Saturday, January 30, 2010

My Crime Beat Column: The Kitten Killers and How a Dog Guy Came To Adopt a Feral Kitten

While searching the Internet in hope of learning more about cats, I came across a piece in the Philadelphia Inquirer from October about the death of Cuddles, a six-week-old kitten who was stoned and scorched.

The tortured kitten was rescued by an animal-control officer, who named him Cuddles, after the poor, injured animal climbed up his shirt and cuddled against his neck.

I recall that a 19-year-old knucklehead was later arrested for animal cruelty.

As a crime reporter and columnist I’ve covered some particularly heinous crimes in my time, including terrorism, murder and child abuse.

While accompanying Philadelphia police officers out on patrol, I’ve often witnessed the horrible acts that people do to people, but I can still be shocked by the cruel and senseless torture and killing of a defenseless kitten.

To be honest, for most of my life I’ve disliked cats. I thought them to be unfriendly, sneaky and sinister. I was, and am, a dog guy.

Cats were the arch-enemy of my late dog, Duchess, a half-German Shorthair, half Black Lab. She was trim, sleek and jet-black with small patches of white on her chest, legs and tail. She was the smartest, fastest and most lovable dog I’ve ever owned.

My wife’s grandfather is an accomplished carpenter among other skills, so I asked him to build a doghouse for Duchess. I thought he would simply slap some wood together, but he delivered an insulated doghouse with aluminum siding. The doghouse was built better than most houses.

The doghouse had a flattop roof and Duchess loved to lay there and bask in the sun much like Charles M. Schulz’s cartoon dog Snoopy. Duchess was a house dog, so during the winter months feral cats would sneak into the unoccupied and wonderfully warm doghouse to escape the cold, rain and snow.

This intrusion did not go unnoticed by Duchess. The cats drove her wild and she would let us know that she wanted out of the house fast in order to protect her territory.

When we opened our back door to let her out she would hit the yard like a rocket and chase the cats from her doghouse and her yard. I had to break up several scuffles between Duchess and the fleeing feral cats that she trapped.

Duchess lived to the grand old age of 18. And now I have one of her arch-enemies living in our house.

I began to appreciate cats two years ago when a feral litter in a vacant home on the other side of our yard produced two kittens. The kittens were named Circles and Little Girl by my next-door neighbors, a warm and caring woman and her equally warm and caring adult daughter. The two women left food and water out on their back porch for the feral cats.

Circles and Little Girl grew fast and as full grown cats they roamed and hunted in our backyards in my South Philadelphia neighborhood.

My area of South Philly has been called “the country in the city.” Perhaps because we live close to a park and have trees and small lawns not usually associated with urban living, we have an overabundance of squirrels, pigeons, and many other kinds of birds in the neighborhood. We even had a raccoon as a nocturnal guest.

Little Girl and Circles hunted the birds and squirrels. Perhaps they even confronted the raccoon at night while we slept. The two cats cleared our backyards of all of these pests. I began to see the cats as our backyard guardians.

I retired from the Defense Department in November of 2007 and I began to work at home as a full-time writer. Little Girl had a litter of five my first summer working at home and I, my wife and our next door neighbors observed the litter of tiny kittens scamper and romp with each other and their mother in my yard. Little by little, the kittens grew unafraid of us and we had a joyful summer watching them begin life.

Unfortunately, not all of our neighbors were happy with the kittens. Some neighbors complained about the cats and kittens roaming into their backyards. Some neighbors took actions to prevent the cats and the kittens from entering their yards, such as spraying water on them and by installing a wire fence (neither truly worked).

And then the kittens began to suffer terribly and die.

I was unable to do anything other than watch them suffer and die, one by one. I then had the grim task of disposing of the dead kittens. My wife found a piece of discarded pizza in our yard and we wondered if one of our cat-hating neighbors had poisoned the kittens.

One kitten, the runt of the litter, survived. My wife suspects that as she was still feeding from her mother, she did not eat the poisoned pizza like the others in the litter.

I called the police and an officer came and made a report, but we could not prove our suspicions and there was not much he could do other than write a report.

I later contacted the Pennsylvania Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (PSPCA), to report the incident and to confirm that it was illegal to poison feral cats and kittens.

“Yes, it is illegal to poison stray and feral cats,” Helen Redfern, the Director of Outreach Programs for the PSPCA, told me. “These animals are protected by Pennsylvania Code 5511, which forbids cruelty to animals. Unfortunately, it is very hard to catch those who poison or cause other harm to feral and stray cats, as well as other stray animals.”

