The Education Funding Gap: Part I

The most successful and influential societies have always been the most educated. Lawyers, doctors, teachers, clergymen, philosophers and scientists have been the architects of every social, political and economic system that exists today. Great men and women of vision have been the facilitators of human progress from the very start — and they have always been society’s most educated individuals. There is a direct correlation between education level (which naturally contemplates high degrees of literacy) and social mobility. Aside from affording better job opportunities, education invariably gives the individual a wider platform form which he or she can engage the community. It also tends to give a better understanding of how social, political and economic forces interact in the world around them.

In theory, every child is legally entitled to a fair public education. Whether in public or private school, children across the nation are being taught under the rubric of an increasingly uniform set of standards that are designed to achieve that goal. Ostensibly, this occurs everyday in every school around the country. In reality, however, there is a vast disparity in the quality of that education and that disparity is, without question, a function of economics.

Suburban school districts, on the whole, have more money and better resources than do urban and rural districts. This is largely due to having wealthier tax bases and which means more money pupil. Add to this picture state and federal aid and subsidies based on enrollments which, in many cases, are the same as those received by poorer districts, and the picture gains a clearer focus. Such economic advantages allow the wealthier districts tend to attract higher quality educators and administrators on account of higher salaries, better resources facilities and all the accoutrements poorer districts are simply unable to offer. These districts are also able to offer better educational and student enrichment opportunities than the urban and rural counterparts. Finally, these wealthier districts, on the whole, are comprised almost exclusively of white students.

Urban and rural school districts, by contrast, are generally characterized by poorer tax bases unable to as easily absorb the educational costs as are their suburban counterparts; they tend to have higher student enrollments resulting in lower average funding per pupil; they also have greater costs associated with accommodating the needs of students who are either learning disabled or coping with significant behavioral problems. These three factors, alone, are enough to create an virtually insurmountable disparity in the quality of education between wealthy and poor districts. However, when they are coupled with static or shrinking government aid, the gap widens even further, thus making the prospect of providing equal educational opportunities for all children a virtual impossibility.

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The Secessionst Dilemma: Has Crimea Gone Rogue?

The recent referendum in Crimea, an area in the Ukraine predominantly made up of ethnic Russians, has been decided overwhelmingly in favor of Crimea’s secession from the Ukraine. According to the election results, upwards of 97% of voters approved the measure. If this is true, there seems little doubt that the tiny peninsular region wishes to be absorbed into the Russian Federation. And since the vast majority of Crimeans are ethnically Russian, their ‘right’ to request annexation is fully supported in the motherland.

The question on my mind, and perhaps on the minds of others, is this: At what point, exactly, does it becomes appropriate to vote for secession? When eighty percent of a nation’s population demands it? Ninety percent? A two-thirds majority? A simple majority? What about those who do not wish to secede? How is their fate to be decided and by whom? If secession occurs, should they be made to swear allegiance to the new government? And if they do not wish to, what then?

Obviously, many questions have arisen since the ostensibly autonomous Crimean government announced it was abandoning its allegiance to the Ukraine and seeking accession to the Russian Federation. In addition to the economic ramifications that Crimea’s secession would have on the greater Ukrainian economy (which are likely to be substantial), the social and legal questions raised are also significant. For not only does such a move challenge the nature of Ukrainian sovereignty, it calls into question the very notion of statehood itself.

The concept of state sovereignty represents the idea that a nation’s right to handle its own affairs is absolute. Thus, in all matters affecting that nation, in whole or in part, it should be given complete deference by other nations with respect how it handles those matters. Clearly, this idea of sovereignty does not extend to cases where there are violations of international law (e.g., genocidal campaigns or the commission of other crimes against humanity), as such adversely affects the rights and interests of other nations. Aside from that, however, sovereignty should be respected.

Russia argues that that the heavy ethnic population in Crimea, which is Russian, gives it the right to support secession from the Ukraine. Legally, however, any vote for secession by the autonomous (not separate) Crimean authorities can be vetoed by the Ukrainian government. This power is expressly authorized by their constitution. Hence, under the principle of state sovereignty it is the prerogative of the Ukrainian government to accept or reject any such decision by Crimea. Yet instead, Russia has effectively made this decision by threat of force.

Recent history has witnessed countless examples of governments that were ultimately forced to bend to the will of their populace in the face of rapid and often unprecedented social change. This has served to demonstrate the supreme political axiom that the state is neither infallible nor is it ever beyond the control of the citizenry it serves. In my opinion, the Russian annexation of Crimea is incompatible with the right of a sovereign state like the Ukraine to determine the political future of its own people. By continuing to interfere with this right, Russia is throwing the integrity of this entire process into jeopardy, not to mention the doorway it opens for similar actions in the future.

The world has spent much of the last century trying to undo the mistakes of the previous fifty. Practically every political crises on record has stemmed from one nation meddling in the affairs of another — a maneuver that is almost always calculated to further the interests of the meddlers, not those being meddled with. The time where larger nations should be allowed to arbitrarily disrupt and usurp the legitimate authority of smaller governments, short of seeking to avert an actual humanitarian crises, has passed. By all accounts, championing the plight of Crimea’s ethnic Russians, seems to be a thinly veiled pretext for Russia to not only reclaim portions of its former satellite states, but to also put itself into strategic position for similar actions in the future.

