In the early hours of yesterday morning, Essex police were called to a parked lorry container. Inside were the bodies of 39 people, one of them a teenager. Their identities and nationalities were initially unknown, but we have since learned that they are Chinese nationals. The driver, a young man from Northern Ireland, has been arrested. Normally, faced with such a body count and the appearance of mass murder, politicians and commentators would be circumspect, perhaps uttering routine expressions of horror and pledging their support to a police investigation. But they would not have already worked out who was to blame. Still less would they announce their theories in the House of Commons.
Boris Johnson is on a law-and-order kick. Since coming to power, he has promised to recruit 20,000 new police officers, create 10,000 new prison places, and restore blanket stop-and-search powers. It’s a headline-grabbing reversal of the cuts to police numbers made by the Conservative-Liberal Democrat coalition, and continued under May; it also does away with May’s reforms to stop-and-search, one of the few unalloyed goods to have come from her otherwise authoritarian Home Office, though already substantially reversed under Sajid Javid. Alongside his new home secretary, Priti Patel, who spent a significant part of her early career agitating for the return of the death penalty, Johnson promises a culture of fear for criminals.
When guilty men kill themselves, are they acknowledging their guilt, or is it more like an act of self-pity? Jeffrey Epstein’s suicide in prison terminates a judicial process that he spent millions to disdain, but it also cancels a life in prison he was desperate to avoid.
Over two decades, the self-help organisation NXIVM recruited more than 16,000 members to its various training programmes with promises of empowerment and ‘self-actualisation’. It was based in Albany, New York, but its reach stretched across the United States and beyond. At the centre of it all was Keith Raniere, a self-proclaimed ‘genius’ and Ayn Rand acolyte who was convicted last week of crimes including racketeering, child pornography, forced labour and sex trafficking.
The other night on cable TV I watched I Shot My Parents, a BBC documentary about a 14-year-old boy who walked into his parents’ bedroom in the middle of the night and shot each of them three times in the head. This happened in Moses Lake, Washington, in 2013. The boy, Nathon Brooks, was a seemingly cheerful, seemingly well-adjusted basketball star at the local high school. Under police interrogation he cooked up a story about hearing screams, seeing a man moving through the house, and hiding until the coast was clear. When he was told that the security cameras in the house had picked him up running around in his underwear with a gun in his hand, he broke down and confessed, and though he couldn't say why he had shot them, he did say that just before he shot his mother the thought had flashed through his mind that he didn't have to do what he was about to do and that afterwards, when he sat alone on the staircase, he understood that he had done something awful.
The Italian general election has resulted in a hung parliament. There is already talk of a Third Republic, as the 'mainstream' parties have been swept aside by a populist wave, though it's worth remembering that the Partito Democratico was only formed in 2007, out of the remnants of the remnants of the parties that dominated Italian politics during the First Republic (from 1946 until 1994); that the current incarnation of Silvio Berlusconi's Forza Italia dates from as recently as 2013; and that the Second Republic (1994-2018) was dominated by Berlusconi and his meretricious brand of soi-disant anti-establishment but ultimately self-serving politics. It's hard to mourn the passing of that era; or would be, if it were possible to believe that it had really passed.
Pamela Mastropietro, an 18-year-old from Rome, left the rehab clinic where she’d been staying in the province of Macerata, in central Italy, on 29 January. Her dismembered corpse was discovered two days later, in two suitcases, in the countryside nearby. Innocent Oseghale, a 29-year-old Nigerian with an expired residency permit and a criminal record of drug dealing, was arrested almost immediately on suspicion of involvement in Mastropietro’s death.
Since the murder of Berta Cáceres in March 2016, several more community activists have been killed in Honduras. And little progress has been made in solving Cáceres’s murder. Eight people have been arrested, but court hearings have been postponed several times because of the prosecutors’ failure to produce evidence, ignoring the judge’s deadlines. Data collected from phones and computers and in police raids has not been presented in court. The government says the judicial process continues, but has admitted that the crime’s ‘masterminds’ remain untouched.
