Friday, March 11, 2016

Annie McCann: Baltimore's Not-So-Secret Shame

Baltimore, October 31st, 2008

16-year-old Annie McCann disappears from her home in Northern Virginia and is found dead and stuffed in a dumpster in the notorious Perkins Homes public housing complex in Baltimore.  When her parents, Maryjane and Daniel McCann received the tragic news two days later, they were devastated, but little did they know that seven years later, they would still be waiting for answers, waiting for justice.  Seven years of bungling Baltimore detectives, an incompetent coroner, Judicial misconduct and empty promises from city officials, and Annie's death remains unsolved.

You can trace the downward spiral of the shoddy police investigation, and the events that followed, in the lines of the Baltimore Sun articles covering the case.  From the discovery of Annie's body in 2008, through to 2012 when Annie's parents came forward with the shocking allegation that the State Medical Examiner had, against the family's wishes, thrown Annie's organs away after the autopsy.

When Annie first disappeared, in October of 2008, she left a note saying that she'd thought about suicide but decided against it, and that she just wanted her parents to "let me be free" and to "live, love, learn and grow."  Annie's parents did all the right things, they immediately contacted police and asked that they issue an Amber Alert.

Here in New Zealand, we don't have an equivalent to the Amber Alert,  so for those who don't know, an Amber Alert is issued when someone under the age of 18 disappears, and the disappearance meets certain criteria - If a minor has been abducted, and/or a minor is at serious risk of injury or death.  The alert goes out to all law enforcement agencies, all media outlets and is broadcast on all emergency channels.

But the Fairfax County police, the local law enforcement agency in the area of Virginia where the McCann's live, refused to issue an alert in Annie's case because they believed she was not in serious risk of death or injury, and she hadn't been abducted, she ran away.  They also determined her note to be what's called a non-suicide note, which doesn't mean that the person won't take their own life, but that officials consider it unlikely. 

Less than 42 hours later, Annie's body was found in a dumpster in one of Baltimore's most notorious housing projects, a complex well-known for gang activity, drug use, crime and all the other societal problems we'd expect to find in a high poverty area.  Her grieving parents were bewildered, as far as they were aware, Annie didn't know anybody in Baltimore.  What had possessed her to make the one and half hour drive from Alexandria, Virginia, to Baltimore? Especially as she had only gotten her license very recently, wasn't overly confident behind the wheel, and was a terrible navigator.

Not long after Annie's body was discovered, two teens were found in possession of her car, which they'd apparently appropriated after finding Annie dead, or dying, inside and dumping her body.  To this day, Annie's parents believe that if the teens had just called 911, their daughter might still be alive.  Which brings us to Annie's cause of death.

The State Medical Examiner who handled the autopsy (and illegally disposed of Annie's organs) found that Annie had died from lidocaine poisoning, lidocaine being an anaesthetic used to numb specific areas, either by injection into specific tissue or joints, or by absorbtion through the skin.  It's the main ingredient in numbing creams like Bactine, which is a localised pain reliever, often used in piercing.  That's what Annie had been using it for, and a container of Bactine was found near the dumpster where Annie's body was left.

The police immediately concluded that Annie had taken her own life, and stopped bothering to put any work into the case.  But, they neglected to tell Annie's parents of their conclusions until many months later, a week after giving a press conference, with the parents in attendance, saying they were giving the investigation into Annie's death "everything we've got."

The Baltimore PD never gave it everything, they never gave it much of anything.  The teens found in possession of Annie's car were sentenced to counselling and mandatory school attendance.  A third teen, legally an adult at the time, who was also involved in dumping Annie's body and taking her car, went on to murder another girl and steal her car.  He was convicted for that crime, but Baltimore PD refused to question him about Annie's death in case it jeapordised their murder case.

The McCann's, who quickly gave up on any hope of justice from the Baltimore justice system, hired their own investigators and launched their own independent investigation into Annie's death.  They talked to witnesses, followed up leads and provided police with numerous persons of interest, including a sketch of a woman seen with Annie just hours before her death.  The police ignored those leads and have consistently refused to put any effort whatsoever into re-examining Annie's death.

