the hospital and that is when I realized I was badly hurt. The adrenaline had helped me survive, but when it left my system, the emotions, the pain of what just happened hit hard. I was told not to cry. I did not cry—I bottled it up—shoved it deep down.

Rachel’s nose was shattered, and she had surgery that week. Most rookie officers would’ve reassessed their decision to become a police officer, but it never occurred to Rachel to quit. She returned to work a month later. She later had surgery on her shoulder, as a bone fragment had shifted, causing her shoulder to lock up. She ended up with four surgeries on her nose, and to this day still can’t breathe right. She had three surgeries on her shoulder, and many more on other parts of her body from other injuries and the wear and tear of the job.

She never told anyone back then how scared she was. She never told anyone about the nightmares. She just pretended everything was okay and continued to work. She was later promoted to sergeant, and I remember how proud of her I was when I saw the photo of her and her family at her promotion ceremony.

She went on to work Homicide, where she saw more death and misery than any person should have to in a lifetime. She handled the murder of four Oakland officers who were killed in the line of duty during one tragic incident, a mass shooting where seven people died, an artist warehouse fire that killed thirty-six, and scores of other horrendous incidents.

In 2014, Rachael was diagnosed with cumulative PTSD. Although Oakland PD had a peer support unit and a free and totally confidential professional counseling service, there remained a stigma over seeking help, but she found help on her own. She again returned to work and eventually was promoted to lieutenant. She retired last year.

Rachael and I have spoken many times about PTSD among law enforcement officers. All departments need to do more for their officers. She is not alone in still thinking about the traumatic experiences she had experienced. The things we experience affect us. They change us. And all too often, they destroy us. How police organizations treat their officers after traumatic incidents affect them. Police departments can do better.

Talking about it can help. Telling our stories to others show them they are not alone in feeling the way they do. And, as Rachael says, “Letting people know there is light on the other side of the darkness can help.”

Rachael is doing well today in retirement. She’s supported by a loving husband and parents, three wonderful children, and many friends. My first impression of her nearly three decades ago as that cute, little, blonde rookie was so very wrong. She’s one of the toughest, fiercest, strongest women I know. And she’s a survivor.

The Klan with a Plan

In 1925, Indiana had the nation’s largest chapter of the Ku Klux Klan. The Klan was a force in state politics and the Indiana chapter of the “Invisible Empire” aspired to wield its power on the national scene.

D.C. Stephenson ran the Indiana chapter of the KKK. In 1923, he had been elected the Grand Dragon. He proudly wore the orange robes of his office. He held himself out as, among other things, a Prohibitionist, an advisor to U.S. presidents, and a defender of Protestant womanhood. He plotted to make himself the most powerful man in Indiana.

To achieve the goal, he used the power of the Invisible Empire to elect a slate of candidates to local and state offices. In 1924, the Klan helped Ed Jackson win the governorship of Indiana. With Indiana’s senator in ill health, Stephenson expected Governor Jackson to appoint him to the United States Senate. The future looked bright for the Grand Dragon.

Public Domain

Stephenson also pushed a bill through the Indiana legislature requiring all schools to teach a course on diet and nutrition. Only one textbook met all the legislative requirements, One Hundred Years of Health, written under his name by Madge Oberholtzer. The mandatory sales to schools would make Stephenson rich as well as powerful.

On March 15th, 1925, Oberholtzer received a call. Stephenson was leaving for Chicago and needed to see her. He sent a bodyguard, Ed Gentry, to collect her. At his home, an intoxicated Stephenson insisted Madge join him on the trip to Chicago. She refused, but Stephenson would not accept the answer. He insisted she drink and forced her onto the train.

Soon after leaving the station, Stephenson attacked her. His assault included biting her until she bled. When the train arrived in Hammond, Indiana, Gentry, the bodyguard, pulled her from the train. He and Stephenson led her to a hotel where Stephenson registered them under the name, Mr. and Mrs. W.B. Morgan.

Madge recovered from the assault sufficiently to ask to be taken to a drugstore. There, she secretly purchased bichloride of mercury tablets. The tablets were ordinarily used as a treatment for syphilis. Although metallic mercury will pass through the human body, mercury bichloride is absorbed into the bloodstream. It damages the kidneys and intestinal tract. Back at the hotel, Madge swallowed six tablets. She soon became ill, vomiting blood and writhing in pain. Madge refused to go to the hospital. Stephenson required an agreed story before seeking medical help. The men instead loaded her into a car and drove her back to Indianapolis. After more delay, and following a promise to say nothing, the men brought Madge Oberholtzer home.