Last 16 June, a week before the EU referendum, Jo Cox, MP for Batley and Spen, was murdered by Thomas Mair. The police investigation revealed that Mair had far-right sympathies and had collected materials on Cox, some printed out from the web. Mair was charged with murder, tried last November, and is now serving a whole-life term in HMP Frankland. Investigation into his life disclosed a man without a job, partner or anything resembling a social life. Everyone seems to agree that Mair was a 'lone wolf' killer, whose espousal of a hate-filled ideology drove him to carry out a hateful act in isolation. But if Mair was such a loner – in this week's BBC documentary on Cox's murder, DS Nick Wallen, who led the investigation for West Yorkshire Police, remarked that Mair's mobile recorded him as having sent three texts in three years – how did he manage to get hold of a lethal weapon, without any criminal background or known underworld contacts?
Six months after a peace accord was signed between the government and the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, coca production in the country is said to be at its highest level in two decades. Rafael Alcadipani, a public safety researcher at FGV university in Rio de Janeiro, says that the Colombian peace process could make Latin America less stable. ‘It has a definite impact in making the connection between Colombian and Brazilian gangs stronger and the illegal drug trade stronger,’ he told me. ‘We’re getting information from intelligence services that the Farc and the PCC’ – the Primeiro Capital Command, a São Paulo gang – ‘have been in touch. There are some particular drug routes in the Amazon where the two groups meet and negotiate. My understanding is that the war is ending in Colombia and a war is starting between drug gangs in Brazil, so retired guerillas could be hired.’
Here is what the victim remembers: she arrived at her boyfriend’s house in a Rio favela at about 1 a.m. She was alone with him there. Then, she woke up in a different house, in pain. The men – there were a crowd of them, some with guns, and she would eventually count 33 – had delegated two to hold her down. They were taking turns to rape her. When they finally let her go, she was naked and bleeding. She found some spare clothes and then walked home; they had also taken her bag. In the video that the 20-year-old suspect Michel Brasil da Silva posted to Twitter, a man stands beside the victim’s unconscious body as she stirs.
An elderly couple have been murdered in their home in Palagonia, a town of 16,500 people near Catania. The police have arrested an 18-year-old suspect, who was caught with the victims' phone, computer and bloody trousers on his person. He says he found them under a tree. The crime was probably gruesome enough to have made headlines for its sensation value alone: both corpses were naked; the woman was thrown from a balcony. There were no signs of forced entry on the doors or windows of their apartment. But it's still in the news because the suspect, an Ivorian national, arrived in Sicily by boat on 8 June.
The men who carried an industrial drill down a lift shaft to break into Safe Deposit Ltd last month were joining a long tradition of Hatton Garden thieves. Late in the 18th century, a Bedfordshire labourer called William Smith (just over five feet tall, with grey eyes and a ‘fresh Complexion’ according to the criminal register) was tried for a ‘Singular and daring Robbery Committed on a Bankers Clerk in Hatton Street’. And a 17th-century pamphlet, Strange and Wonderful News from London: or, A True Narrative of Several most Remarkable Occurrences there, tells the story of an earlier heist.
1. Mark Duggan was shot dead by a Metropolitan Police officer on 4 August 2011 after getting out of a minicab on Ferry Lane, Tottenham. The inquest into his killing concluded yesterday. All ten jurors agreed he had a gun with him in the taxi before police stopped it. Eight of them were sure the gun was no longer in his hands when he was shot. And yet, by an 8-2 majority, they found that Duggan was lawfully killed. The jury accepted that V53, the anonymous officer who shot Duggan, ‘honestly believed, even if that belief was mistaken’, that he needed to use deadly force to defend himself against an unarmed man. According to the police witness accounts, Duggan was holding a gun until the moment he was shot. A gun was later found behind a wall nearby. No witnesses – including the only civilian – describe seeing Duggan throw anything away.
Horse sold as beef led to Chris Elliott’s review into the integrity and assurance of food supply networks. His interim report was published on 12 December. The proposed ‘food crime unit’ gripped the media. It’s a good idea. But not as good as the idea for a ‘legally privileged information gathering facility’ run by industry, separate from government. Elliott could have called it a ‘clype unit’ if he’d used his Ulster Scots. A clype is a tell-tale. The facility would be a safe haven for industry to share suspicions, even gossip, while protecting commercial confidentiality.
