2017 in Crime & Justice: Part I

2017 has been quite the eventful year, to put it mildly. The true crime community had a lot to discuss in 2017: a handful of seemingly unsolvable cold cases were cracked, two of the sixties’ most notorious serial killers died, and a series of high-profile cases occupied the criminal justice sphere. 

And because I couldn’t find a list of 2017’s notable crime and justice events, I made one myself. This list is not exhaustive by any means—if you’re looking for a list of every crime that happened this year, you’re barking up the wrong tree. But what it does contain is just some of the year’s many cases that will undoubtedly stick with me into 2018.

January

Robert Xie Found Guilty of Murdering Lin Family in 2009 

Robert Xie in handcuffs [Image via]
On January 12, 2017, Lian “Robert” Xie was found guilty of the 2009 murders of the Lin Family in South Wales, Australia. This was Xie’s fourth trial for the crimes: the first two were aborted in 2014, and the third resulted in a hung jury.

On July 18, 2009, Kathy Lin entered her brother’s home to find Min Lin, his wife, Yun; their children Henry and Terry; and Min’s sister-in-law Irene bludgeoned to death, so disfigured by their injuries that they were wholly unidentifiable. Brenda—Min and Yun’s 15-year-old daughter—learned of her family’s murders on Facebook while out-of-the-country on a school trip. Brenda was the only surviving member of her immediate family, and soon began living with Kathy, her aunt, and Kathy’s husband, none other than Lian “Robert” Xie.

Following an extensive investigation, Robert Xie was arrested for the murders in May 2011. While the prosecution argued both circumstantial and forensic evidence linked Xie to the brutal slayings, the motive remained a mystery to the public.

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Brenda Lin at Robert Xie’s trial [Image via]
However, in February 2017, Brenda Lin publicly revealed what she’d already told the courts: Robert Xie had sexually assaulted her regularly until his arrest. Prosecutors argued Xie’s sexual interest in Brenda was a motivating factor in the murders; with his in-laws dead, Xie could have unlimited access to his niece, whose bedroom was left undisturbed on the night of the murders. Further evidence suggested that the killer not only knew Brenda would be away that night, but also knew the layout of the Lin home.

Robert Xie was sentenced to five life sentences, with Justice Elizabeth Fullerton stating Xie’s risk of reoffending was, “amplified by the sexual violence the offender inflicted on [Brenda Lin] after the murders, as the surviving member of her family.” Xie and Kathy Lin maintain he is innocent.

 Author Reveals Woman at Center of Emmett Till Case Confessed 1955 Testimony was Fabricated

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(L-R) 14-year-old Emmett Till and his then 20-year-old accuser, Carolyn Bryant, in 1955.

On August 24, 1955, Carolyn Bryant alleged Emmett Till—an African American 14-year-old —harassed her in a Mississippi grocery store. Three days later, Till’s brutalized body was found in the Tallahatchie River. Among other injuries, Till had a bullet wound in his head, an eye gouged out, barbed wire wrapped around his neck, and was weighted down by a cotton gin fan

A few weeks later, then 21-year-old Bryant testified that Till had grabbed and verbally harassed her in a grocery store. The all-white jury cleared Bryant’s husband husband Roy and his half-brother J.W. Milam of the crime. Both men later publicly admitted guilt, and stated they wanted to “”warn other blacks.”” Till’s mother insisted on an open-casket funeral and Jet magazine published photos of his corpse that sparked outrage and helped galvanize the civil rights movement.

In January 2017, Duke University research scholar Timothy Tyson revealed Bryant—who had disappeared from public view after the trial—confessed to fabricating the harassment claims. In a 2007 interview, Bryant told Tyson, “That part’s not true.” Tyson is the only author to interview Bryant to date.

The claims and Till’s murder essentially ruined Bryant’s life, according to Tyson. In the murder’s shadow, Bryant’s outlook was similarly altered by the Civil Rights movement, according to Tyson:

“She was glad things had changed [and she] thought the old system of white supremacy was wrong, though she had more or less taken it as normal at the time.”

“Nothing that boy did could ever justify what happened to him,” she told Tyson. She also admitted she “felt tender sorrow,” for Mamie Till-Mobley—Emmett Till’s mother, who died in 2003 after a lifetime of crusading for civil rights.