 A doctor examined Madge in her bed. She had bruises on her cheek, chest, stomach, legs, and ankles. The skin on her breast was torn. Her tests showed kidney failure. On March 28th, the doctor told Madge that she had no likelihood of recovery. Following the news, she dictated a statement to a family friend and attorney, Asa Smith. She reported all that had happened to her. She read, corrected, and signed the statement. On April 14th, 1925, Madge Oberholtzer died.

Although Stephenson expressed confidence that a powerful man such as he could never be indicted, the world was changing. Press reports of the rape shocked and angered the public. Stephenson soon faced a murder charge. Also indicted were Gentry and Ed Klinck, another Stephenson bodyguard.

D.C. Stephenson

 Chief among the prosecution’s problems was establishing the exact cause of death. The autopsy reported that Madge died of “mercurial poisoning, self-inflicted.” A jury’s determination of suicide would acquit the defendants. The prosecution thus needed to pin its case on the rape and the infection from the bites. The government also hoped to prove that the suicide attempt would be a reasonably foreseeable result stemming from the duress of the rape and kidnapping.

The prosecution’s key evidence came from Madge Oberholtzer’s dying declaration.

 Ordinarily, an out-of-court statement is inadmissible in criminal court. The defendant has a right to cross-examine the accuser, so the condemning evidence must come firsthand from the witness stand. Sometimes, however, evidence is believed to be so inherently trustworthy that it is admissible even if cannot be cross-examined. A dying declaration is one example. We believe, as a society, that someone would not lie with his or her expiring breath.

In my experience, a dying declaration is just that, the last gasps of a victim lying in a field, an ambulance, or an ER bed. They are rare in criminal law. A multiple-page affidavit dictated to a lawyer strains the inherent qualities that make a dying declaration trustworthy.

But as noted earlier, the times were changing in Indiana. Public opinion swung against the Klan as the press reported Madge’s rape and death details. Stephenson’s opponents within the Klan amplified the news to take down a rival. At the trial, the judge admitted the dying declaration into evidence.

In her statement, Madge reported that she took the poison to save her mother from disgrace. Stephenson would only take her to the hospital, she dictated, if she would claim to be his wife and claim to have taken the poison by mistake. Madge refused.

At trial, the government presented medical evidence that the delay in seeking treatment and the infections from the assaults to her flesh took her life. The prosecutor’s experts testified that Madge would likely have survived the poison if her body hadn’t been weakened by infection. Had she received prompt care, they also forecast survival. The defense disputed the science.

The jury deliberated four hours before acquitting Gentry and Klinck. On November 14th, 1925, they convicted Stephenson of murder. He received a life sentence.

From the Indiana State Prison, Stephenson awaited a pardon from Governor Ed Jackson, the man he had helped elect to office. D.C. Stephenson discovered a hard lesson about politics. The world had changed. He no longer controlled the state. The governor issued no pardon.

In July 1927, as payback for not getting the pardon, Stephenson sent the Indianapolis Times the names of Indiana politicians who had been on the Klan’s payroll. Governor Jackson’s name headed the list. The information led to the indictment of Jackson and others.

Odd as it sounds to our ears, the Klan built an image as a champion of morality, honor, and patriotism. The trial and the ensuing counterattack destroyed that myth. The Indiana Klan’s power as a political force waned. As mentioned earlier, prosecutors rarely get to offer into evidence a dying declaration. Finally, we think of the scientific “battle of the experts” as a feature of modern trials, not part of a 1920’s murder case. However, both sides stacked experts testifying about the cause of Madge Oberholtzer’s death.

For the law, the science, and the swinging pendulum of politics that make the case interesting, the trial of D.C. Stephenson is November’s Trial of the Month.

Mark Thielman

In the Know

-Ben Keller

Happy Halloween!  As I write this, it’s the last day of October in a year that has been hurtling by.  And as I considered what my contribution to our Murder-Books blog would be, I considered our motto, claiming we produce crime fiction from “those who know.”  Obviously, the intended meaning behind that phrase is that all of the writers on this blog have real-world experiences in the worlds of policing, investigations, the courts and the law that inform our writing.  But we’ve also expanded that theme here, sharing with you an inside view of little known aspects of our world.

I love learning little-known things.  Perhaps that had something to do with my becoming an investigator:  a desire to know the truth, or the hidden.  In less lofty terms, I think it also has something to do with my love of trivia.  Of obscure histories.  Of the obscure.  An unanswered question makes my brain itch, and it gives me an inordinate amount of satisfaction to have the answer, no matter how pointless the original question was! 