Hannes Råstam’s Thomas Quick: The Making of a Serial Killer was translated into English earlier this year. We can highly recommend it for any fan of Nordic noir. Thomas Quick trumps any of Henning Mankell or Stieg Larsson’s villains, with more than thirty victims to his name: boys, girls, women, old men, blacks, whites; slaughtered all over Sweden and Norway (and one in Finland) between 1964 and the early 1990s, by knifing, clubbing, strangulation or suffocation; sometimes raped (both sexes); dismembered; and in one case cannibalised. He was tried for eight of the murders, and found guilty of all of them, serving his sentences in Säter psychiatric prison in Dalarna. He puts British ‘rippers’ in the shade. Except that he doesn’t. Because he almost certainly didn’t commit any of these crimes. He was formally pardoned for the last of them a few months ago.
The judges presiding over the trial of Anders Behring Breivik in Oslo are due to give their verdict tomorrow. It is likely, though by no means certain, that Breivik will be judged to have been criminally insane when he murdered 77 people last year, and sentenced to compulsory psychiatric treatment. The only other possible outcome is that he be judged criminally responsible for his acts and condemned to life imprisonment. The difference between the two verdicts is in all practical senses minimal: in neither case is he likely ever to walk free again. But in symbolic terms the difference is huge. It represents, in effect, a judgment as to whether Breivik’s actions have political meaning or not.
It's a big week for rape. And it's only Monday. In a mid-August special, the Republican candidate for the Senate Todd Akin and balcony diva Julian Assange's best friend George Galloway have come together to bring you the truth about rape. What it is and what it isn't. Akin, who sits on the House Committee on Science, Space and Technology, has explained that there is no need to consider abortion for rape victims since 'from what I understand from doctors’, women rarely get pregnant from 'legitimate' rape as 'the female body has ways to try to shut that whole thing down.' If, by some chance, this mechanism fails, 'I think there should be some punishment, but the punishment ought to be on the rapist, and not attacking the child.' In that last sentence you will notice that there is no reference to the raped woman, only the 'child' – that is, foetus – and rapist. Did I mention that Akin is on the House committee on Science, Space and Technology?
Last December, someone – hacktivists from the Anonymous movement take credit for it – stole the internal emails of the middling intelligence firm Stratfor. The emails eventually made their way to Julian Assange. And now WikiLeaks, just when everyone thought it might be finished, is publishing them in chunks. WikiLeaks wouldn't be WikiLeaks if everything had gone smoothly: as it was preparing to publish the latest batch of Stratfor emails last week, its website went down, with Assange blaming a series of crippling cyberattacks (a group called AntiLeaks – led by someone known as Diet Pepsi – has claimed responsibility). The emails in question detail Stratfor's dealings with TrapWire Inc, a security company in Virginia. But it didn’t need WikiLeaks to reveal TrapWire’s activities: the company boasts about them on its website.
There are now two boards of inquiry looking into how three neo-Nazis could have travelled around Germany and killed ten people before the security services (16 branches in total, not counting special police units whose job is to keep an eye on right-wing groups) tracked them down last November. Two of the suspects died as the police were closing in on them in Eisenach; the third, Beate Zschäpe, is in jail awaiting trial.
When the protests that followed Iran's presidential election in 2009 began to fizzle out, the state-controlled media put photos of the demonstrations online, with the faces of unidentified troublemakers highlighted. Viewers were asked to help identify them and even track them down. If the Iranian authorities are to be believed, arrests were made as a result. Today, as the web is being undermined by the rapid dominance of apps for smartphones and tablets, the Iranian police would probably, as the jargon has it, ‘go multiplatform’. That, at any rate, is what their colleagues in the Metropolitan Police have just done: unveiling, ahead of the Olympics, a new app called Facewatch ID.
Four months after Amanda Knox was acquitted of murdering Meredith Kercher, HarperCollins has paid her several million dollars for her memoirs. We will soon be able, we're told, to hear ‘her side of the story’ – except that her side, an account of the ‘nightmarish ordeal that placed her at the centre of a media storm’, to be told with the help of a ‘collaborator’, already sounds a little familiar.