Redfern went on to state that they come across the poisoning of feral cats quite often. People who don’t want the cats in their gardens or near their homes often resort to using poison.

“Stray cats, because they are usually friendly and trusting of people, are more likely to be killed by some other method,” Redfern said. “Last spring, the PSPCA investigated a series of deaths in which stray cats were killed by even worst methods than poison. Some had sticks shoved down their throats.”

Redfern suggested that the best way to control the feral cat population is through “Trap, Neuter, Release, Management programs (TNRN). Cats are neutered and receive vaccinations before being released back to their colonies, she explained.

“Unneutered cats can produce thousands of offspring in just a few short years,” Redfern said. “Neutering is the best and most humane way to control the population.”

Redfern said that there are more humane ways to keep feral cats out of gardens, such as using coffee grounds or orange and lemon rinds to keep the cats away.

“Feral cat colonies are a part of living in a city,” Redfern said.

My next-door neighbors later trapped Little Girl and the runt kitten and, accompanied by my wife, they took the two animals to a vet to be neutered. When they returned with Little Girl and her kitten, I asked my wife if she wanted to take the runt kitten in and she said yes.

Little Girl, a true feral cat, would not enter my neighbor’s home, despite their best efforts to induce her.

The surviving feral runt kitten we named Kit is now roaming our house — a house that up to now only welcomed dogs. Kit initially lived in our back laundry room, hiding behind the enclosed radiator, and came out only to eat the food we set out. We used string to bring her out to play with us and she slowly warmed to us.

It truly pained us to hear Kit’s mother Little Girl call out for her surviving kitten and to hear Kit’s sad little call back from inside our laundry room during that first week. But we knew that we were offering the feral kitten a good life that could last more than 12 years. As a feral cat, she would be dead in about two years.

Today, Kit is an absolute treasure. She is a lovable character and her daily antics are amusing and endearing. She follows me around the house and she sleeps in a chair beside my desk as I work. She has become my pal.

Poor Duchess must be rolling over in her grave. I plan to buy another dog soon, thus giving equal time to dogs and cats in my house.

If you know of or suspect animal cruelty to cats, kittens, dogs or other animals, contact the ASPCA or your local police.

Note: Our cat Kit appears in the top photo. I'm holding my infant daughter and petting our dog Duchess in the other photo.

Wednesday, January 27, 2010

You're a Terrorist, a Murderer, in Prison for Life, Called a Jackal, and You're Concerned About Your Image Now?

I read an interesting piece in the Washington Post about how Ilich Ramirez is suing a documentary film company over the “intellectual property” rights to his name and “biographical image.”

Ramirez, better known as “Carlos the Jackal,” is a former terrorist and murderer who is currently serving a life sentence in Paris, France for killing two French security agents.

Ramirez was, and apparently remains, an egomaniac. He was a rich, spoiled child who played at being a terrorist. He enjoyed being in the international spotlight in the 1970s and he didn’t mind having to bomb, shoot and kill people to be there.

Although he committed some truly awful criminal acts, this vicious coward was hardly “the most dangerous man in the world,” as some journalists, novelists and film makers made him out to be. He loved and encouraged the over-blown publicity, even adopting the name “Carlos the jackal,” which a reporter called him after finding a copy of Frederick Forsyth’s first-class thriller The Day of the Jackal in his abandoned belongings.

Forsyth’s character was a shadowy, highly efficient, professional assassin. Ramirez was none of these things. Perhaps Frederick Forsyth should sue Ramirez.     

Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Pernell Roberts Jr, TV Star, Dies of Cancer at 81

Pernell Roberts Jr, star of TV's Bonanza and Trapper John, M.D., died of cancer on January 24th. He was 81.

As a kid I was a big fan of Roberts when he was on Bonanza and I stopped watching the program when he left in 1965. I didn't watch Trapper John, but I caught up with Roberts again when he hosted and narrated FBI: The Untold Stories in the early 1990s.

You can read about Roberts' life and career via the below link:

Friday, January 15, 2010

My On Crime & Security Column: Travelers Should Remain Alert and Vigilant in Light of Terrorist Threats

The online small business magazine published my On Crime & Security column today.

My column notes that in light of the attempted Christmas bombing of an airliner by a would-be-terrorist passenger with explosives in his underwear, and other terrorist threats, business travelers - indeed, all Americans - should remain alert and vigilant.