So, in that vein, I thought I’d share with you some lesser known sources of knowledge in the world around us.  May they bring you the same pedantic satisfaction they’ve brought to me:

  • There is method to the madness of our highway transportation system.  Many people know that odd-numbered highways generally go north-south, and even-numbered freeways go east-west.  But it goes deeper with exit numbers corresponding to the nearest mile markers, how loops and spurs are numbered based on the highway they serve, down to the color of the signs changing based on the type of information they’re providing.
  • The reflective “bumps” embedded in the pavement of most roads tell a story as well.  Yes, they help delineate the boundaries of your lane, but they also confirm you’re going the right direction (when you see the white side).  If you’re seeing the red side, you’re going the wrong way!  And a blue one indicates the location of a fire hydrant.  Some “rumble strips” are etched in a cluster of thirteen to subconsciously warn the driver of an upcoming dangerous intersection.
  • This my escape people who drive the same car every day, but for people who find themselves in a rental car or other unfamiliar vehicle, the arrow next to the gas pump icon on the dashboard can be a life saver.  It indicates what side the car’s gas tank inlet is.
  • Next time you’re in an elevator, the floor marked with a star is the one that has the main ground-level exit.
  • Corporate logos are rife with hidden imagery, some of my favorites are the arrow in the FedEx logo, fast food Wendy’s collar spells the word “mom,” and the Google logo references the famed Golden Ratio.
  • Our technology is a trove of hidden symbols.  The circle-and-line symbol on most power buttons is straight from binary language.  The Bluetooth symbol is an amalgamation of two Danish runes.  And the USB symbol evokes Neptune’s trident.
  • The notorious red Solo cup helps you mix your drink.  The grooves inside can measure a one-ounce shot, a five-ounce wine pour, or a 12-ounce beer.
  • The plastic tabs often found holding closed a bag of bread come in different colors.  Each color aligns with the day it was baked, helping you pick the freshest option.
  • The circular dent found on the side of a gallon jug of milk is meant to expand in the chemical process of going bad.  The dent bulging outward is a sign to pick a different jug.

I’d like to close on a more serious note.  This is the last day of National Domestic Violence Awareness Month, and it’s a great opportunity to share another lesser-known sign that can save a life.  As the pandemic forced a mass work-from-home experiment for our country, it had a terrible impact on those for whom home is not always a safe place.  In response to that, a hand signal arose for those who wanted to ask for help from abuse at home.  Please review this signal below and share it.  Most importantly, if you see this signal being displayed to you, know what it means and how to help.  This is knowledge that can help save someone at risk.

A Bite of the Big Apple

by Isabella Maldonado

I’m not a native New Yorker. Not even a transplant. In fact, I had only visited NYC a handful of times when the bright idea occurred to me to set my new series there. After all, it’s our nation’s most populous city and there’s always a lot going on. Plus, I had fallen in love with the city.

What could go wrong?


In the past, I’ve set my books in cities I’m very familiar with. That doesn’t buy me a pass from conducting research, but it shaves off several hundred hours of serious online deep dives and rabbit holes.

Upon reviewing the first draft of the new novel, one of my editors pointed out that since millions of people live in or visit New York City, chances were high that even the tiniest errors would be detected and called out. Yikes.

Time to hop on a plane and do some serious boots-on-the-ground research. In addition, I needed native guides to set me straight. It turns out that even the most innocuous details that would be obvious to a New Yorker had pitfalls for my plot.

Here’s an example: I had toyed with the idea that someone could dispose of a body in a dumpster. My native New Yorker friends instantly put the kibosh on that:

“There are no dumpsters in the city.”

“What are you talking about? What do you all do with your garbage?”

“We bag it and put it on the sidewalk.”

“That’s insane. How does anyone use the sidewalks?”

“The bags are picked up on a schedule. Besides, how could anyone use the sidewalks if they were clogged with gigantic dumpsters 24/7?”

I heaved a sigh and deleted the part of the plot that involved a dumpster. Next, I came up with a new idea that involved an abduction in the bowels of a subterranean parking garage. Again, the notion was met with a verbal smackdown:

“There aren’t any parking garages like that in the city.”

“You’re kidding. Where does everyone park their cars? It’s not like they have houses with driveways.”

“They either park on the street in front of their building, or they use a multi-level garage where you drop off your car and the attendant parks it for you.”

“You have to use the attendant?”

“Yep. The cars are stacked in cubicles so they have to park them. You can’t be in a hurry to get your car when you get there. That’s why a lot of people don’t own cars. They use public transportation, taxis, or they walk.”

I had to completely rework the plot to have the abduction take place in New Jersey (after a drive through the Holland Tunnel).