The Ukrainian legal system already has mechanisms in place to deal with political crises like the one in Crimea. The meddling influence of Russian politics, coupled with the presence of Russian troops, only serves to undermine that process, along with Ukrainian sovereignty. This is but another example of how political crises can rarely be solved by subterfuge and threat or use of force. The employment of these methods almost always makes things worse, not better. Such lack of diplomacy, objectivity and reason can only invite further chaos.

In the mid-19th century, a nation went to war with itself over social and economic issues so polarizing that they split country right down the middle politically and geographically. The end result was a four year war — the bloodiest in the nation’s history. It took years to rebuild in the aftermath. Yet today, the republic for which the United States stands is stronger than it ever was during that time. Although it seems the die is already cast in the Crimean peninsula, there is hopefully still time to leave Ukrainian sovereignty intact and allow rule of law to prevail

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Equality of Opportunity: Socio-Economic Building Blocks for a New Generation

True social equality can only be achieved when each member of society finally begins to embrace one another as equal. The notion that the attainment of wealth at any cost, including the life, liberty and dignity of one’s fellow citizen, must be abandoned. Rather, the desire for economic should be made to serve not only one’s personal ambitions, but the greater the good of the community as well. We must strive to create a society wherein all persons can attain social, economic and legal parity. Where people are not only viewed as equals, but are also treated as equals. And by leveling the economic playing field, so to speak, there will be benefits for both the ‘haves’ AND the ‘have-nots’.

We must ensure the right of every individual to be afforded equal protection under the law; to be given the same educational opportunities; to have access to the same economic and job opportunities; to be granted full access to the political process without unjustified government interference. Guaranteeing these rights can only benefit society in the long run. A better educated and more fully-employed citizenry is not only a boon to the national market, it is what every solid economy is built upon. And the best way to achieve this is by providing greater access to education and, consequently, better earnings, particularly in those communities at the lower end of the economic spectrum. This in turn will, over time, not only lessen poverty levels and reduce crime (which is largely a function of economics), but will also reduce the need for social welfare programs that place financial strain on the public fist.

The research on the matter is clear: there is a direct correlation between education level and income. Similarly, there is a direct linkage between the socio-economic status of a community and the level of education it provides to its children. The future of any society always has been, and always will be, dependent upon the success of its children. This is as much a law of nature as it as a staple of social progress. The failure to adhere to this principle has no upside. The willful failure to provide equal economic and educational opportunities for all will only serve to cripple society in the long run.
Instead of building bombs to flatten school buildings in foreign lands, we should be building more and better schools here. Instead of raising an army to fight on foreign soil, we should training an army of teachers to combat illiteracy. Rather than spending billions on corporate subsidies to increase profit margins, we should be investing in job training programs and the economic infrastructure needed to bring our nation into the 21st century.

Yet, despite the boldness of this theory, we are left with the practical question of how it can be accomplished? How do we become a society where everyone is embraced as equal? Where there are the same educational opportunities for every child regardless of income or background? Where the same job opportunities are available to everyone based on solely on their qualifications ? Where the accumulation of wealth is no longer just a function of zip code or family name, but rather of the skill, discipline and ambition necessary to attain it?

We live in a society full of contrasts along ethnic, religious and political lines. Our ideological clashes are a permanent fixture of our daily social experience; a fundamental feature of our way of life. It flows directly from our basic beliefs in free speech and freedom of expression. It reflects the constitutional guarantees that such rights will endure in perpetuity. And it is this very process that is the sacred anvil upon which the iron girdle of our civil liberties was forged.

Everyone deserves to be treated with decency, respect and dignity. Unequal and disparate treatment based on class, race, gender, religion, sexual orientation, political persuasion or economic status is unacceptable in our day and age. It simply must cease. Our collective moral consciousness demands this if we are to continue advancing the boundaries of human society. If we are to live more harmoniously and abundantly as a people, we must recognize that achievement and success for one is a triumph for all; that the enfranchisement of the impoverished and downtrodden segments of society can only result in benefit to the whole. The days of believing that our future lies helplessly within the hands of those gluttonous ‘captains of industry’, whose insatiable cravings for wealth and power have spawned only enslavement and oppression, are at an end. We are surrounded daily with with the insidious effects that unchecked greed has wreaked on our society. There must be a better way and it is imperative that we find it before it is too late.

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New World Order: Military Intervention as a Last Resort for Conflict Resolution

The word ‘peace’ means different things to different people. For some, it conjures images of all the peoples of the world putting aside their differences and joining hands forever in social and political harmony. For some, it simply means the right to live one’s life free from interference by others. Regardless of the specific notion one has about the concept of peace, one thing is clear — on some level it always contemplates the absence of war.

