Wednesday, December 13, 2017

Who Murdered the California Schoolgirls?

Karen Lynn Tomkins

More than 50 years later, the cases are unsolved…
by Robert A. Waters

On July 3, 1962, eleven-year-old Dorothy Gale Brown (called Gale) was reported missing from Torrance, California. Her bicycle lay on the sidewalk a block from her home, but the girl was nowhere to be found.

Police immediately suspected she’d been kidnapped because of a previous abduction. Karen Lynn Tompkins, also 11, had disappeared from almost the exact same spot a year before. Karen’s case was still unsolved.

A massive search for Gale turned up nothing until July 6 when the Torrance Herald reported that “the nude body of the girl was discovered by skin divers near Corona del Mar about noon Wednesday. It was floating in a kelp bed about 150 yards off shore.”

The article continued, “About an hour and a half before the body was discovered, the 12-year-old daughter of Mr. and Mrs. Richard Shanklin, Long Beach, found the girl’s white dress stuffed in a beer can in the water at Tin Can Beach. The dress was taken home and laundered by Mrs. Shanklin, who said she knew nothing about Gale’s disappearance at the time. After reading about the disappearance in the newspapers, Mrs. Shanklin turned the dress over to police. Mr. and Mrs. Brown identified it here Friday morning. A pink plastic hair band was discovered later. It was also in a beer can near Tin Can Beach. Police have questioned several known sex offend- ers in the area…”

The coroner stated that Gale had been in the water for six to eight hours, and that she’d drowned.

Gale’s parents, William and Charlene Brown, were so distraught that they offered to give their daughter’s clothes to a needy child. Gale was buried, but not before the pastor prayed for her killer to be caught and “punished as he ought to be.”

In the first two years after Gale’s murder, the Torrance Police Department interviewed thousands of people. All known sex offenders in the area were grilled—several were given lie detector tests and “truth serum.” All were eliminated as suspects.

Karen Lynn Tomkins was never found, and is still missing today. Dorothy Gale Brown’s murder remains unsolved.

A child-rapist and serial killer named Mack Ray Edwards roamed California in the 1950s and 1960s raping and murdering children. He confessed to killing six children and was convicted of the murders of Stella Darlene Nolan, 8, Gary Rochet, 16, and Donald Allen Todd, 13.

Edwards also confessed to killing Donald Lee Baker, 15, and Brenda Jo Howell, 12, who were kidnapped from Azusa in 1956. He was not charged because their bodies were never found. He claimed to have killed one other victim, fifteen-year-old Roger Dale Madison.

Did Edwards also murder Dorothy Gale Brown and Karen Lynn Tomkins?  Police suspected as much, but were never able to prove a connection.

Sentenced to death, Edwards hung himself in San Quentin Prison in 1971.

His many sordid secrets were buried with him.

Monday, November 27, 2017

Self-Defense in Knightdale, North Carolina 

Woman "reasonably believed her life to be in danger" 
by Robert A. Waters 

When violent felon Deondrea Allen Branch broke into the office of accountant Connie Wells, she shot him.  A clear case of self-defense, it seems.   

Branch was on probation when he was shot, had just shoplifted 10 bras from Walmart, and was running from police.  Some of his previous arrests included drug charges, assault on a female, injury to personal property, resisting a public officer, obtaining property under false pretenses, failure to appear, and DWIPublic records indicate that Branch started his criminal activity in his mid-teenage years. 

His father, Willie Mitchener, Jr., took issue with the shooting.  Mitchener told reporters that Branch "is still over here (in the hospital) with no options. [I'm] not really understanding where...he was a threat to someone in order for him to get shot." 

"A crime is a crime, but there are levels to everything.  Shoplifting is not right by no means, but that is in no fashion in comparison to your life." 

"He was a great kid In life you make bad choices." 

"The more I learned about the whole situation, the madder I got," Mitchener said.  "You're holding a firearm, so where is the danger at when, you know, you don't see a weapon on him, so you feel like you would have the upper hand anyway But more or less, you didn't give him a chance to respond anyway.  This is a scared kid looking to hide somewhere." 

Damon Cheston, attorney for Connie Wells, replied in a public letter, quoted here in full: 

"It is a tragedy any time a person is seriously injured. 

"While Connie Wells and her family understand the Branch family’s concern, the events of September 18, 2017 in Knightdale are entirely a consequence of Deondrea Branch’s own actions that day. 
  
"North Carolina recognizes a right of self-defense, enshrined in part in common law that dates back hundreds of years and in the Castle Doctrine which allows a person to defend themselves from attack in a person’s home or business. 
    
"54-year-old Connie Wells, 5 feet 2 inches tall, alone and cowering in her closed, locked, and secured office, was in fear for her life as Branch broke into the office.  Branch repeatedly slammed against a 150-lb solid core door, bent the deadbolt securing it, and stormed into Ms. Wells’ office suite. 
   
"He rushed at her as she was trapped in her personal office within the office suite.  Branch ignored Ms. Wells when she screamed at him to 'STOP!' 
  