Annie's parents have detailed their story in an extensive blog, which you can read for yourselves, but be warned.  By the time you've finished reading, you may want to punch the next cop you see.  Please don't do that, by the way, punching cops is not the way to send a message about corruption in law enforcement.  That's what we have governments and independent inquiries for.  Lets keep it legal folks.

Maryjane and Daniel McCann's Blog

Archive of Baltimore Sun Articles on Annie's Death

Thursday, March 10, 2016

Lost in the Night: The Disappearance of Iraena Asher

On the 10th of October, 2004, a beautiful young model and trainee teacher disappeared into the night in Piha, West Auckland. She was never seen again. 

Iraena Asher in 2004, age 25

It's 2004, and for almost a year, the New Zealand media has been focusing a harsh spotlight on the Government over the crisis situation at emergency services. People calling the emergency 111 number are unable to get through, are cut off, or have their calls mishandled by overworked dispatchers, who send personnel to the wrong location or just don't send them at all.

On a balmy night in October, a young woman by the name of Iraena Asher calls 111 from a prepaid cellphone, just outside a residence in the coastel community of Piha, 40kms from Auckland's metropolis with it's well-lit streets. She tells the dispatcher that she needs a police car sent, that she's afraid of someone at the address she is outside of. She tells him that she is being pressured for sex, that she's been drinking and doesn't feel safe. Here's the transcript for that call, Iraena's responses are in italics, the dispatchers in bold.

Could you please umm come and get me from [number] Piha Road?”

what’s happening there Ma’m?

Yes please”

what’s happening?”

umm I just need to be taken away from here”.

What's your name?”

Iraena … please can you get here as soon as possible”.

yeah can you tell us what’s going on Iraena - - Iraena?”.

I don’t feel safe in this house because - - there’s a guy here who I’m
very afraid of”.

Is he your partner?”


Who is the male that you are scared of there - - Iraena?”


At this point the call taker repeats the question and Iraena names a man who was not actually at the address at the time
Is it just you two there Iraena?”

no there’s, there’s a girl here as well who I’m concerned about too”.
The transcript doesn't include all of the conversation between the dispatcher and Iraena after this point. Instead, it's condensed to the most important exchanges, and I believe this is because there was a lot of the same questions being asked, and some questions being repeated multiple times because Iraena doesn't always respond or seem to understand the dispatcher

The dispatcher asks Iraena several questions about why she is afraid of the man and the situation she's in...

well I feel, well I feel scared of him” ... “because he’s, basically he’s got me here and I just, I don’t feel safe here”.

Ms Asher told the dispatcher that she did not live at the Piha Road address, provided her address in Ponsonby, and said she did not have her “wallet or anything with me”, and then said “ … I need help immediately”.

I can’t hear anything going on … you still haven’t told me why you
are afraid of this guy. Is that his address?”


“ … what’s he done to scare you?”

well, he’s just been pressuring me for sex and I really don’t want to”.

In response to a question as to her age, Ms Asher correctly told the Call Taker that she was 25. She told the Call Taker that she had been drinking and that she had come in a person’s car.

He’s actually quite scary too”.

where is he now?”

in the bedroom”.

“ … what’s he doing?”

I don’t know. I just need to be taken away from here ’cause I don’t know these people very well and I don’t feel safe here”.

Okay. We’ll try and get there as soon as we can, Iraena. That’s your mobile you’re calling on?”.

I just picked it up off the table, I just thought I want to get out of the situation ’cause
it’s not healthy for me”.

Iraena tells the dispatcher that she's known her boyfriend for about a week and that they've been drinking for most of the day.

“ … we kept drinking, and now I need your help now please, [number] Piha Road”...“I don’t feel safe right now and I thought the best thing to do would be to ring the Police and that’s what I’ve done ’cause I want to do the right thing. I’m just fucken really scared, okay?”

“ … you still want a lift though, don’t you?”

Yeah I do” ...“I didn’t know it was going to be so hard to get some help”.
Well I need all the circumstances don’t I, Iraena?”

Yeah you do”.

no worries, we’ll be there as soon as we can”.
Yeah I hope so”.

This call lasted five and a half minutes.