The current crisis in the Ukraine typifies a situation where military intervention by outside forces will only exacerbate an increasingly unstable political and economic situation; more likely to create a humanitarian crisis rather than prevent one. In truth, actual crises of this sort rarely attract the attention of the world’s leading nations, and even less frequently prompt them to act. In recent history, the atrocities committed against the Cambodian people in the 1960s and the Tutsis of Rwanda in the 1990s serve as tragically poignant examples of this. The world’s leaders stood by and did nothing to stop mass genocide even as it unfolded before there very eyes. And while there is no definitive answer as to how or why everyone stood by during those times, one thing is clear: if ever an occasion were appropriate for military intervention, those were such occasions. On the other hand, the current situation in the Ukraine and Crimea, while tense, do not seem to warrant outside military intervention.

It is equally unclear whether Russia’s actions in the Ukraine may, at some point, necessitate a military response by the West (and I don’t believe it does). The answer to this question requires a different sort of analysis. The first question to be asked is whether or not Russia’s transparent efforts to swing the political leanings of the tiny nation inits favor has, in itself, created a humanitarian crisis. Because if not, the resultant political turmoil and unrest will ultimately resolve itself one way or the other. And regardless of how distasteful that outcome might to the political ideologies of the West, there is scant justification for military action over such differences. After all, if we are going to be so insistent that Russia not be allowed to further her political ambitions, or ‘empire’, on the grounds that they are depriving the liberty of those who support a more democratic form of government, than would not our meddling in their affairs not be doing the exact same thing to those in the Ukraine, and specifically in Crimea, who desire to live under the Russian flag?

Ultimately, the prudent use of economic and political sanctions should carry the day. Even a nation as renegade and stalwart as Russia has within her borders many who understand the importance of global political and economic partnership as essential to the survival and perpetuation of modern nations. My sincere hope is that cooler heads will prevail in order to obtain a diplomatic solution to put an end to the current crisis in the Ukraine.

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Separationomics: Economic Segregation in 21st Century America

According to the US Census Bureau, the median annual income of white families was 75% greater than that of black families in 2012. This means that for every $1000 earned by white families, black families only brought home $600 by comparison. The income gap between black and white Americans is substantial and has remained largely the same since at least the late 1960s — when the Census Bureau first began collecting income data. In 1972, the median annual income for black families was just under $29,145 (in 2012 dollars), while in 2012 it was estimated at $33,718. Compare this to the median annual income for white families during those same periods, $50,644 (in 2012 dollars) and $57,009 respectively, and a very disparate picture begins to emerge of the relative economic status between the two racial groups. And although neither black nor white families have seen significant increases in median income over the last 40 years, white families have clearly enjoyed substantially greater incomes than those of their black counterparts. Over time, this difference increases exponentially.

To illustrate this point, imagine two families, one black, one white, who devoted 10 percent of their respective annual incomes into modest investments (6% annual return) from the forty year period between 1972 and 2012 (the average length of most careers). After forty years, the black family would have earned just over $537K, the white family just over $884K. Thus their average wealth gap at retirement would be just over $350K (an amount equal to that of a single-family home (in most states), a couple of brand new cars, student loans, maybe even a summer home, etc.) Further, if we were to add this amount to the difference in overall income during that forty year period, an even starker contrast emerges since the white family will have earned over $900K more than the black family. And when you add this to the difference in investment earnings above (taking into account, of course, the 10% of income devoted to such), the overall income gap widens to a staggering $1.15M!

It should be noted that the term ‘median annual income’ does not represent the actual income of every family, but rather average overall income for all families in that category. Thus, it does not show the distribution of income, which varies widely between families. As such, it does not address the issue of poverty, for while a certain percentage of families may be at or above the median income level, there are many who fall beneath it — far beneath. For example, in 2012, 13% of all black families in the U.S. (i.e., 1 out of every 7) had annual incomes equal or less to half the amount of the federal poverty threshold (which, for a family of four was approximately $23,000 that year). This means that, on average, 13% of all black families in America lived on annual incomes $11,500 or less. In contrast, only 4% of white families (1 out of every 25) lived at or below such income levels. Meanwhile, on the other end of the income spectrum, 75% of white families (3 out of every 4) had incomes that were at least double, or greater than, the federal poverty level (i.e., more than $46,000 per year for a family of four). Less than half than half of all black families managed to achieve such income levels in America in 2012.

Admittedly, statistical data can be hard to analyze as it seems, at times, susceptible to endless interpretations by its user. However, I believe that the analysis above not only represents a fair reading of the data, but coincides with everyday economic realities. It is beyond dispute that black Americans own fewer homes (with far less value, on average), drive fewer and less expensive vehicles, work more menial and lower-paying jobs (and when in positions of employment comparable to their white counterparts, are compensated significantly less on average), and have relatively far more limited access to both personal and commercial forms of credit than do white Americans.

And though my analysis is not intended to be a wholesale indictment of white America, it is a critique of an American society which still, as a whole, continues to deny financial and economic opportunity to most minorities, especially those who are black, reserving the better and the best for the majority. The reasons for this are both historical and varied and would require a much more in-depth analysis to explicate here. Indeed, countless books have been written on the subject. Yet, as each new generation becomes part of America’s workforce, the prospects for young minority men and women do not appear to be getting any better. One of the contributing factors to this is the disparity in the quality of education between whites and other minorities. But that is a subject for another discussion.