You can read my column here 

Wednesday, January 13, 2010

Operation Mincemeat: The True Spy Story That Changed the Course of World War II

Bloomsbury in the United Kingdom is publishing Ben Macintyre's Operation Mincemeat: The True Spy Story That Changed the Course of World War II.

The incredible war story is more commonly known as The Man Who Never Was, the title of another book and film based on the World War II events.

A video trailer for Macintyre's new book can be seen via the below link:

Bloomsbury, the publisher of the new book, writes: "This is the thrilling true story of the greatest and most successful wartime deception ever attempted. One April morning in 1943, a sardine fisherman spotted the corpse of a British soldier floating in the sea off the coast of Spain and set in train a course of events that would change the course of the Second World War.

Operation Mincemeat was the most successful wartime deception ever attempted, and certainly the strangest. It hoodwinked the Nazi espionage chiefs, sent German troops hurtling in the wrong direction, and saved thousands of lives by deploying a secret agent who was different, in one crucial respect, from any spy before or since: he was dead. His mission: to convince the Germans that instead of attacking Sicily, the Allied armies planned to invade Greece.

The brainchild of an eccentric RAF officer and a brilliant Jewish barrister, the great hoax involved an extraordinary cast of characters including a famous forensic pathologist, a gold-prospector, an inventor, a beautiful secret service secretary, a submarine captain, three novelists, a transvestite English spymaster, an irascible admiral who loved fly-fishing, and a dead Welsh tramp.

Using fraud, imagination and seduction, Churchill’s team of spies spun a web of deceit so elaborate and so convincing that they began to believe it themselves. The deception started in a windowless basement beneath Whitehall. It travelled from London to Scotland to Spain to Germany. And it ended up on Hitler’s desk.

Ben Macintyre (seen in below photo), bestselling author of Agent Zigzag, weaves together private documents, photographs, memories, letters and diaries, as well as newly released material from the intelligence files of MI5 and Naval Intelligence, to tell for the first time the full story of Operation Mincemeat. "

Macintyre, a columnist and associate editor with The London Times, wrote about Operation Mincemeat in the newspaper here
Macintyre can be viewed talking about his new book via the below link:
Harmony will publish the book in the U.S. this May. Below is the Harmony cover.

Thursday, January 7, 2010

My Crime Beat Column: A Look Back at Joseph Pistone, aka Donnie Brasco, and His Undercover Life in the Mob

My wife and I recently watched Donnie Brasco on cable TV. We’ve seen the film about four or five times, but we like it so much we watch it again every couple of years.

The 1997 film stars Johnny Depp as "Donnie the Jeweler,” Brasco, aka Joseph Pistone, the FBI Special Agent who went undercover in 1976 to infiltrate the New York Cosa Nostra Bonanno crime family.  

The film also stars Al Pacino as mobster Benjamin “Lefty” Ruggiero.

In my view, the film is one of the two most realistic films, along with Goodfellas, about organized crime.

Depp is very good as Pistone. Who can forget Depp’s explanation of the New York all-purpose term ”fuhgettaboutit” to his fellow FBI agents?

Al Pacino is a great actor, but he often plays characters way over the top. In Donnie Brasco, he is understated and dead on in this role of a not particularly bright, low-level mob guy.

This role is the other end of the crime structure from the brilliant and evil mob boss Michael Corleone that Pacino portrayed so well in The Godfather, The Godfather, Part II and The Godfather, Part III.

I would have cast another actor in the important role of “Sonny Black” Napolitano, the Bonanno captain of the crew Pistone infiltrates. Michael Madsen and his perpetual scowl gives him a look of being constipated rather than tough. Imagine what a fine actor like Robert De Niro or Leo Rossi could have done with this role?

The film, like Pistone’s 1987 book that the film was based on, accurately portrays organized crime at the street level and debunks the popular myths surrounding the mob. There is little glamor or honor here. The film also accurately portrays the stressful and dangerous life of an undercover agent.

Pistone chronicled his extraordinary six years undercover in the book Donnie Brasco: My Undercover Life in the Mafia, written with Richard Woodley. Pistone successfully infiltrated the mob using the cover of Donnie Brasco, a jewel thief. He went on to become an associate member of the Bonanno crime family and in the end he was offered the opportunity to commit murder and become a full “made” member.