"Ms. Wells had no idea at the time of the incident that Branch had allegedly stolen items from a nearby Wal-Mart or that he was fleeing from police.  Nor did she know that Branch has a criminal record, an extensive arrest record, and is on probation for a prior drug conviction. 
  
"Surveillance footage is clear.  The incident referred to in press reports occurred just 11 feet from Ms. Wells.  She lawfully exercised her right to self-defense with her legally-possessed firearm.  Ms. Wells fired a single shot because she feared Branch would assault, kill, or do her other harm. Another step and Branch would have been on top of her. 
  
"From the start, Ms. Wells has cooperated fully with authorities.  She and her family appreciate the quick response from the Knightdale Police Department and understand, as is true any time a person exercises the right of self-defense, that responsible authorities must conduct a thorough investigation." 

Wake County District Attorney Lorrin Freeman said Wells will not be charged.  "It has been determined," she wrote, "that Mr. Branch was engaging in the offense of breaking and entering, and that Mrs. Wells reasonably believed her life to be in danger and therefore was justified in using force in self-defense." 

The father of Deondrea Branch indicated that his son was shot in the neck, is partially paralyzed, and will have to learn to walk again. 

Monday, November 13, 2017

The Shohola Train Disaster of 1864

Rebs and Yanks Died Together 
by Robert A. Waters 

On the afternoon of July 15, 1864, Engine 171, a thirty-ton wood-burning smoker, chugged along a torturous mountain track in Pennsylvania.  Spewing gun-gray smoke in its wake, the engine pulled seventeen cars loaded with Confederate prisoners of war, many captured during the Battle of Cold Harbor.  More than a hundred Union guards, some standing on top of the cars, escorted the 833 Rebels. 

The train had left Jersey City shortly after daybreak, its hapless prisoners bound for the infamous Elmira prison in New York.  North Carolina's 51st Infantry had been particularly hard-hit at Cold Harbor, and made up a high percentage of the captives. 

Engine 171, with its overloaded cars, snaked westward on the Erie Railroad, averaging twenty miles per hour.  Alongside the tracks lay the beautiful Delaware River.  As the train ascended on the single line, it encountered "blind" curves and sheer cliffs.   

On the same track, Erie Engine 237 was headed east.  Pushing its top speed at twenty-five miles per hour, the train carried fifty cars loaded with coal.   

Meeting at a blind curve near Shohola Township in Pike County, Pennsylvania, the trains collided with a tremendous boom.  Local historian Joseph C. Boyd described the horrific scene: "The wooden coaches telescoped into one another, some splitting open and strewing their human contents onto the berm, where flying glass, splintered wood, and jagged metal killed or injured them as they rolled.  Other occupants were hurled through windows or pitched to the track as the car floors buckled and opened.  The two ruptured engine tenders towered over the wreckage, their massive floor timbers snapped like matchsticks.  Driving rods were bent like wire.  Wheels and axles lay broken." 

Frank Evans, a Union guard, later recounted his view of the aftermath.  "On a curve in a deep cut, we had met a heavily laden train," he wrote, "traveling nearly as fast as we were.  The trains had come together with that deadly crash.  The two locomotives were raised high in the air, face-to-face against each other, like giants grappling.  The tender of our locomotive stood erect on one end.  The engineer and the fireman, poor fellows, were buried beneath the wood it carried.  Perched on the reared-up end of the tender, high above the wreck, was one of our guards, sitting with his gun clutched in his hands, dead!"   
Headless torsos littered the tracks, as well as "bodies impaled on iron rods and splintered beams." 

Fifty-one Confederates died, while seventeen Union guards perished.  (Note: there are minor discrepancies among historians as to the numbers of dead and injured.) 

Townspeople rushed to aid the wounded and remove the dead.  Deceased Confederates were laid out in random rows while the Union dead were reverently covered with blankets. 

In the chaos, five Confederate soldiers escaped.  Soon uninjured Union guards formed a circle around the remaining Rebels to keep others from fleeing. 

Two badly injured North Carolina brothers, John and Michael Johnson, were transported to a nearby home across the river.  They died that night and were buried in the Barryville Congregational Church cemetery.  The other deceased Confederates were placed four at a time in home-made wooden boxes, and buried in a 75-foot-long trench dug by the surviving Rebels. 

Later that night, pine coffins arrived so that the dead Union soldiers could be interred in individual graves. 

As soon as the track was cleared and repaired, the remaining Confederate prisoners were transported to their destination, Elmira Prison. 

Blame for the train crash fell squarely on a drunken Douglas "Duff" Kent, the telegraph operator responsible for coordinating traffic on the railroad.  Before he could face the consequences of his negligence, however, Kent disappeared, never to be seen again. 

The Civil War ended one year later.  Survivors from the North and South went about their daily lives.  Over time, the great Shohola train wreck was largely forgotten to history. 

Forty-seven years later, historians rediscovered the disastrous crash.  In 1911, the Shohola dead were disinterred and taken to Woodlawn National Cemetery in Elmira, New York where they were laid in another common grave. 

The names of the deceased were inscribed on bronze plaques.   

The names of the Union dead face north while the names of the Confederate dead face south. 


 NOTE: Please read my article on Elmira Prison, the "Andersonville of the Union."