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Condemn the Act, Not the Actor

A small group of students from nearby Mahopac High School were recently suspended after school officials learned they had posted racial slurs on Twitter about students from rival Mount Vernon High School. The offending students are white, their targets black. The tweets were apparently posted after a confrontation between the fans of shcools’ two opposing basketball teams during a postseason game.

The comments at the heart of the controversy included statements like:
“2, 4, 6, 8, most of them won’t graduate,” (a reference to the mostly racial minority’s poor-performing school district); “One of the few biological fathers in Mount Vernon just tried to sell me crack outside of the county center,” ; “Thats why you shouldn’t let monkeys out of their cages #mtvernonzoo,” (an age-old analogy that presumably purports to compare African-Americans to primates indigenous to the lands from which they were stolen during the American slave trade); “Tough loss boys but at least we can talk to our dads about it #mtvernon.”

As disconcerting as these comments might seem to some, they are tragically all too common in today’s parlance. Still, this is small comfort to those on the receiving end of such inflammatory remarks. And so it seems that the spectre of racism, hate and bigotry has once again raised its ghastly head, reminding us that, in the real world, old habits die hard, and old stereotypes even harder.

As to the substance of the comments made, it should be noted that the belief that most black children do not know their biological father is untrue. Unfortunately, it has become common practice, among black and white critics alike, to attribute many, if not most, of today’s social ills to the increasing incidence of what are pejoratively labelled ‘broken homes’ (i.e., single-parent households). Apparently, such homes are to blame for things such as poor student performance, low graduation rates, teen pregnancy, juvenile delinquency, increased numbers of social welfare recipients, etc. Supporters of this view equate single-parent parenting with ineffective parenting or, at the very least, inferior to households where both parents are present.

At the very least, these assumptions are questionable. Like most of us I’m sure, I have a number of friends who are as successful in business as they were in school and who, coincidentally, are also products of a single-parent home. Additionally, such an analysis is flawed to the extent it mistakes causes for conditions and vice versa. Single-parent households are not the cause of social breakdown, rather it is the other way around. This is particularly true in the case of African-Americans households. The nearly irreparable harm caused to the black nuclear family by the institution of slavery, coupled with crippling poverty, political and social disenfranchisement have all contributed to the lack of social and economic stability in the African-American community at large.

Thus, it is not hard to see why insensitive comments made by the Mahopac students are particularly jarring. The truth is that, as with every community, African-Americans struggle with their fair share of social problems, some would even say disproportionately so. Yet, far from being attributable to single-parent households, or some form of ‘moral deficiency’ , this breakdown is primarily a function of social, political and economic forces that have been and continue to be outside their control. That being said, I would argue that the students who made this hurtful comments are victims of a sort themselves as many of them, it could likely be said, come from homes that are ‘broken’ in other ways. Homes that are afflicted with the social epidemics of bigotry, racism and hatred. Their incendiary remarks about African-Americans were more likely a function of both an intolerant home environment and a media which, all too often, casts African-Americans in a negative light. Thus, one could almost say these students had about as much choice in adopting their racist views as they did in being born. It is society that is on trial here, not the children which have been born into it.

And while this does not excuse the students for their actions, I believe it does allow us to condemn those actions without having to condemn the actors. Otherwise tolerant and fair-minded people often say ignorant things not because they are racists or bigots, per se, but because they are human beings who, like the rest of us, are prone to the occasional out-of-character outburst. This is particularly true when dealing with adolescents who, more often than not, are merely parroting what they hear at home.

Again, I am not suggesting that the comments made by these students go unaddressed. Clearly they must be held accountable for their actions if we are to set and example that such conduct has no place in our 21st century dialogue. But our goal should not be simply to chastise, but also to educate. The same hateful milieu that filled the minds of these adolescents with such harmful ideologies and then taught them that it was okay to express such against their fellow citizens, will continue to do so until it is changed. And that change will only come only by educating and enlightening those those still trapped inside.

Punishing a fool for acting on his own folly does nothing to discourage its repetition. Educating him, however, gives him the tools he needs to change such behavior. By doing this, we can illuminate those corners of society that still remain in the darkness of bigotry and hate, thereby encouraging them to step into the light of true tolerance, love and brotherhood one mind at a time.

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‘Motive to Lie’ (chapter 1 of my upcoming novel)

“She didn’t go easily…”

A heavy mist hovered over the dreary scene like a dark harbinger of the grim events unfolding. It was only drizzling now, but it had been raining hard for half of the night. Detective John O’Leary quietly surveyed the murky scene. The young woman’s corpse lay mired in the mud and muck, unceremoniously discarded by some foul predator. The heavy rains had likely washed away any evidence the killer may have left behind. It would be up to the forensics team to find and preserve any traces that were still left. Now began the arduous take of piecing together what had taken place; to recreate the events leading up this young lady’s tragic and unfortunate demise in order to determine how it had happened and by whom. And the surest way to accomplish this was to figure out why.

Of course, this was not how O’Leary planned to spend his evening. He had just settled down in front of the fireplace, glass of bourbon in hand, awaiting the arrival of a lady friend, when he got the call to come in. He was scheduled to be off for the next three days and he was planning on making the most of it. But fate, it seemed, had made other plans. It was his second murder in the past month, which was unusual for the small town of Railwood. While commonplace in the big cities, murders were rare in the sleepy suburb. Regardless of this fact, however, he had a job to do and so do it he would. It was going to be a long night.