As Dominique Strauss-Kahn’s humiliation in New York levels out into web-chat and news about the news, the undead are on the move. You saw nothing with fangs, in a cape, hovering in the near distance when the fourth estate held up the mirror to human nature in the wake of the gruesome Sofitel encounter? That’s because it didn’t cast a reflection. The internet, which never sleeps, has made it clearer now: the real beast in this story is racism. Earlier this month, SlateAfrique asked a range of punters and luminaries in the US and France what would have happened if Nafissatou Diallo, the Sofitel maid, had been ‘a blue-eyed blonde’. Two Diallos, one of them a cousin, another who runs a café in Harlem, were confident things would have come out differently. Diallo 1: ‘They wouldn’t have thrown her in the dustbin the way they did.’ Diallo 2: ‘If she’d been white and Jewish, she wouldn’t have had that kind of treatment.’ And later: ‘The whole Jewish lobby is behind it.’
Sweden isn’t Norway, and relations between the two countries aren’t as sisterly as outsiders might assume. But of course there’s wall-to-wall coverage of recent events here – 27 pages of Saturday’s Expressen, and SVT2 relaying NRK’s live reporting 24 hours a day – and immense sympathy. From pictures of it, Utøya could well be an island in the Stockholm Archipelago, like the one I’m writing from now. There’s enormous admiration in Sweden for the way the Norwegian prime minister, Jens Stoltenberg, has responded to the atrocity. Also, the reluctance of the authorities and local media to jump to the conclusion that it was the work of Islamists – despite a (supposed) Islamist website immediately claiming ‘credit’ for it.
As The Ballad of Reading Gaol says, all men kill the thing they love. Well, up to a point. Rupert Murdoch may have had a soft spot for the News of the World, but it’s as nothing to his amour propre and love of the power born of wealth. Murdoch knows that the papers now are good at best for pin money. The real aim is to fireproof NewsCorp’s global brand, ensuring that its big airtime account-holders don’t take fright. Then there’s the the BSkyB merger, which, after the consultation period ends today, can hardly go through on the nod, even if Sky News is ‘spun off’. A few hundred workers on a UK rag – 168-year history and all – are, as Hyman Roth says in The Godfather II, small potatoes.
Sunday. My landlady accosts me: have you heard what’s happened in America? ‘Histoire de fesses!’ She is agitated. Whose business is it that Dominique Strauss-Kahn, managing director of the IMF and hot tip for the Elysée in 2012, has lunged at an employee of Sofitel in midtown Manhattan? What do they think they’re doing arresting him? Who was she, after all? A chambermaid! So, it’s an engraving in an 18th-century romance for gentlemen. Or if you read the New York Post, a ‘perv bust’, following ‘alleged sodomy of hotel maid’. Not such bad news for the right in France, despite the national disgrace.
Moving on from arsenic, we come to cyanide. Is that a kind of maturity? Like going from cheesy triangles to morbiers? What I know about cyanide comes from Agatha Christie or somesuch and is, in totality: smells like bitter almonds. So, you think, why would anyone drink it in their coffee without first wondering if their nearest and dearest were trying to kill them. Answer: because almost certainly Starbucks has an almond syrup latte that has breathed new life into the wife-poisoning industry. Then again people are always knocking back cyanide in their champagne in Christie without complaint, until their hand flies to their throat, their face contorts into a hideous mask and they fall writhing and then lifeless to the ground. Miss Marple and M. Poirot only have to bend their heads down to the lips of the corpse to get a whiff of almonds and know exactly how, why and who done the deed. I suggest you just say no if your beverage smells of bitter almonds.
Monday at the Manhattan County Courthouse begins with hundreds of people in a room watching a short film that opens with a vox pop of New Yorkers complaining about jury service. Then, a bit of history: the Greeks invented trial by jury, the Romans abolished it. In the Middle Ages, there was trial by ordeal: a trussed unfortunate is dragged to a lake and thrown in. The film ends with various people praising the American judicial system: a local judge, a TV anchorwoman; the resentful taxpayers from the opening scene have changed their minds. Along with some 60 others I am called to a courtroom. Over the course of several hours of general questioning most people are dismissed and more are called. By the time 14 of us have been selected – 12 jurors and two reserves – we no longer look like a representative sample of Manhattan residents; we are whiter, for one thing. During the ‘voir dire’ process I am the first to be interviewed by the judge, answering various questions about where I live, what I do for a living, where I went to school. Not expecting her to ask me what I do for fun, I can’t think what to say. Other people say reading, travel, theatre. One man says that he works out with his personal trainer and takes care of the family estate in Connecticut; he does not end up on the jury.