At the conclusion of the call, the dispatcher recorded the basic details of the call and passed that on to another dispatcher at North Comms, who referred it to the Waitakere police, along with the original dispatcher's comment that the call was “Just a bit rubbish.” A shift Sergeant at Waitakere read the details of the call, and suggested to the dispatcher that Iraena Asher call a taxi. The Sergeant than went to take care of a high priority call involving a possible firearms incident.

The dispatcher at North Comms calls Iraena on the cellphone she used to place the original call and here is the transcript of that call.

Can you call a taxi?”

No, 'cause this phone won't let me call out.”

I'll phone one, which company would you prefer?”

The most expensive.”


Umm...Discount Taxis.”

Discount Taxis? Okay, I will give them a ring and I will ring you back with how long they're going to be.”

I will really need them to come here soon because it's just really weird here 'cause they've given me drugs and stuff as well.”....”I'm scared”...”and it's probably the drugs as well, making me more paranoid or something, I'm quite scared.”

Okay, no worries, I'll sort it out.”

I think it's [the address], can you just check the driveways between [number] and [number] 'cause I've been on drugs so I don't know what it is. It's between [number] and [number], can you check all those please?”

Okay, yeah, no worries”


At this point, the North Comms dispatcher calls Discount Taxis LTD, identifies himself as a police dispatcher and asks if he can organise a taxi ride for somebody else. The Taxi dispatcher tells the officer that's fine and asks for the address, at which point the North Comms dispatcher tells them that Iraena wasn't sure of the exact address and gives them the street name and the numbers Iraena relayed to him. The taxi company tells him they will be there in around 20 minutes and North Comms calls Iraena back to tell her this.

Why aren’t Police coming – you know they fucking gave me so many drugs and shit, I
was totally confused. I didn’t know what I was doing, they actually made me - - oh fuck, I
can’t do this by myself”.
I’ll, I’ll get the Sergeant to give you a ring”.
No wait, can you just wait, can you just talk to me”.

Yeah. I’ll get the, I’m at the Communications Centre so I can’t help you directly from here, and I am doing - - ”. 
No, no, can you just talk to me”. 
I’ll - - ”

Cause I’m quite scared at the moment”. 
Yeah and I understand that but - - ”.

No you don’t understand”.

Yes I’m dealing with units as well at the same time, I’m not a call taker - I’m not someone that you phone up and speak, you know, where you speak when you phone 111”.
But you don’t understand”

I honestly don’t have time to talk to you, I’ll get the Sergeant to give you a phone call, okay?”

Iraena hangs up on the dispatcher, her final call to police lasted 1 minute and 18 seconds. Three attempts were made by North Comms to contact Iraena between 9.49pm and 11pm, but each time the phone appeared to be switched off and went straight to voicemail.

At 1.19am the residents of a house on Beach Valley Road call 111 and report that four hours earlier, they had picked up a young woman who was wandering aimlessly, dressed only in ugg boots and a sweatshirt and seemingly under the influence of drugs. They took her home with them, put her to bed and promised to drive her home in the morning, but she had suddenly left the house at around 1am, running naked into the night. This time police dispatchers give the call a high priority status and a squad car is dispatched immediately to the residence.

Iraena was last seen at 1.30am by a couple walking their dog. According to them, she was naked, crouched by a streetlight and appeared to be talking it. She then kissed the ground and walked off towards the beach and disappeared. The couple did make some attempt to follow and find Iraena, but with no luck, so they went home and went to bed without calling police.

Piha beach - "We're not in Kansas anymore Toto"

There are a number of theories about what happened to Iraena after she was last seen. She may have simply walked out into the ocean and drowned, though her family say she was a strong swimmer and feel that this is unlikely. However, since Iraena was clearly under the influence of something, possibly against her will, it remains a viable possibility for investigators.

A second, similar theory, is that Iraena attempted to climb around the rocks on Piha beach and was swept out to sea and drowned. For those of you who don't know Piha, it's a very popular surf beach, and in the summer months it's all too common for swimmers and surfers alike to get into trouble in the heavy surf, leading to a number of tragic drownings. So this too, is a very viable theory, especially if Iraena was comprimised by drugs at the time.