“Evening, Mike.” O’Leary said to the uniformed officer assigned to watch the body.

“Evening, Detective.”

“What do we have here?” O’Leary pulled out his pen and pad.

“White female, mid- to late- thirties, blond hair, blue eyes. It appears that she was beaten, stabbed, strangled, the works. Her photo ID identifies her as Joanne Tunney. She was found by some hikers a couple of kids hiking. They’re over in the patrol vehicle.”

“Cause of death?” O’Leary asked as he scribbled away on his pad.

“No official word from the coroner yet, but preliminary assessment points to strangulation. She’s got ligature marks around her neck.”

“Time of death?”

“Nothing firm yet, detective,” replied the officer, “but the M.E. initially places it somewhere between yesterday afternoon and last night based upon lividity and liver temp.”

Still buried in his notepad, O’Leary asked, “Has the family been notified?”

“Not yet, detective. We are still trying to find her next of kin.”

O’Leary stopped writing and looked up at the officer. “What do you mean still trying? Didn’t you say her driver’s license was found on her? Motor vehicles should have her emergency contact info. They can pull it up in five minutes.”

“No, detective, I did not say she had her driver’s license on her, I said a she had a photo ID.”

“Huh?” O’Leary shot the officer a quizzical look.

“You see, this is where it gets a little strange detective,” the officer continued. “The photo ID we found on her was her juror ID from five years ago.

Putting his pen down briefly, O’Leary looked up from his notepad and said “That’s odd.” Looking back down at his pad, O’Leary continued scribbling. “Anything else I should be aware of?”

“That’s basically it, detective,” the officer said. “Although the coroner did say that the murder probably occurred somewhere else. Looks like the body was dumped here. I checked with the desk sergeant and there have been no reports of recent suspicious activity in the area so I guess you’ll be working this one from scratch.”

O’Leary looked up smiling. “How very thorough of you, Officer Mike.”

The officer winked at O’Leary. “I wanna be like you some day, detective.” Both men laughed.

“Well,” O’Leary said, putting his pen and pad away, “Keep up the good work and some day you will.”

“Thanks, detective,” the officer said. “Now, if it’s okay with you, I’m gonna leave now. The wife is waiting.”

“By all means, please get home to the family.” O’Leary replied. “Oh, and if you wouldn’t mind given me the heads up when get the victim’s contact information.”

“Will do, detective.” The officer disappeared into the night.

A command tent had been set up several yards from the crime scene, where the usual ‘bigwigs’ all huddled beneath. As O’Leary headed over to greet them, digesting and absorbing the information he had learned so far, his mind focused in on the curious fact that the only piece of identification she had was an old juror’s badge. Was that significant or merely circumstance? Did it mean anything? Nothing? Everything?

Huddled beneath the Medical Examiner’s mobile unit tent stood the County Coroner Frank Haynes, Assistant District Attorney Marlena Vandercroft and the Chief of Detectives Lou Galgari. Standing over a table looking at various pieces of evidence, they all looked up as O’Leary came in.

“Evening gentlemen…and lady.” O’Leary nodded his head toward the assistant DA.

“Evening, detective,” Chief Galgari replied. “Counselor,” Galgari turned toward the assistant D.A., “I’d like you to meet Railwood P.D.’s finest, detective John O’Leary. He will be taking the lead in this investigation.”

“Nice to meet you detective,” the assistant D.A. said, extending her hand. “I’m Marlena Vandercroft.”

“Ms. Vandercroft will be handling this matter for the District Attorney’s office,” the Galgari said.

“John O’Leary and the pleasure is all mine, counselor.” O’Leary smiled cordially. This would be a first for him. The first time he would take lead in a homicide investigation. The first time he would be working with a female prosecutor.

“How long have you been working homicide, detective?” asked Vandercroft. He could tell that she was sizing him up.

“Three years,” O’Leary’s replied shortly. He was used to being the one asking the questions.

“Is this your first time as lead?” she pressed.

“Yes it is,” O’Leary replied somewhat sheepishly.

“How many homicides have you worked before this one, detective?”

“Around fifteen, maybe sixteen.” He felt himself becoming slightly annoyed.

It was, of course, standard procedure for the D.A.’s office to have an assistant on-call for homicide duty. The rationale there, from the D.A.’s perspective at least, was that having an assistant on-hand to advise the investigators from the outset minimizes the possibility of legal errors down the line. Of course, some prosecutors chose to take a more ‘hands-on’ approach (or more of a ‘meddling approach, ‘as the Chief liked to put it) than others, but O’Leary did not mind that so long as they did not hamper his ability to do his job. What he did mind, though, was being interrogated about his credentials.

“And do you-?”

“Well, counselor,” O’Leary interrupted “While I would love to sit here and trade stories with you, I have a dead body and a crime scene to attend to. I will submit my findings to you in the initial report and can talk more then.”

With a smile, O’Leary turned to the coroner and said, “So what can you tell me about the cause of death, Frank?”