February

Liberty German and Abigail Williams Murdered in Delphi, Indiana

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Liberty German and Abigail Williams

On February 13, 2017, Indiana teens Liberty German and Abigail Williams go missing near Deer Creek on the Delphi Historic Trail. The next day, German and Williams’s bodies are discovered in a wooded area roughly a half-mile upstream from the bridge at which they were last seen.

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Photo of a “person of interest” in the Delphii murders case [Image: Indiana State Police]
Indiana authorities release two low-quality photographs of a person seen on the Delphi Historic Trail around the same time, as well as an audio clip of the suspect taken from German’s phone the day she and Williams were murdered. In the snippet, a man says, “down the hill” on loop. Little additional information was publicly released and over six months would pass without arrests of any confirmed persons of interest.

In September 2017, former Indiana resident and registered sex offender Daniel Nations was arrested in Colorado in relation to an intimidation incident involving a hatchet. Nations’s resemblance to the ISP composite sketch of the suspect in the Delphi murders led to renewed interest in the seemingly-cold case. In October, ISP traveled to Colorado to interview Nations, who is facing weapons, assault, and trespassing charges. As late as mid-December, Indiana authorities said that while Nations could not be ruled out as a suspect, he was not their “big top number.”

On December 13, the victims’ parents appeared on Dr. Phil, hoping the exposure might generate new leads. However, the murders of Abigail Williams and Liberty German remain unsolved.

Ryan Duke Arrested in 2005 Disappearance of Tara Grinstead

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[Image via]
In February, the Georgia Bureau of Investigation announced a tip has led to the arrest of Ryan Duke in connection with the 2005 disappearance of Tara Grinstead. In March, Bo Dukes (no relation) was also arrested in connection to Grinstead’s case.

According to warrants read in court, Duke burglarized Grinstead’s home, and when discovered he strangled her and removed her body from the house. Both Duke and Dukes had been students at the Irwin County High School, where Grinstead was a teacher at the time of her disappearance. No trial date has been scheduled for either.

 Tim Piazza Dies in Penn State Hazing Incident

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19-year-old Tim Piazza [Image via]
Tim Piazza was a Penn State sophomore and Beta Thi Pi pledge who, on February 2nd, partook in “The Gauntlet,” an obstacle course of a hazing ritual that required pledges to drink from a bottle of vodka, a full beer, and from a bag of wine.

During the night, Piazza fell down the basement stairs of the house and was knocked unconscious. He was carried to a couch, where surveillance cameras captured a large and already visible bruise on his abdomen. One brother tried to convince the others that Piazza needed immediate medical attention, but was ignored. In fact, authorities concluded the fraternity didn’t seek help for over 12 hours. Instead, they poured water on Piazza, slapped his face, and put a backpack full of books on his back to prevent him from rolling over. Piazza tried to stand and even moved towards the door at one point, but fell and hit his head. His skull was fractured and his spleen lacerated. For hours, blood was seeping into his abdominal cavity. When a fraternity member finally called 911, Piazza was immediately rushed into rounds of emergency surgery. However, Piazza died early the next morning.

Piazza was found unconscious on the basement floor the next morning, according to grand jury investigation findings, but no one called for help for over 40 minutes. One member’s phone showed Internet searches during this period for, “true or false, a person with a serious head injury or concussion should be kept awake,” and “cold extremities in drunk person,” according to the findings.

The Piazza case resulted in one of the largest hazing prosecutions in US history. On May 5, 2017 eighteen members of the fraternity were charged in connection with Piazza’s death, following a grand jury investigation: eight were initially charged with involuntary manslaughter and the rest with other offenses; however, all involuntary manslaughter charges were reduced to charges including reckless endangerment, hazing, and furnishing alcohol to a minor.

On November 14, 2017, ten more members were charged in connection with Piazza’s death. The new charges were filed after the Centre County District Attorney announced that the Federal Bureau of Investigation had recovered video showing Piazza being given at least 18 drinks in an 82-minute span. While basement security cameras were initially believed to be broken at the time of the hazing, prosecutors now allege that fraternity member Braxton Becker deleted the basement footage while police were in the frat house to collect it.

In addition to the fraternity brothers, the Beta Theta Pi fraternity itself was also charged. Its Penn State fraternity branch was closed after its president ordered it banned from campus indefinitely.