Creating an atmospheric read involves honoring the locale by putting in the work. For me, that meant personally walking and riding through every place I planned to use. It also meant finding workarounds used by actual residents or scrapping my ideas in favor of something that would fit.

I took video of the place where I set the opening chase scene as I walked it, narrating the whole time. That included describing my surroundings while I went into the subway and through the turnstiles. Fortunately, New Yorkers are too busy to pay attention to a kooky lady holding her cell phone up and talking to herself.

I also stood outside the FBI field office at 26 Federal Plaza in Lower Manhattan, fondly known as “26 Fed” by those who work there, to get firsthand information about the building (for example, employees enter through the side of the building while visitors use the front). My FBI contact assured me that my behavior in recording and photographing the premises would have gotten me noticed by those inside. Fortunately, I’m sure if they ID’ed me using their high-tech gadgetry and did a background check, they quickly discovered that I’m just a harmless writer and not a threat to national security.

I’m grateful to have had the opportunity to travel to do research. There’s nothing like being there and taking in the sights, smells, pace, sounds, and feel of a locale. Each venue has its own vibe, and capturing it for the reader is a tough job. Now, if I can just figure out how to get one of my detectives to Paris, Venice, or Rio de Janeiro…

Do you have a favorite series or book that transports you to a different place?


by Roger Johns

Please join me in welcoming Cameron Trost to the blog today. Cameron is the mastermind behind Black Beacon Books, a very interesting independent publishing house that offers readers quality fiction, in a number of genres, including crime fiction. And, as a publisher of anthologies, Black Beacon is a market for those of us with a penchant for writing short stories.

MB: Cameron, thank you for joining us, today. Please tell us a little bit about the mission of Black Beacon Books.

CT: Black Beacon Books is an independent publishing house and our mission is to bring original and gripping mystery, suspense, horror, and post-apocalyptic fiction to the reader through themed anthologies, such as “Shelter from the Storm”, and genre-specific anthologies, like “The Black Beacon Book of Mystery”. We aim to give you fiction that isn’t formulaic and predictable, as well as quality writing and editing. We believe readers deserve great stories at an affordable price, and although Black Beacon Books is currently a labour of love, the ultimate aim is to become the leading force in the indie revolution. Can we do it? Absolutely—but only with our steadfast readers by our side.

MB: Black Beacon’s Alfred Hitchcock-themed anthology—A Hint of Hitchcock—comes out this month. What inspired you to assemble an anthology based on the works of Alfred Hitchcock?

CT: Mystery and suspense fans the world over revel in Alfred Hitchcock’s ground-breaking films—many of which are based on short stories and novels—as well as the dozens of anthologies he edited. Last year, I decided Black Beacon Books needed to release a suspense anthology in 2022 and that it needed a theme that would get every suspense fan sitting on the edge of his metaphorical seat. That name immediately came to mind…HITCHCOCK, the master of suspense. As a fan of his work—aren’t we all?—I thought it would be great to put together an anthology of stories inspired by his films. No sooner had the idea occurred to me than I told myself it wasn’t really all that original…right? There must be dozens of books like that on the market…right? Wrong! After a few minutes of research online, looking for short story anthologies inspired by Hitchcock, I quickly realised there were none, or at least, none readily available. So, as you can imagine, I took that as I sign. Without getting carried away with myself, I basically decided Alfie was sending me a message from the other side, telling me I had to make this happen. Fair enough? And so here we are; “A Hint of Hitchcock” is about to hatch…oops, bird reference!

MB: Tell us a bit about your own books.

CT: I’ve published two novels and three collections (you can check them out at, I have one post-apocalyptic novel nearing completion, two mystery novels in the works, and I always have two or three short stories on the back burner. If I stopped publishing anthologies, I’d finish them faster! My writing is atmospheric, mysterious, quirky, and sometimes rather disturbing. If you happen to be an armchair detective—as I suspect most followers of this blog are—my collection of the first four Oscar Tremont puzzles is definitely the best secret doorway to step through in order to discover my mysterious world. Oh, and by the way, I love feedback and reviews, so feel free to get in touch on Amazon, Goodreads, Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and just about everywhere else.

MB: Who are some of your favorite suspense writers?