A third theory is foul play. Sometime after been seen by the couple walking their dog, Iraena came into contact with a person or persons who caused her harm and hid the crime, either by dumping her body in to the ocean, or concealing her remains somewhere in the heavy bush around the Waitakere ranges, which is why she's never been found. Iraena had told police that she was afraid of the man she was with, and even though she named the wrong man, someone who wasn't there at the time, that doesnt' mean her fears for her safety were unfounded. Ireana was clearly on something, her behaviour corresponds to that, so while she may have been confused about who she was with, she may still have been rightfully in fear of him...whoever “he” is.

We may never know what really happened to Iraena Asher on that night in 2004, but what we can do is hold our emergency services to the highest standards and ensure that their performances are scrutinised, not just by rubber stamping officials, but by the public who depend on these people for their lives.  

It's not acceptable for a police dispatcher to take a call from a scared girl, regardless of whether she's on drugs or has been drinking, and to then write that call off as “a bit rubbish.” And, while our emergency services were overhauled and greatly improved after this incident, it should not have taken a girl's disappearance to make that happen. The public and the media had been highlighting problems with the 111 emergency line for NINE MONTHS prior to Iraena's disappearance, and still nothing was done until it was too late.

Iraena deserved better than that, her family deserved better. They're still living with the bad choices that the police made that night, and will do so for all their lives.

Tuesday, March 8, 2016


It has been 10 days of painful, and often emotional testimony from witnesses, as they relived the most terrifying moments of their lives, when a masked gunman stormed through the Ashburton Work and Income offices, leaving two women dead and two more seriously injured.

The accused, Russell John Tully, has been absent from the courtroom for much of his trial, despite the fact that he is defending himself.  Judge Mander, who is presiding over the proceedings, ordered Tully removed after two outbursts in which he claimed he was unfit to stand trial, and demanded to know why he was in court.

Although Tully is defending himself, he has had the assistance of two Friends of the Court, experienced criminal lawyers, James Rapley and Phil Shamy, who have remained in court throughout Tully's absences.  Tully elected not to speak in his own defense, which is a little bit disappointing since I'm sure I'm not the only media commentator who wanted to see how he'd react to being on the stand. 

Tully did make it to court for closing arguments today, and although he didn't appear in a wheelchair as he has on past days, he was heavily shackled to prevent him lashing out. 

The Crown's case has been predominantly a circumstantial case, but it's a strong one.  Lets  review the evidence presented...

CCTV footage in the Ashburton CBD shows a man wearing a distinctive jacket and cycle helmet later identified as belonging to Tully.  A man wearing the same clothing is seen entering the WINZ office, and opening fire on staff.  Tully was found in possession of the same jacket when apprehended by police later that day.

Stickers matching those that Tully used to label his possessions were found on the shell casings at the scene.

DNA taken from a black bike helmet and a balaclava left at the scene were matched to Tully, with 5 million percent probability that the DNA was his.

Tully was known to have a grudge against staff at the Ashburton WINZ office and had been trespassed from the office due to his manipulative and intimidating behaviour.  In the weeks leading up to the shooting, he had camped out in the WINZ office for six hours, refusing to leave, and had made numerous threats towards staff over his percieved ill-treatment.

There was a great deal of witness testimony in this trial, as to the events during and just after the shooting, but I have not included a complete overview of those testimonials simply because none of the witnesses gave evidence that the gunman was definitely Russell John Tully.  Most of the witnesses were there to testify to the events inside the WINZ office, and to the behavior of the gunman as he left the office, allowing the Crown to connect that gunman to pieces of physical evidence left behind, which were later linked to Tully. 

The Crown rested by saying that they believed they had proved, beyond reasonable doubt, that Tully was the man who entered the Ashburton WINZ office, armed with a sawn-off shotgun, and brutally murdered two innocent women and attempted to murder two others.  After following the case these last two weeks, I agree.  If I was a juror, I think I'd be pretty convinced by the Crown's case.

There wasn't much Tully's assisting counsel could say in closing, what do you say about a man who's defense strategy seems to be act crazy until you get kicked out of the courtroom?  The jury are now into their second day of deliberations, their first full day since both sides rested yesterday morning.