Looking as though her credit card had just been rejected, Vandercroft swallowed softly and attempted to regain her composure. Chief Galgari noticed this and stifled a laugh. On the inside, his head was shaking with approval. He had taught O’Leary well.

Frank Haynes had been the Wilson County coroner for nearly twenty years, a fact perhaps belied by his light countenance and pleasant demeanor belied this fact. Now in his late fifties, he had started with the Medical Examiner’s office straight out of his medical residency. By and large, he enjoyed his work and was exceptionally skilled at it. He had worked with O’Leary’s father (William O’Leary) when he was on the job and John had known him since he was a kid. Now as a homicide detective, he worked well with Haynes.

“Well, John,” Haynes began, “the preliminaries on the victim’s body indicate that she was beaten with a blunt object, stabbed several times in the torso area and then asphyxiated with some sort of wire or possibly a rope, as the indicated by the ligature marks around her neck. The cause of death, at this point, appears to be strangulation.”

O’Leary had once again whipped out his pen and notepad and began furiously taking notes. “Do you have an estimated time of death, Frank?”

Looking down at his own notes, Haynes replied, “Based on her liver temperature, my initial assumption would be that she was killed sometime between yesterday afternoon and last night. However, given the fact that the outside temperature has risen above fifty degrees since this morning, time of death could be as late as early this morning, give or take.”

“In either event, she didn’t do easily,” Haynes continued, “The attacker took his time. First, he delivered a brutal beating to her face, chest and torso, as the fractures and bruising to her facial bones and chest area denote. These injuries are consistent with blows from a blunt instrument, such as a club or a lead pipe – possibly even a fist.”

Continuing, Haynes said, “Next, the attacker must have used either a knife or some other sharp instrument to inflict numerous stab wounds to the victim’s torso. The majority of the stab wounds were concentrated in the center of her chest and upper abdomen area. The direction of the stab wounds seems to also indicate that the killer was either standing or kneeling over the victim while stabbing her.”

O’Leary scribbled fiercely in his notepad, not once looking up from the page. As his brain absorbed the coroner’s information like a sponge and he began forming a mental image of the gruesome scene, a portrait of the twisted killer slowly came into focus.

“While he was doing all this,” the coroner continued, “he must have had her restrained with rope or perhaps some type of nylon product like pantyhose or something. This is indicated by the ligature marks found around her ankles, wrists and neck.”

“Any signs of sexual assault?” O’Leary queried.

“The preliminary assessment does not indicate any sexual trauma,” Haynes replied. “There were no obvious signs of bruising in the vaginal area. However, a rape kit was performed and has been sent to the lab for testing. We’ll know more when we get the results.”

“Please, let me know as soon as they come in.” O’Leary requested.

“Sure thing,” said Haynes before continuing. “Now, I’m listing the cause of death as asphyxiation. More specifically, she was strangled by whatever her attacker used to restrain her. This is evidenced by the petechial hemorrhaging around the pupils or her eyes.” The coroner paused briefly. “And finally, there is one last dark twist to this story.”

For the first time, O’Leary looked up from his notepad.

“In most of the cases I have seen where a victim was beaten and stabbed the way this poor young girl had been, strangulation almost always occurs by hand. Here, however, the evidence suggests that after tying the ligature around the victim’s neck, the killer then hoisted her off the ground, perhaps by throwing it over a tree branch or a metal bar of some sort, and let her hang until she died, some twenty to thirty minutes later.”

O’Leary stood there quietly, momentarily reflecting on this information, before looking back down at his note pad. Continuing to write and without looking up, O’Leary asked the coroner, “Can you tell me whether she was killed here or are we looking for another crime scene, Frank?”

“I would say,” Haynes replied, “that based on the lack of any blood evidence or signs of a struggle in the immediate vicinity, she was probably killed somewhere else and then dumped here. But the tech guys can fill you in on those details.”

“Ok, thanks, Frank.” O’Leary said, once again sheathing his pen and pad. “Give my regards to the Mrs., will ya?”

“I will, John,” Haynes replied. “She keeps asking me when you’re coming by for dinner…” the coroner said expectantly.

“Tell her, soon!” O’Leary replied as he turned to address Galgari. “Chief, I’ll have my initial report on your desk as soon as I finish interviewing the witnesses and the trace evidence team. I’d also like the opportunity to get first crack at any of the victim’s relatives as soon as they are located, if you don’t mind?”

“That’s fine, John.” Galgari responded in typically taciturn fashion. “Just make sure you get me that report by noon tomorrow, as I’ll need it for the press briefing. And make sure you track the family down before the press gets wind of her identity – I don’t need this poor woman’s family learning about her death from the evening news. And I don’t need the public thinking the media is already two steps ahead of us in this investigation!”

In an effort to assure Galgari that he was on top of things, O’Leary replied in his most convincing tone, “Understood, Chief. I will have my report to you before noon tomorrow”

“You’ll be reporting directly to Lieutenant Bosley on this.” Galgari continued.

O’Leary winced at those words.

“I want him debriefed on this case first thing tomorrow morning.” Galgari stated.

“Yes sir, Chief.” O’Leary said.