CT: It’s always hard to narrow it down to a handful of names when it comes to listing favourite writers, and—like myself—many authors whose work I love don’t limit themselves to one particular genre, or their work might bridge genres. The first point I should make is that I only publish stories I truly enjoy in Black Beacon Books anthologies (yes, that’s meant as a compliment) and so each contributor is on my long list of writers I admire. If, however, I have to name one suspense writer whose fiction has left me floored on numerous occasions, it would have to be Ruth Rendell. In many ways, I think she mastered the British domestic suspense story. Likewise, JG Ballard, although not generally associated with “suspense” as a genre, is one of my favourites, and I consider his novel “High-Rise” to be one of the most suspenseful works of fiction I’ve ever read. One more for the road, and to bring it back to Hitchcock and a writer who inspired one of his films, I insist that any fan of suspenseful fiction absolutely has to read Patricia Highsmith’s short story, “The Snail-Watcher”. It may not be the stereotype of suspense, but suspense it is!

MB: What’s coming next from Black Beacon?

CT: Big things! Worldwide success! But more specifically, our next anthology, “Tales from the Ruins”, is already being edited and will be released early next year—stay tuned for more details. It will be our first post-apocalyptic anthology and it’s going to be entertaining but also bloody scary. After that “The Second Black Beacon Book of Mystery” will get those cogs turning in the minds of all you would-be sleuths. We’re taking submissions for that one until the end of October…Halloween deadline. You’d best make room on your TBR pile because the gripping tales are coming at you hard and fast from Black Beacon Books. Visit us now, if you dare, at

Cameron, thanks again, for taking time to give our readers a look into the very interesting world of Black Beacon Books. And thanks for the tips on Ballard and Highsmith. I’m a fan of both writers, so I’ll put the stories you mention on my TBR list.

Cameron Trost is an author of mystery and suspense fiction best known for his puzzles featuring Oscar Tremont, Investigator of the Strange and Inexplicable. He has published two novels, “Letterbox” and “The Tunnel Runner”, and three collections, “Oscar Tremont, Investigator of the Strange and Inexplicable”, “Hoffman’s Creeper and Other Disturbing Tales”, and “The Animal Inside”. He runs the independent press, Black Beacon Books, and is a lifetime member of the Australian Crime Writers Association. Originally from Brisbane, Australia, Cameron lives with his wife and two sons near Guérande in southern Brittany, between the rugged coast and treacherous marshlands. Visit him at:

by  Roger Johns

Did they really happen? What were they really like?

There are those who insist those bygone days may be old, but they weren’t really as good as we remember them. Most of this claimed misapprehension is attributed to either inaccurate memory or selective memory or both. Until we can get our hands on the tapes, however, we’ll never know for sure whether we’re remembering things as they really happened or if we’re weeding out and/or reshaping the bad so that things (or we) seem better than they (we) were.

It’s also possible that a rosy view of the past could be matter of an individual’s judgment of the whole as opposed to some selective/inexact memory of the parts—an acknowledgement that the bad was there, but that it was outweighed by the good. To the extent this is true, individual disposition likely plays a role in how these judgments come out.

It may also be that those who insist the old days weren’t all that good are discounting an individual’s particularized life experience in favor of society’s collective experience of the times in question. To the extent this is true, whose ox was being gored surely plays a role. Throw in the factual inaccuracies and presentational vagaries of recorded history (both public and personal), and disentangling how we recall the past from the facts of the past becomes difficult, if not impossible. It also becomes an anvil upon which powerful literature is forged. Which is the reason behind my ruminations on the subject, in the first place.

In a recent interview I did for the release of the “A Hint of Hitchcock” anthology (containing one of my short stories) from Black Beacon Books, (a little shameless self-promotion, there) I was asked who, besides Hitchcock, were my favorite movie directors. That was easy for me: Mark Romaneck. He directed “Never Let Me Go” which was based on the book of the same name by the Nobel Prize-winning author Kazuo Ishiguro.

The book is not normally considered crime fiction, but to my way of thinking, it most certainly is. In fact, it puts the idea of crime, itself, at the center of a fiction that illustrates, among many things, the human capacity for joy and hope, despite the foreknowledge of a looming, inescapable, dismal fate. And, it illustrates equally well the human capacity for cruelty and misery, despite the foreknowledge of a looming, inescapable, comfortable fate. It also examine how social and interpersonal forces shape our perceptions and reactions to the past and our expectations for the future. It’s a complex story that’s rarely far from my mind, and the haunting, chilling images from the movie have cast a more or less permanent spell over my thinking about how I view the past (mine, and that of the world I live in) and what it means (to me, and my fellow humans). It also serves as a constant reminder of the power of stories.

Unlike an individual’s subjective experience of the past, the words on the page or the images on the film are an objective record of what happened—fictional though they may be. We may argue over what the chronicled events mean, but the concretizing effect of putting words on the page or images on film makes it difficult to dispute what literally took place. This use of the fictional to more clearly understand the factual is an amazing process—an almost magical tool that enables us to see the past through many different eyes. So much great fiction, in general, and great crime fiction, in particular, depends on this device.