March

Body of 6-Year-Old Isabel Celis Recovered 5 Years After Disappearance

5350a2a7c427f-imageIn mid-March 2017, the partial remains of a human child are recovered in rural Pima County, Arizona. On March 31th, Tuscon PD announced that DNA analysis confirmed the body discovered was that of 6-year-old Isabel Celis, who disappeared from her bedroom under suspicious circumstances in April 2012. While Tucson Police Chief Chris Magnus would not divulge specifics on how investigators came to locate the remains, he did said it was “not by happenstance.”

In October 2017, Tuscon authorities release a heavily-redacted autopsy report that shows that Celis’s death was ruled “homicide by unspecified means.” While Celis’s family—particularly her father, Sergio—have come under scrutiny in the last five years, Magnus would not say whether investigators have identified any new suspects or whether anyone related to the case is already in police custody. However, the investigation into Celis’s death continues.

Tennessee Teenager Elizabeth Thomas Disappears with Teacher Tad Cummins

elizabeth_tbi_215-year-old Elizabeth Thomas is reported missing in Tennessee on March 13, the same day that one of her high school teachers, Tad Cummins, vanishes. Days later, the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation releases the last-known photograph of Elizabeth Thomas as allegations quickly surface that she was groomed by Cummins. These allegations are bolstered when, on March 27, prosecutors state Elizabeth and Cummins exchanged “romantic” and “troubling” messages through his work email. Elizabeth’s family soon alleges that Cummins pressured the girl to go out with him by threatening her with “repercussions at school.”

The TBI’s investigation reveals that Cummins had researched “teen marriage” in the days preceding his and Elizabeth’s disappearances. On March 31, Cummins’s wife of 31 years files for divorce.

Despite numerous false sightings, investigators confirm on March 31 that Elizabeth and Cummins were spotted in Oklahoma two days after they went missing.

In September, the TBI announced that Thomas and Cummins were found safe in Northern California and that the latter was arrested. Investigators revealed they were tipped off the pay prior that the missing pair was living in a cabin in Cecilville, California. Cummins was taken into custody about dawn. According to CNN, the cabin was still under construction and had no running water, electricity, or heat.

Thomas spoke on the record about her abduction for the first time in September,  telling the Columbia Daily Herald in an impromptu interview at a fast food restaurant:

“I don’t regret it, nor do I say it was the right thing to do. It was an experience I’ll have to live with the rest of my life.”

April

Jack McCullough’s 2012 Conviction Overturned for 1957 Murder of 7-year-old Maria Ridulph

Jack McCullough‘s 2012 conviction for the 1957 murder of seven-year-old Maria Ridulph in Sycamore, Illinois is overturned after new evidence surfaced to support the now 77-year-old’s alibi.

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Jack McCullough circa 1955

Ridulph disappeared on December 3, 1957 from a street corner in her Sycamore neighborhood, and was last seen by a childhood friend in the company of an unknown man calling himself “Johnny” who appeared to be in his early twenties. Nearly five months later, her remains were found in a wooded area near Woodbine, Illinois, approximately 100 miles from her home. The crime was widely reported as the oldest cold case murder in the United States to be solved when Jack McCullough—who under his former name John Tessier had been a neighbor of the Ridulph family—-was convicted for her murder in September 2012.

in March 2016, the De Kalb County State’s Attorney announced that a post-conviction review of available evidence showed McCullough could not have been present at the place and time of Maria Ridulph’s likely abduction: in particular, phone records from showed that, on the evening of the crime, McCullough made a collect call to his mother from a pay phone in downtown Rockford rather than from Sycamore as alleged at his trial. Given the call’s timing, the 40 odd miles between Sycamore and Rockford, and icy road conditions, the State’s Attorney concluded that McCullough could not possibly have been in Sycamore at the time of Maria Ridulph’s disappearance.

On April 15, 2016 Judge William P. Brady of the Illinois Circuit Court vacated McCullough’s original conviction and sentence and ordered a new trial. McCullough, who remained charged with the crime, was released on bond that day pending the new trial, but Judge Brady dismissed the charges against McCullough one week later; however, the charges were dismissed without prejudice, meaning that McCullough could have been tried again for the murder. McCullough has officially been declared innocent of the crime.

McCullough was declared actually innocent of the crime by the DeKalb County Circuit Court on April 12, 2017.