Saturday, March 5, 2016

A plea from Bob Ruff from the Truth & Justice Podcast

A student and aspiring firefighter may potentially have his life ruined by a Michigan State Trooper with a massive chip on his shoulder, and all over a traffic stop because of a "dim" tail light. That's right folks, not a broken tail light, not a tail light that wasn't working properly, a dim tail light...Oh and I should mention that the Trooper noticed this dim light in snowy conditions with poor visibility.

This case was given to Bob Ruff from the Truth & Justice podcast, so I'll let him tell you about it...

"Please share this video with any and all media outlets. This case was brought to me last night. Abi is a student of mine. Young, sweet, Christian boy. Michigan State Trooper Cameron Sweet pulled him over last week. He said he was stopped because one of his license plate lights was "dim". Both of his lights were on and working. Trooper Sweet approached on the passenger side. Abi is a "poor college kid" as he puts it. The passenger window in his car doesn't open. He cracked the door open, explained to the trooper that that window doesn't work, and asked him to come around to drivers side. At that point, Sweet opened his door and started searching his car. Abi says that he told him to stop, and Sweet started cussing at him. That's when Abi started the video from his phone. You'll see the trooper threaten to rip him out of the car by his face. Abi is trying to find his drivers license. You can actually see in the video that it fell out of his bag of documents. Abi is scared and nervous, and can't find it while Sweet is yelling at him. Sweet then yanked Abi out of the car. He pulled his hands behind his back. Abi pulled one hand forward to lock his phone, in fear that the trooper would delete his video. Then he put his hands back behind his back and submitted to being cuffed. Abi says the trooper then put him in the squad car, and slammed the door on his head as he was getting in. Sweet then told him he was going to search his car. He said he had probable cause because he thought he smelled marijuana. He searched Abi's car, where he found his drivers license and nothing illegal. He then returned to the car, and told Abi that he's under arrest for resisting arrest. Abi spent two days in jail before bonding out. He missed work and after paying the bond, he can't afford to make his rent now. I would like to know if this is the kind of behavior that the Michigan State Police expect from their troopers."

Video of Abi's wrongful arrest 

 We're very lucky here in New Zealand, because it's very rare to see the kind of aggression and unprofessional behaviour from our police, that we see in this video, and in a number of other cases out of the US.  That's not to say that our police are perfect, they're certainly not and there have been some shocking incidents of police misconduct over the years.  Mark Blower for instance, who was in charge of Northland's organised crime unit, and was stealing drugs from evidence to sell back to the same criminal organisations he was meant to be prosecuting.  

My point is that we're very sheltered here at the bottom of the world, our cops are taught to de-escalate situations like this, our cops also don't carry sidearms so the number of police shootings is very low here.  However, that doesn't mean that we should turn our backs on what's going on in countries like the US.  We can lend our voices to the voices of those calling for change, and let them know that the whole world is watching.  This isn't just a few agitators like Bob and Rabia Chaudry and others who are making noise for personal reasons, this is a movement demanding systemic change on a global scale.

Abi is facing some potentially very serious legal costs to defend himself in this incident, so please, if you can help, consider donating to the GoFundMe.  Even a few dollars makes a difference!

Please help Abi cover his legal expenses!!

Tuesday, March 1, 2016

Adnan Syed's PCR: The Dummies Guide to the New Motion Filed Today

There's been a new development in the post conviction relief hearing for Adnan Syed, and it's very "legalish" so I decided I'd write this little "Dummies Guide" for anyone who's a bit confused.

Earlier today, Adnan's lawyer, C. Justin Brown filed a motion asking the judge to include supplemental materials to the documents already filed as part of the five day PCR hearing that he sat through back in February.  This supplemental material consists of two letters, one from the State's prosecutor, Thiru Vignarajah (a.k.a Thorazine Vegetable), and one from Professor Michael Millerman from the Maryland School of Law.  So, what are these letters all about and why is it so important to include them in the record?

To parse that out, we'll need to go back to 1999 for a bit.....

Quick! Into the Time Machine!

In May of 1999 the State filed a motion to disqualify Christina Guitierezz as Adnan's attorney, for reasons that are unclear.  I haven't been able to find any documentation on why the State did this, so hopefully the Undisclosed team will cover this in one of their upcoming episodes covering the PCR hearing.