“Now I know this is your first time as lead on a case, John. But if you’re anything like your old man, and I believe that you are, God rest his soul, then you’re gonna do just fine.” Galgari smiled, but then cautioned, “But understand that I am responsible for the overall tenor of this investigation. I am also the public face of this department. And this means that you have to do everything by the book. And this also means that there will be no talking to the press unless I authorize it directly. Are we clear, detective?”

“Yes sir, Chief. We are crystal clear on that,” O’Leary affirmed, recalling the last time he had an ‘off-the-record’ conversation with a local news reporter, without departmental authorization, and the fiasco that turned into.

“You look so much like him, ya know?” Galgari suddenly reminisced. “Your father was a fine man and a great detective. What I wouldn’t do to have another cop like Bill O’Leary on my squad. Now run along, John, and don’t disappoint me.”

“I won’t sir.” O’Leary replied. “And thank you for your words. My father always looked up to you.”

“Very well then, detective. You have your work cut out for you so get to it.” Glancing aside at the assistant D.A., Galgari said, “Vandercroft here will be your contact with the D.A.’s office. And she has assured me that she will make herself and the resources of her office available to us for use in our investigation as much as possible. And I have assured her that we will do the same.”

“Very well, Chief.” O’Leary said, “And again, thank you for this opportunity.”

The chief nodded in return.

Turning away, O’Leary thrust his pen and his pad back into his jacket. Although it was still early fall, the temperature had made its usual dip into the rather unseasonable pre-winter cold. It had been raining earlier that night and so a dank chill hung in the air. The scene was dark and foreboding as the early morning mist began to gather around the body.

The surrounding terrain was a marshy mix of woodlands, deep ravines and swampy lowlands. The vast countryside extended for miles into rolling hills covered with a mix of dense forest and sporadic clearings. It was truly a hiker’s paradise for as far as the eye could see. A person could disappear into the wooded regions for days without encountering anything remotely resembling civilization. Of course, it was that very same feature of this natural paradise that appealed to the occasional miscreant endeavoring to conceal a wrongdoing or the evidence thereof. In this case, that evidence was in the form of the body of Joanne Tunney.

Arguably, Ms. Tunney’s killer, while going to some lengths to conceal her body, did not go to any great lengths to do so. She was found barely twenty-five feet from a public roadway and only ten feet from the footpath that the hikers who found her were traversing. This fact in it itself raised considerable questions about the personality of the killer, his motivation, his knowledge of the area and how the body might have gotten there. These questions were the starting point for O’Leary’s investigation and he needed answers – fast! Well aware that the statistical likelihood of apprehending a murder suspect dropped exponentially after the first forty-eight hours of the investigation, he was up against the clock and time was not on his side. He already knew, based on the coroner’s report, that she had been dead for at least twelve hours, possible as many as twenty-four. This left O’Leary with a day and a half at best, and the clock was not going to stop ticking.

Producing a cigar from within the folds of his overcoat, O’Leary bit off the end and lit the fine-smelling stogie. Finally locating one of the evidence techs, one whom he did not recognize, O’Leary pulled him aside and said, “Hi, I’m Detective John O’Leary, pleasure to meet you.” Always cordial at first blush, O’Leary smiled and extended his hand, the glow from his cherry-tipped cigar casting a dim, rosy pallor on his face.

The tech looked up from the notepad he had been scribbling on and shoved his pen behind his ear. “Pleased to meet you as well.” said the tech, smiling “I’m Vincent Gorman. I just transferred here from Metro PD last month.”

“Oh,” O’Leary responded. “Well, welcome to Railwood. What made you decide to leave the big city and come all the way out here?”

“Well, you see,” Gorman began. “My wife and I had just had our second baby and we thought it best to move out of the city and into the ‘burbs. I heard about the vacancy here in Railwood P.D. through a friend and so I applied. I have to admit, I do appreciate the easier pace out here. And it’s nice to see my family more often, as well.”

“Sounds like it was a good move, then.” O’Leary responded. “I did a stint in Metro P.D. myself when I first got on the job. After a few years, though, I came back here.”

“Yearning for the peace and quiet for the suburbs?” Gorman asked.

“Yeah, I suppose that was part of it. I got hurt on the job and the wife wanted me to quit police work altogether. We compromised — I came here.” Although not usually this open with strangers, O’Leary found himself oddly at ease with the tech.

“I suppose that made the Mrs. happy enough, eh?” Gorman asked. “I mean, after all, marriage really is about compromise, right detective?”

At any other time and place, such a question would not have given O’Leary a moment’s pause. Yet, for some reason he could not put his finger on, Gorman’s question pierced his soul like an arrow. He was suddenly trapped in a moment of perplexity and reflection. A thousand blurry images of a life, long since passed, that became undone before his very eyes, a dismantling which he was powerless to prevent, pulsed feverishly through his brain. As it turned out, the move to the suburbs did not save O’Leary’s marriage, but rather hastened its demise. His new found free time, and the new found ‘opportunities’ that it afforded, proved to be more harmful to the relationship than the mean city streets ever could have.

Awaking from this melancholy reflection, O’Leary managed to mutter, “Yes, I suppose it is now, isn’t it?” However, he did not wish to discuss this subject further.