Skeletal Remains of Missing Persons Jessica Runions and Kara Kopetsky Found

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(L-R) Kara Kopetsky (17) and Jessica Runions (21) [Image via]
Just a few days apart in April 2017, mushroom hunters in Cass County, Missouri found the skeletal remains of 21-year-old Jessica Runions and 17-year-old Kara Kopetsy. Runions, who went missing in September 2016, was quickly identified by DNA; however, Kopetsky’s remains would not be identified until August 2017.

In October 2017, Kylr Yust was charged with two counts of murder in the first degree and two counts of abandonment of a corpse in the murders of Jessica Runions and Kara Kopetsky. Yust had dated both women, and was the person with whom Runions was last seen leaving a party in September 2017.  Kopetsky disappeared a week after filing for a protection order against her then ex-boyfriend in 2007. After Runions’s burned-out car was found the day after her disappearance, Yust was arrested and investigators the burns to his face, hands and arms and the scratches on his face.

Yust allegedly confessed to their murders to at least four and potentially nine people, including a roommate who spoke to the police in 2010 about a conversation with Yust about Kopetsky’s murder in 2009.

However, Yust plead not guilty, and a case review was scheduled for late December 2017.

May

Moors Murderer Ian Brady Dies 

Ian Brady following his 1966 arrest [Image via]
On May 15, 2017, British serial killer Ian Brady died at the age of 79 of heart failure while serving a life sentence in Ashmoor Psychiatric Hospital. Alongside romantic partner Myra Hindley, Brady murdered of five children in Manchester between 1963 and 1965 in a spree known collectively at the Moors Murders.

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Keith Bennett was the only Moors murder victim whose body was never found. [Image via]
Three of the bodies were discovered buried on Saddleworth Moor. The body a fourth victim, Keith Bennett, is suspected to be buried on the Moor; however, despite extensive searches and a letter written by Brady to Bennett’s mother in which the killer allegedly admitted he could take police “within 20 yards of where he buried Keith,” Bennett’s body has never been recovered.

In 2002, Hindley died in custody of bronchial pneumonia. Brady had been on successive hunger strikes since 1999 in an effort to hasten his own death. The 2007 death of John Straffen—a man who had had spent 55 years in prison for murdering three children—made Brady became the longest serving prisoner in England and Wales for nearly a decade.

Robin Makin—Brady’s lawyer and the executor of his will—said he visited Brady in the hours before his death to discuss his legal wishes and funeral arrangements. Makin told the BBC he did not think Brady had any information that would help the search for Keith Bennett. Per the BBC, the coroner would not release Brady’s body until assurances were made that his ashes would not be scattered on the Saddleworth Moor.

June

Michelle Carter Convicted of Involuntary Manslaughter After Urging Boyfriend to Commit Suicide

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Michelle Carter during her June 2017 trial [Image via]
18-year-old Conrad Roy III was found dead of carbon monoxide poisoning in his truck on July 14, 2014. Roy was involved in a complicated relationship with 17-year-old Michelle Carter at the time.  Nearly three years later, in June of 2017, Michelle Carter was convicted of involuntary manslaughter in a high profile case based on the revelation that Carter sent Roy numerous text messages encouraging him to follow through with suicide.

Conrad Roy

The two met in February 2012 while visiting family in Naples, Florida, where they discovered they lived somewhat close to each other in Massachusetts. While they only met in person five times, they texted constantly (as a 20-something, I’m here to tell you that relationships like this do happen—especially in high school—in case anyone was wondering): in fact, 317 pages of text messages recovered by the state documented the entirety of their relationship.

The pair bonded over their mental health struggles: Roy struggled with depression and anxiety, and Carter was coping with anorexia, for which she would eventually be hospitalized. That October, Conrad Roy tried to kill himself by swallowing a bottle of Tylenol. After much vomiting and once he came around, Roy texted Carter, the girl he’d met in Naples:

“Do you even care what’s happening to me?”

Carter replied:

“oh my god. is this my fault?”

The pair continuously discussed death via text, the topic often raised by Roy. Roy’s internet search history would later be shown to include phrases including “suicide by cop,” and “ways to die by drowning.” Three weeks after Carter tried to persuade Roy to join her at McLean Hospital—where she was being treated for anorexia—to get help for his depression, Roy told her he was suicidal, then texted her:

“We should be like Romeo and Juliet…but you know what happens in the end.”

Eventually Carter stopped resisting when Roy put his suicidal ideation into words; in fact, Carter began to offer method suggestions:

“What about hanging yourself or stabbing yourself?…Why don’t you just drink bleach?”