I’m always on the lookout for new examples. If you have a favorite piece of crime fiction that is grounded on differences in how the characters remember or understand and use the past, please leave a comment and let me know.

ROGER JOHNS is a former corporate attorney, a retired college professor, and the author of the Wallace Hartman Mysteries, Dark River Rising and River of Secrets. He is the 2018 Georgia Author of the Year (Detective·Mystery Category), a two-time Finalist for Killer Nashville’s Silver Falchion Award, and runner-up for the 2019 Frank Yerby Fiction Award. His short fiction has been, or will soon be, published by Saturday Evening Post, Alfred Hitchcock’s Mystery Magazine, Mystery Weekly Magazine, Dark City Crime & Mystery Magazine, After Dinner Conversation, A Hint of Hitchcock (from Black Beacon Books), and JOURN-E: The Journal of Imaginative Literature. Roger’s articles and interviews about writing and career management for new authors appear in Southern Literary Review, Writer Unboxed, Career Authors, and Southern Writers Magazine. Please visit him at:

The Peanut Butter Theory of Police Staffing

By Brian Thiem

Years ago, when I was working Homicide in Oakland, the department initiated another reorganization to address rising crime amid budget cutbacks. They moved units and responsibilities around and shifted resources from one part of the city to another. They decentralized investigations to make detectives accountable to neighborhoods and later moved all investigations back under a centralized investigative command structure for greater efficiency.

One of our homicide investigators was especially profound one day as we all sat around with our morning coffee working out the problems of the department, the law enforcement profession, and the world. He introduced, in an especially philosophical manner (we homicide detectives were deep thinkers about the human condition and society’s ills), the peanut butter theory of police staffing. It goes like this—if you are given a big gob of peanut butter and a loaf of bread, you can either slather all the peanut butter on one slice of bread, or smear a little bit on a dozen slices. But no matter how you spread the peanut butter, it doesn’t change the amount of peanut butter you have.

In press conferences around the country, we hear police chiefs and local politicians during crime surges announce that they will increase police patrols. Working cops cringe when they hear that. Do regular citizens really think police departments have a bunch of police officers sitting around the station doing nothing, just waiting for a crime spree so they can put on a uniform and go to work?

For a multitude of reason, which I won’t get into here, most police departments today are understrength, and most law enforcement professionals recognize the authorized (budgeted) strength of most departments is insufficient to meet the needs of their communities.

So, when police chiefs “increase patrols,” I always wonder where the officers are coming from. Sometimes, patrol officers are shifted from one part of the city to another. For instance, a few officers might be pulled from every police district and sent to District 5 to address the rash of violent crimes plaguing that area. Although that might help the immediate crime problem in District 5, the rest of the city is now shorthanded. They are not able to handle the calls for service in a timely manner and do little or no preventative patrol. Thus, crime increases there. It becomes like a game of whack-a-mole, where crime pops up in the districts with fewer police, and officers are pulled from other areas to address that, and the process continues in a never-ending battle. Remember, there is a limited amount of peanut butter.

Other times police chiefs announce officers are “pulled from the building” and put back in uniform to address the rising crime. Few departments today have sworn officers doing clerical work—those positions were civilianized decades ago. Therefore, the chief might pull detectives and put them back in uniform, which means some cases will never be investigated, leaving suspects unidentified and at large to continue to burglarize houses and cars, or to rob, rape, and murder citizens.

Or in-service training might be cancelled or postponed—critical training on hot-button topics such as handling mentally ill subjects, force de-escalation, active shooter response, or racial bias. Most of the police misconduct instances we see on the nightly news can be attributed, at least in part, to inadequate training, and policing experts agree that officers need more training, not less. Whenever officers are moved to patrol from other units, some important police functions will not be accomplished. And in the long-term, the communities suffer.

There’s no simple (or cheap) fix to dealing with rising crime, but “increasing patrols” or “pulling officers from headquarters” is not a long-term solution. That’s because, no matter how you spread the peanut butter between the slices of bread, it does not change the amount of peanut butter.

Change Your Thinking

As a writer I am always on the lookout for inspirational stories. You know the type. Stories that keep us tethered to our computers as we incessantly bang out one thousand words a day on—what we hope will be—the next great American novel.

The other day a short video appeared on my Book of Faces feed. No, not the one with the cute kittens. This one was an interview of one of my favorite actors, Michael Keaton. The crux of the interview was the way his outlook changed for the positive the day he realized that going to auditions wasn’t about chasing a job. He described the act of preparing then driving to a twenty minute, or even three minute, audition as the job. The fact that he had been called to come audition was the job, he simply needed to accept it. Once he embraced the idea, he began showing up to the auditions ready to work, instead of looking for work. I watched the clip several times and it struck a chord in me. I realized that the same mindset applies to writers.