Overhear that something unusually bad has happened in Whitehaven without at the same time overhearing what it might be, and the alarmist mind (mine) scoots recklessly ahead – knowing as it did nothing about Whitehaven except that it’s a town within easy fallout range of Sellafield – to invent a whole montage of pictures and reports of nuclear devastation. Had all the many newspaper and television reporters who were packed instantly off north to Cumbria to serve as intermediaries between events in Whitehaven and ourselves found in fact that they had some sort of fearsome meltdown to report on, they might also have found it simpler to measure up to than the real events they were faced with.
On the morning of 20 July a man identifying himself as William Kramer boarded American Airlines flight 720 from Dallas/Fort Worth to New York. He was travelling first class. His one-way ticket cost $1145.60. I know this because he used data stolen from my credit card to pay for it. I had no idea that anything was wrong – my credit card was still in my wallet – until the following morning when I checked my recent transactions online. The American Airlines payment had not yet appeared but three other charges had: for $64 and $75, on consecutive days, from Angelo’s Pizza in New York, and for $663.44 from a firm called Ritz Camera. I cancelled the card and put in a claim against these fraudulent transactions. When I called Ritz Camera, they told me that a camera had been ordered over the internet using my card details and sent by FedEx to my apartment house in New York.
James Ellroy comes across as being a difficult man to interview. It’s not that he clams up – he seems to love doing interviews – or only says boring stuff. But his schtick-to-vaguely-serious-answer ratio is highly variable, depending on what kind of mood he’s in, how much press he’s been doing lately and so on, and is in any case quite hard to judge. Choose the wrong day, or press the wrong button, and you’ll get something like this (from a 2006 New York Times Magazine interview): I am a master of fiction. I am also the greatest crime writer who ever lived.
A strange thing can happen to film directors with a genuine style. It doesn’t always happen, but it often does: their life begins to impersonate their films. It is more typical to think of the process happening the other way round: John Ford is a drunken Irish brawler at heart, so he makes pictures imbued with the experience of hard-nosed pugilists transplanted from the poteen-stills of County Galway. But I’m just as interested in how artists can be shaped by the things they make: Orson Welles becomes a version of Charles Foster Kane; Visconti becomes a victim of betrayal; and Werner Herzog turns year by year into a grizzly Nosferatu who is totally creepy but also cuddly. To whatever extent Roman Polanski has his own filmic style, his life has impersonated it surreally.
From a news report on the trial of Ricardo Morrison, the son of a police officer, accused of murdering his girlfriend, Amy Leigh Barnes: Ms Barnes's mother, Karyn, phoned Pc Wilks from the hospital soon after the attack. "She told her that Amy had been stabbed and accused her son, Ricardo Morrison, of doing it," he said. ... Pc Wilks then sent a text to Ms Barnes' mother: "I know what my son has done is unforgivable. No need to be rude. Now I understand more about your family. "Do not call me again. My son will be dealt with by law."
I always knew it was punishment.
The Orwell Prize committee this year introduced a new prize for political blogging. It has been won by an anonymous 'English detective' who calls himself 'NightJack'. His posts are a mixture of general comment and diary accounts of apparently typical days in the lives of English policemen. They are vigorously written and sometimes perfectly reasonable. NightJack regrets that the police today are kitted out as imperial stormtroopers, he has little nostalgia for the old canteen culture, he laments the mass of paperwork that has been foisted on the police (like everyone else in the public sector) and fairly argues that if plea-bargaining is to become entrenched it ought to be formalised. Thereafter, however, reasonableness ends.
Once upon a time, the only way to tell that a suicide note had been faked was by matching its faded e's and crooked g's to the keys on the murderer's typewriter. Not any more. You might think that these days you could just text 'goodbye cruel world' to everyone in your victim's phone book before chucking their mobile off the balcony after them – a perfect crime, so long as you didn't forget to wear your rubber gloves. Except that John Olsson, 'the world's only full-time forensic linguist', could well, even then, be able to bust you.