On July 3, 2014, Roy texted Carter that he was going to do it. But when he was awake the next morning, Carter was furious, thinking Roy was jerking her around:

“YOU KEEP PUSHING IT OFF!…Carbon monoxide is the best option, if you fall asleep in your car while it’s running.”

When Conrad said he was doing circles in his mind about where to go—wondering what would happen if someone found him before he died—Carter texted:

“You better not be bullshitting me and saying you’re gonna do this and then purposely get caught.”

She asked whether, when he died, she could say she was his girlfriend. Conrad said okay.

On July 12, Conrad was wavering:

  • Carter: “You just need to do it Conrad or I’m gonna get you help.”
  • Roy: “I’m gonna do it today.”
  • Carter: “Do you promise.”
  • Roy: “I promise babe. Where do I go?”
  • Carter: “You can’t break a promise. Go in a quiet parking lot.”

Roy called Carter at 6:28 PM that night in a call that lasted 42 minutes and 46 seconds. At 7:12, Carter called Roy. This time, their phones connected for forty-six minutes and thirty-five seconds. The prosecutor noted that because it takes about fifteen minutes to die from carbon-monoxide poisoning and Conrad’s phone was recovered with a dead battery, Conrad must have died during the second call.

The next morning, Carter texted Roy the following:

“Did you do something??! Conrad I love you so much please tell me this is a joke. I’m so sorry I didn’t think you were being serious. I need you please answer me. I’m gonna get you help and you’re gonna get better we will make it thru this.”

When the school year started in September, Carter was visibly distraught about her boyfriend’s death. On September 13—the day after what would have been Conrad’s 19th birthday—she held a fundraiser in his honor for suicide prevention. But the stories she told those around her about what happened that night shifted, and  privately, some of Carter’s friends were confused. A soccer teammates told Esquire:

“Before the suicide, he was never her boyfriend—he was just ‘my friend.’ “

Two months after Conrad’s death, Carter sent her friend Samantha Boardman what looked like a confession:

“I could have stopped him. I was on the phone with him and he got out of the car because it was working and he got scared and I fucking told him to get back in. I could of stopped him but I fucking didnt. All I had to say was I love you.”

While no recordings of either call between Carter and Roy on the night of Roy’s suicide existed, the text message to Boardman was essentially a written account of them, in Michelle’s own words. Soon after, Michelle was approached by a detective while waiting to be picked up by her dad after school. The detective said he knew she’d been talking to Conrad the night of his death after reviewing Conrad’s phone. He then said he had a search warrant for hers.

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Text messages exchanged between Conrad Roy and Michelle Carter on the day of Roy’s death as shown in court.

In February 2015, the state of Massachusetts indicted Michelle Carter for involuntary manslaughter, a homicide charge that carries a maximum twenty-year sentence. The trial began June 5, 2017, by which time Carter had become the topic of gossip and controversy in New England.

The prosecution—relying in part on the text messages—described Carter as a lonely, manipulative girl who killed an ambivalent boy to gain attention from her peers. The second week of trial, the defense opened with an inversion of the state’s story: A boy named Conrad had dragged a girl named Michelle into a “suicidal maelstrom.” The defense’s single significant witness was Dr. Peter Breggin—an expert witness in cases involving pharmacology—who proposed a theory of involuntary intoxication: according to Breggin, Carter’s 5 milligram prescription for Celexa, an antidepressant, had contorted her intrinsically helping nature to the point that she convinced herself abetting Conrad’s suicide was itself a form of help.

The verdict was delivered on June 16 by Judge Lawrence Moniz, who spoke from the bench for about 20 minutes to explain his finding before announcing it. At first,  Moniz, seemed to be exonerating Carter for her behavior in the days leading up to Roy’s suicide, but then honed in on Carter’s actions the day of Roy’s death, which he said ultimately led to her conviction:

“Carter’s actions and also her failure to act where she had a self-created duty to Mr. Roy, since she had put him in that toxic environment, constituted each and all wanton and reckless conduct.”

The judge highlighted two moments: Carter telling Roy to get back into a truck that she knew was going to fill with deadly carbon monoxide and her failure to tell anyone else about it at the time. The now 20-year-old was sentenced to 15 months in August, but is to remain free pending appeal.

Read Part II of “2017 in Crime & Justice”

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