When I first began writing in earnest, after a thirty year absence, my only goal was to write complete a novel. As I drew nearer to that goal, my sights shifted to the next Holy Grail of writing. Publication. As if only through publication could I truly call myself a writer. Hindsight has taught me that I was misguided in my thinking. The truth is that the publishing business and the writing business have little in common. I think this where most of us fall into the trap of setting our expectations too high.

As writers, we should have only one goal, to tell the best story we are capable of telling. Period. Anything beyond that is entirely out of our control. The sooner we accept this, the more satisfied we will be with our writing. Much like the epiphany experienced by Mr. Keaton, if we already think of ourselves as writers, then querying, submitting, or even agent speed dating, merely become part of our job.

If you are writing each day—working toward that first finished draft of a short story, or a novel, and improving all the time—then you’re not chasing the job. You already have it. What you are chasing now is a chance to be seen, to be read, and maybe even some recognition for your talent. In short, the icing on the cake. And as I can attest, if you truly are a writer, you’ll never stop chasing it.

Did you find yourself nodding in agreement as you read this blog? If so, congratulations. You are a writer.

Write on!

Bruce Robert Coffin for Murder Books.

A Pause to Remember

The rotating Murder Books calendar assigned me the blog for this week. The week begins on Patriot’s Day, the holiday commemorating the September 11th attacks on the United States.

In honor of the holiday, I thought it appropriate for the Trial of the Month to be the case of the United States against Zacarias Moussaoui. The only person ever convicted in a U.S. court for the September 11th attacks.

Moussaoui did not directly participate on 9/11. On the day that terrorists attacked American institutions, Moussaoui sat in a Minnesota jail cell on immigration charges. The French citizen of Moroccan descent had been arrested for overstaying his visa.

Zacarias Moussaoui arrived in the United States in February 2001. He settled in Minnesota and enrolled in the Pan Am International Flight Academy. He paid cash for lessons in flying a commercial 747 aircraft. During his schooling, he displayed limited prior flight knowledge and had never solo-flown a small plane. These facts, and his belligerence when asked about his background, aroused the suspicions of his flight instructors. They notified the local office of the F.B.I.

Rather than risk Moussaoui continuing his lessons and then disappearing, the Minnesota field office decided to arrest him for the immigration violation. Subsequent to his arrest, they collected his computer and assorted documents.

Subsequent to the 9/11 attack, the Inspector General of the Justice Department reviewed the actions of the local and national F.B.I. In the words of the IG’s report, “the Minnesota FBI and FBI headquarters differed as to whether a warrant [to search Moussaoui’s computer] could be obtained.” F.B.I. supervisors in Washington did not believe sufficient grounds existed to justify the search.

The Minneapolis office, therefore, hatched a new plan. They would deport Moussaoui to France. French officials would search Moussaoui’s belongings upon his arrival in his home country. On September 11th, officials of the Minneapolis office had plans to spend the day making final plans for the deportation and the exchange of information between the two countries.

The tragedy of 9/11 convinced the Washington D.C. office to authorize the search of Moussaoui’s belongings. Among the documents recovered was a handwritten note that listed the phone number of an Al Qaeda member in Germany. This operative handled the financial arrangements in the United States for the hijackers.

The Bush administration made the decision to bring Moussaoui to trial in federal court rather than in front of a military tribunal. The progress of the case, at the time, seemed interminably slow, taking over four years to reach the courtroom. Among the delays, Moussaoui insisted upon representing himself. (Ultimately, he ended up with court-appointed attorneys.) The government denied him access to detained Al Qaeda leaders as potential witnesses. The judge responded by refusing to allow the government to seek the death penalty. This decision was subsequently overturned by the federal appeals court.

In April 2005, Moussaoui wrote the judge that he wished to plead guilty to the charge of lying to federal agents. After a hearing, the judge accepted his plea. The trial, therefore would only be about the appropriate sentence. The judge set a two-stage trial. In the first phase, the government must prove whether the defendant’s lies caused the death of one or more persons on September 11th. If so, the death penalty’s appropriateness for Moussaoui would be decided in the second phase. At that time, the jury could hear both aggravating and mitigating evidence.

The prosecution demonstrated that Moussaoui’s actions mirrored those of the other hijackers. Moussaoui’s lies, a Minnesota F.B.I. agent testified, sent the agent on a “wild goose chase.” The agent would not, however, state definitively that but for the defendant’s lies, the 9/11 tragedy might have been averted. The earlier clash between the local and national offices of the F.B.I. about Moussaoui’s significance loomed over the courtroom.