Sensing this, Gorman shifted back to the matter at hand. “At any rate, detective, I’m sure this comes as no surprise to you, but from what I’ve been able to determine so far, our victim was not killed here.”

“Yeah, that seems to be the consensus.” O’Leary said. “What else can you tell me?”

“Well,” continued Gorman, “because of the rain, we have been unable so far to find any usable fingerprints on the victim, but that may change when we examine the body back at headquarters. We did collect two hair samples that appear to be different from the victim’s hair. Those samples have been packaged and sent to the lab for DNA testing. We found minimal scrapings from beneath the victim’s fingernails and have sent those for testing as well. Other than that, the crime scene is pretty clean. There were no vehicle tracks leading to or from the crime scene, other than those of the emergency vehicles. And the lack of any drag marks means she was likely carried to the location from a vehicle nearby. Additionally, the combination of last night’s rain and the semi-rugged terrain out here makes finding any shoe or footprint evidence virtually impossible. Thus, from an evidentiary standpoint, detective, there just isn’t much here.”

O’Leary continued to quietly jot his notes as he mulled over the new details. He was already frustrated by the lack of physical evidence. How is it that the perpetrator was able to get in and out of here without a trace? And how did he transport the body to this location? As at the start of any investigation, there were many unanswered questions. This was par for the course. But something about this particular homicide seemed different. And although he couldn’t yet put his finger on it, his gut was telling him that something was off.

Putting his pen and pad away, O’Leary thanked Gorman for his time while reminding the tech, “I will reach out to you later to follow up on those test results.”

“Sure thing, detective,” said Gorman. “It was a pleasure meeting you.”

Having gleaned all the forensic information that he could (for now, at least), O’Leary set out on the next phase of the investigations: talking to the witnesses. It was statistical fact that reporters of crimes often have information vital to the investigation as they are usually the ones first one the scene before the police and emergency personnel have had a chance to contaminate it (try as they may to preserve the scene’s integrity). And in the age of digital cameras and smart phones, witnesses oftentimes have recorded audio-visual evidence of crimes and crime scenes that prove extremely valuable in the ensuing investigation. Unfortunately, that was not the case in this instance.

The hikers who found the body Ms. Tunney were college students simply out for a fun day of hiking and exploring the forested countryside. According to their account, they had entered the woods at that location at approximately ten o’clock that morning and noticed nothing unusual at that time. After spending all day and some of the evening hiking, they exited the woods at the same spot. That’s when they saw the young woman’s body, partially covered in brush, laying about ten or so feet off to the side of the well-worn footpath.

The pair was still visibly shaken when O’Leary approached them. “Good evening, my name is detective John O’Leary and I’m with the Railwood PD. How are you doing this evening?”

The two nodded and smiled in return. They were both about nineteen or twenty years of age. The male stood approximately five feet, six inches tall and the female several inches shorter. Based on their size, O’Leary did not consider them likely to have been involved in the crime. Still, he made no assumptions. It would not be the first time that the one reporting the crime was also the perpetrator.

“So, can I get your names, just for my records?” O’Leary asked, whipping out his pen and pad.

“Brian Scott,” the young man said.

“Debbie Wood,” the despondent young woman replied.

“And you two are both students at the University?” O’Leary asked.

“Yes, sir,” Brian replied. “We are both sophomores.”

“Okay,” O’Leary said, continuing to take notes. “Now, you told the other officer that the body wasn’t there when you first entered the woods this morning, is that correct?”

“Yes sir,” Brian replied again.

“And you’re positive about that?” O’Leary asked.

Again Brian replied, “Yes, detective, I’m positive.” The young woman was clearly still too upset to respond.

Continuing to press them on the point, O’Leary asked, “Is it possible that her body was there this morning and you just didn’t see it? That maybe you just missed it?”

“No, detective, I’m sure that it, er…she…” The young man cast a forlorn gaze in the direction of the body before continuing. “I’m sure she wasn’t there when we first got here this morning.”

“How can you be so sure?” O’Leary asked.

“Because she would have been impossible to miss,” Brian responded, his frustration mounting. “When we first got here, we parked in that grass clearing over there, not far from where the body is. Before we hit the trails, I remember that I sat on the hood of my car to make sure my boot laces were secure. I was facing in the direction of where we later found her body. I would have seen her if she was there. Believe me, she wasn’t there!”

O’Leary sighed in frustration. It had been a long night and a chill was beginning to set in. The young hikers had apparently given all the information that they could for now. It was pointless to press them. Besides, they looked like they were on the verge of collapsing themselves, so O’Leary let them go on their way. He could always contact them later if needed, for although there appeared to be no obvious connection between them and the victim, it was far too early in the investigation to rule out the possibility.

“Well, I thank you both for your time.” O’Leary said. “You’ve been very helpful. Here’s my card. If you think of anything further, don’t hesitate to contact me.”

As Debbie buried her sobbing eyes into her companion’s chest, Brian’s parting words to O’Leary were simply, “Who could do such a thing detective?” It would be quite some time before the two young college students got over the shock of what they witnessed that evening. The image of a dead woman, cut down in the prime of her promising young life, was now permanently etched in their minds.

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