So, the State filed a motion to disqualify in May, it was argued before the judge in July and the judge dismissed the motion, allowing Guitierezz to go on to represent Adnan at his trial.  One has to stop for a moment and wonder how differently things would have gone if the judge had upheld the State's motion?

For the purposes of arguing the motion to disqualify, Adnan's family retained the services of Professor Michael Millerman, who successfully argued against the State's motion. 

So, now we get back in our DeLorean and head back to 2016....

It's February 2016, and Thiru Vignarajah has made a number of references to Professor Millerman throughout the 5 day PCR hearing, claiming that he was a member of Adnan's defense team back in 1999, and that this defense team made a number of decisions with regards to Adnan's defense, prior to the family retaining Christina Guitierezz.  Thiru asserted that this so-called defense team, through the offices of a private investigator, examined various potential alibi witnesses.  He notes that the P.I spoke to Asia, to a security guard at the Woodlawn Public Library (#UselessSteve?) and to Adnan's track coach.  He concludes by claiming that the defense team must have eliminated Asia as a reliable alibi witness based on the information supplied to them by the P.I.

Sounds reasonable right?  Well, it would be, if it wasn't for the fact that it's complete and utter bullshit.

Yes, a private investigator spoke to possible alibi witnesses, as well as other witnesses in the case.  He compiled his findings and these were later submitted to Guitierezz once she became Adnan's defense attorney.  Prior to Christina being retained, there were two lawyers involved in the case, and they are both mentioned in Professor Millerman's letter, and in the State's arguements during the PCR hearing.  Those lawyers are Mr Colbert and Mr Flore, and those of you who listen to the Undisclosed podcast will remember Chris Flore from the Undisclosed podcast episode Addendum 7: Making Bail in Baltimore.

Flore and Colbert represented Adnan during his bail hearings in 1999, as part of the Lawyers at Bail Project running in the Baltimore courts at that time.  Chris Flore was also the lawyer who attempted a number of times to gain access to Adnan after his arrest and during his interrogation by Detectives Ritz and McGillavery, only to be told that unless Adnan specifically requested a lawyer, by name, they were under no obligation to allow access (*spoiler alert* that's bullshit too, you don't have to ask for a lawyer by name).

This was Thiru's so-called 'Defense team,' the two lawyers who represented Adnan at his bail hearings, and the guy who's total involvement in the case boiled down to one afternoon in court to argue against a motion to dismiss.  Thiru seems to have a very "broad" idea of what constitutes a defense team.  But from the guy who thinks it's fine to not investigate or contact alibi witnesses, are we really that surprised?  All I can say is thank god this dude's not a defense attorney, because the prisons are overcrowded enough as it is.

So, back to today's filing.  The documents submitted by Adnan's lawyer today amount to a correction of the record, clarifying Professor Millerman's involvement in Adnan's case.  This includes a letter from Millerman himself which illustrates how the State misrepresented his role in Adnan's defense, and which clearly details his actual role in the case.  There is also included a letter from the State, admitting to the misrepresentation, and backing up Millerman's clarification of his role in the case.

So, why is it important to have these letters included?  Well, because Thiru's claims during the PCR hearing could reasonably lead the judge to conclude that there was a team of defense lawyers back in 1999 who were investigating and putting together a defense strategy, which Christian Guitierezz later adopted for the trial.  This simple isn't true, and while Mr Colbert and Mr Flore did their best to start some preliminary work on Adnan's defense, they did so in expectation that when the family retained a full-time defense attorney for Adnan, that person would take over, review their findings, and follow up as part of a robust defense investigation.

Christina Guitierezz never followed up on these initial alibi interviews, and that's the basis of Adnan's claim of ineffective assistance of counsel.  Including these supplemental letters further backs up Adnan's claims because they make clear Professor Millerman's very limited role in the case, that he in no way participated in Adnan's defense, or was involved in investigating potential alibi witnesses.

That's my Dummies Guide to the latest motion filed in the Adnan Syed case, if you have  questions, feel free to leave them in the comments and I'll do my best to answer them.

C. Justin Brown's page with PDFs of the letters submitted