The government’s case suffered when the judge banned several witnesses from testifying. Attorneys from the Transportation Safety Administration improperly “coached” several witnesses prior to their testifying. The government was forced to prove its case against Moussaoui using the rules developed to safeguard the trial process. Privately, the judge questioned whether the prosecutors could clear the bar in Phase One and prove that the defendant was eligible for the death penalty.


And then Moussaoui took the stand

Against his lawyer’s advice, the defendant testified. He told the jury that Al Qaeda assigned him the task of hijacking a plane and flying it into the White House. Moussaoui told jurors that he lied so that the 9/11 plan could go forward. The defense was forced to demonstrate that their client suffered from delusions of grandiosity.

The jurors deliberated for six days before returning with a verdict that the defendant deliberately lied to the government and that his lies were responsible for the deaths on September 11th. The punishment phase of the trial began.

The jury watched video of the collapsing World Trade Center. They heard from New York City mayor Rudolph Guiliani about the heartache on that day. The families of victims testified. Then, Moussaoui again took the stand. He testified that he had a dream of President Bush granting him a pardon. His testimony, perhaps, raised questions about his mental stability.

Final arguments mirrored the opening statements of the trial. The prosecution argued that Moussaoui had killed the victims as surely as if had been at the controls of the attacking aircraft. The defense claimed that the country did not need a scapegoat. This trial, the defense argued, is more about us than it is about him. The jury retired on April 24th, 2006.

On May 3rd, the jury returned. Their verdict read, “We the jury do not unanimously find that a sentence of death should be imposed on the defendant.” The verdict shocked most courtroom observers.

On this anniversary, we might bog down in the mechanics of the trial–what went right and wrong and why. Alternatively, we might remember the events. And remember that a trial occurred. Although the case seemed slow at the time, it is important to remember that the military tribunal conducting the trial at Guantanamo against the Al Qaeda leaders still continues. It is expected to resume this fall, more than twenty years after 9/11 attacks.

Although some may disparage the outcome, the country abided by the rule of law. The nation held a trial against a man accused of heinous acts. The judge forced the government to follow a set of known rules. The public trial allowed the citizens to learn about the plotting of that fateful day. Mistakes of the government were brought to light, in hopes that they would not be repeated. In the end, the system tempered justice with mercy. The nation upheld many of our core values through this case. On a day commemorating an attack on national institutions, the Moussaoui trial is the Trial of the Month.

Mark Thielman

Keeping it real

by Isabella Maldonado

Even for those who have worn a gun and badge, research is an essential part of writing crime novels. In fact, if you have a background in law enforcement, readers hold you to a higher standard. You’d better get your facts straight.

I found myself in just such a situation when I was writing the second chapter of an FBI thriller, A DIFFERENT DAWN. The scene was told from the point of view of a serial killer who used night vision to sneak into the homes of families at night without waking them. Because I hadn’t used advanced tactical equipment during my career, I did some online research. First, I learned that “night vision goggles,” is an antiquated term.

Old night vision view

Also outdated was my notion of grainy images in glowing green against a gray backdrop, which is far from cutting edge technology. It didn’t take long to realize that—since I was describing the scene from inside the perpetrator’s head—I needed to get firsthand experience with the equipment. Online videos were not going to cut it.

Fortunately, I know someone on a SWAT team who graciously agreed to a live demonstration. He arrived the next day with lots of gear. I was surprised at the sheer size of the lenses, which were mounted to a ballistic helmet. I put it on, and he turned out the lights. I was shocked at how well I could see. Everything was in color. This was like looking around in daylight.

This scene was filmed in total darkness using new night vision tech

He activated his rifle’s night-sight, and I could easily see the glowing pinpoint wherever he directed it. He could acquire a target in pitch darkness with no problem whatsoever. I was deeply impressed, and a bit stunned, at how effectively police and military personnel could operate without any light.

Me wearing state-of-the-art night vision equipment

After experiencing these capabilities firsthand, I was able to write the scene more effectively to convey the eerie feeling of moving around in stealth mode and how someone using that technology would have an overwhelming advantage in any situation.

I was humbled and thrilled when the book went on to be a Wall Street Journal bestseller and won an award for Best Adventure Novel. Being one of “Those Who Know” as part of the Murder Books group has inspired me to go the extra mile to give readers the best approximation to an authentic law enforcement experience possible without getting into a squad car. Total accuracy is never possible in fiction, but people can tell when it feels real.