He was subsequently pulled out by his FBI bosses and his evidence and testimony was responsible from more than 100 organized crime members going to prison.

I reviewed Pistone’s second book, The Way of the Wiseguy for The Philadelphia Inquirer. 

As I wrote in the review, The Way of the Wiseguy is an insider’s guide to the world - or perhaps one should say, the underworld - of organized crime.

With stories and anecdotes that revel how wiseguys get their nicknames, how and why they are murdered and such minutiae as how they treat woman and what they eat, the book is everything you ever wanted to know about wiseguys, goodfellas mob guys and gangsters. Pistone’s blunt and colorful language adds to the book’s gritty realism.

“When you’re a wiseguy, you can steal, you can cheat, you can lie, you can kill people - and it’s all legitimate,” Lefty Ruggiero said to Pistone, explaining the tangible benefits of being a wiseguy.

I spoke to Pistone over the phone a few years ago and I met him when he came to Philadelphia on a book tour. He told me that he has many Philadelphia connections, including his close friend, actor Leo Rossi, who is from Philadelphia.

Pistone also worked for the Naval Investigative Service (now called NCIS) down at the old Navy Yard in South Philly and he also knows FBI agents assigned to the Philadelphia office.

Pistone, who still looks like he can handle himself in a tough situation, comes across as a regular neighborhood guy. He grew up in Paterson, New Jersey and he knew wiseguys growing up, but law enforcement officers interested him far more.

“I knew a couple of cops and detectives and their lives intrigued me,” Pistone told me.

He said he became an FBI special agent because of the officers he met and not by the influence of TV or films.

Pistone said that Cosa Nostra has lost much of its power because of the RICO (Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organization) Act and the strict federal sentencing guidelines.

“At one time, you’d get 3 to 5 years in prison,” Pistone explained. “The standard line among wiseguys was I need to go on vacation - three squares a day, I work out and get back in shape. Now, with the guidelines, the judges don’t have much wiggle room in their sentences, and they get 15 to 20 years. And you’re going to the time in the federal system.”

Pistone noted that in the Commission Case they convicted all of the New York mob bosses and they received 75 to 100 year sentences. Now, he said, when wiseguys are convicted they know they will never see the light of day again, so they make deals with prosecutors.

I mentioned to Pistone that being part-Italian and having grown up in South Philly, the hub of the Philadelphia-South Jersey mob, I can recall when mob guys looked at their time in prison proudly, in much the same way I view my time in the U.S. Navy. Their time incarcerated was considered a rite of passage and they were proud that they didn’t become a rat and they did their time “like a man.”

Pistone said that one does not see that attitude too often with today’s wiseguys.

Many people look at the mob and see a sense of glamor in the criminal lifestyle with their money, girls, clothes and cars. I asked Pistone if during his six years undercover he saw this as a glamorous life.

“No,” he replied. “You see the cars, the nice clothes and the guys don’t work, but what you don’t see is the inter-workings of mob life, the killings and stuff.

“Every day is spent scamming, scheming and wondering how are they going to make money,” Pistone explained in his gruff, street-wise voice. “It’s a stressful life. The two things these guys worry about are going to jail and getting killed.”

Pistone went on to explain that there is a lot of tension in mob life, especially when there is a war going on in the family. A mob guys worries about getting killed or who they will have to kill.

“What kind of life is that?” Pistone asked. “Every day is a struggle. You’re worried about money coming in, money going out, who’s cheating you and who are you going to cheat.”

I told Pistone that what I especially liked about his book and the film was the accurate portrayal of the scheming and the tension he mentioned, and I also liked that the protagonist - thinking Pistone might be uncomfortable with the term hero - was a law enforcement officer rather than a criminal like Henry Hill, Tony Soprano or Michael Corleone. I further liked that the protagonist was an Italian-American law enforcement officer.

I recalled that in 2004 TIME reviewed Pistone’s earlier book and Henry Hill’s book, Gangsters & Goodfellas together. The reviewer stated that Pistone “ratted out” the Bonanno family. For the record, Pistone was not a rat. He was an FBI special agent on official duty. Hill, on the other hand, was a criminal informant. TIME did not see the distinction between the two.

“They didn’t see the difference between an undercover agent doing his job and an informant, a criminal,” Pistone said. “I get that all the time in interviews, and I have to correct them.”

I asked Pistone what he believed his primary accomplishment as an undercover agent, and he replied that he was able to show that the mob could be penetrated by law enforcement.

“We broke the myth about the mob being honorable and all these other fantasies.”

I mentioned the TV program Wiseguy (1987-1990) to Pistone and I said that I truly liked actor Ray Sharkey, who looked and acted like many of the South Philly guys I grew up with. The undercover FBI agent in the show, Vinnie Terranova, portrayed by Ken Wahl, came to be fond of Sharkey’s character Sonny. Terranova knew he was a wild and violent criminal and murderer, yet he saw likeable human qualities as well.

I asked Pistone if he, like his TV undercover FBI counterpart, had those same conflicting feelings for any of the mob guys he knew.

“Yeah, it’s funny,” Pistone replied. “I felt that way with Sonny Black Napolitano and even Lefty Ruggiero, who was a hardcore mobster. You see these guys every day for 10-12 hours and you see a side of them with their kids and grandkids. Yet, here is a guy who loves his grandkid, but a half hour later he goes out and whacks a guy he has known for 15 or 20 years.

“This is the subculture and mindset of mob guys,” Pistone said. “One of the questions you’re asked when you get made is would you kill your brother or cousin if you had the contract? The answer has to be yes or you’re out.”

In addition to Donnie Brasco and The Way of the Wiseguy, Pistone has also written another good book on organized crime called Unfinished Business: Shocking Declassified Details From the FBI's Undercover Operations and a Bloody Timeline of the Fall of the Mafia.

If you’re interested in organized crime, I recommend all three books, as well as the film Donnie Brasco.

Tuesday, January 5, 2010

Poverty Causes Crime? A Crime Theory Demolished

As Heather MacDonald notes in her piece in the Wall Street Journal, the recession of 2008-09 has undercut one of the most destructive social theories that came out of the 1960s: that the root cause of crime is poverty and social injustice

MacDonald goes on to state that the crime free fall continues a trend of declining national crime rates that began in the 1990s, during a very difficult economy.

As any cop will tell you, most crimes are committed by a small group of career criminals. When these career criminals are released early from prison, they go on to commit more crimes.

I agree with MacDonald that an increase in criminals incarcerated has largely caused the lower crime rate. I also agree with her view that the innovative policing of former LA police chief William Bratton and New York City Ray Kelly has helped reduce crime.

Their use of COMPSTAT has brought crime way down in their cites, as well as other cites across the country. The COMPSTAT police system is a simple one, yet it is highly effective. Identify the specific areas where crimes are committed and place more effective police resources in those high crime areas. COMPSTAT also aids police chiefs in holding police captains accountable for their crime statistics.

I attended a COMPSTAT meeting at the Philadelphia Police Academy when John Timoney was the Philly police commissioner.

A huge COMPSTAT computerized map was on the wall and the crimes committed that week were represented by little symbols. A small car represented stolen autos.

I recall Timoney making the comment that the district looked like a used car lot. Everyone laughed except the captain of that district. The district captain was told in no uncertain terms by Timoney to crack down on those car thieves.

I also recall Timoney telling reporters at one meeting I attended that the police can lock criminals up, but if the prisons won’t hold them, they will simply be back out on the street committing the same crimes.

I’ve heard more than one commentator lament our large number of incarcerated persons, but I’m thankful that career criminals are behind bars.

And even though we are in a tough economy, our crime rate lowers because poor people don’t cheat, rob, rape and kill — criminals do.

Monday, January 4, 2010

Philadelphia Police Marine Unit Covers Crime, Safety and Homeland Security On the River

On assignment for Counterterrorism, a quarterly magazine for law enforcement, government and military people around the world, I recently went out on the Delaware River with the Philadelphia Police Marine Unit.

I went out on the river in the unit's 31-foot Munson (seen in above photo). I interviewed the unit's commanding officer, LT Andrew Napoli, and a couple of the other men in the unit. In addition to being police officers, the men in the unit are also small boat sailors and divers.

The Philadelphia Police Marine Unit has been in operation since April 9, 1859. The Police Marine Unit patrols the city's rivers and they cover crime, safety and homeland security issues.

Their mission is to respond to all water related emergencies and they conduct search/rescues and recoveries of persons, properties and evidence from the water.

The Police Marine Unit is coolocated with the U.S. Coast Guard at Front and Washington Ave in South Philadelphia and the unit works closely with the "Coasties." (The below photo shows Coast Guard and Police Marine Unit response boats working together on the river).

My magazine piece should be in the upcoming spring issue.