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Monday, December 22, 2003

To my four readers...

...and you know who you are. I am busy handling Christmas-season matters, as well as work. Sadly, my job requires more attention than usual, since I'm going home for Dec. 24-28. I'll post parts 5 and 6 (6 should be the end) probably in 2 weeks. Have a Merry Christmas and Happy Holidays!

Monday, December 15, 2003

Installment #4:

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IV.

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Creekstone pulled out five pages, collected together by a paper clip. The cover page was the one that the Kansas City Department of Corrections issued for all evidence. “Buchanan No. 03-4908. Pages (including cover page): 5; Description: purported internet chat between Buchanan and unknown South Carolina woman.”

The police printed the files from Steven’s Gateway desktop computer. Apparently, during questioning, Steven related the story of the woman he visited. He spent the relevant days chasing that woman across the country and into another state. Of course, he never met her (again, he provided no name), but he swore that he talked with her. He gave permission to the detectives to search his computer, to locate the conversations he had with the girl. The permission turned out to be worthless, since a local district judge granted the search warrant about thirty minutes after the police completed their conversation with Steven. When the detectives searched the computer, they found only one document that did not appear to come with the installed software.

Although the computer probably had seen many winters in the Buchanan household – Steven said his father gave it to him about a month ago – the hard drive apparently had been reformatted. Actually, it had been reformatted twice. In later questioning, Steven claimed he had to carry out the reformatting because of a virus that he kept allowing onto the primary hard drive. For whatever reason, though, one document remained. The one document was in a TXT format; it could have been created by any of thousands of otherwise innocent programs: Microsoft Word, Wordperfect, Word Pad, Note Pad, or essentially any other program on the market. Spreadsheet programs allow their user to save in TXT. The Meetup.com website also allowed one to record internet chats in such a format.

Robert flipped past the first page and saw the photograph of Steven’s diversion. She was blonde, blue-eyed, attractive, and seemingly wafer-thin. Her teeth appeared to be perfect, as did most elements of her face. Robert remembered back to a cheap study on CNN that quantified the characteristics of an attractive face. The number one factor was symmetry. Most people possess one eye on each side of the nose, in roughly the same place as its partner. The mouths normally don’t sag over too far in one direction or another. The uber-beautiful, however, have perfectly symmetrical features. When people labeled a supermodel or a particular picture as the “most beautiful,” they unwittingly acknowledged the difference of a few tenths of a millimeter. This girl possessed those kinds of features.

Robert wondered whether he had seen that girl or that photograph previously. The username reflected self-awareness and the girl’s probable level of humility: HotChik882. Steven employed an equally subtle username: BigStud76. Robert winced at the idea of resting his entire defense on this alleged conversation. The entire give-and-take seemed vacuous and focused on one thing. Steven, conveniently, had included no photograph of himself. HotChik, ever the finicky shopper, wanted to know something about him. Steven proceeded to describe someone approximately a foot taller, fifty pounds heavier (all muscle), and black.

Robert snorted and shook his head, as he thought about the skinnier and paler version of BigStud that he had met. HotChik seemed quite interested and told Steven where and when he could meet her. She claimed to have a summer beach-like house in Columbia and invited him to “have some fun.” In all, the conversation might have taken a half an hour to consummate. Robert couldn’t believe that people went through this much trouble to have meaningless sex. Surely a bar or club nearby would allow pathetic people like this to meet. Then again, those people would actually see who they were meeting ahead of time. That would be a problem for the long-haired, bearded Steven. Guys like him usually didn’t attract women who looked like HotChik.

As it happened, Steven did not actually meet the girl of his obscene dreams. According to him, the address that she gave took him to a beach-side 7-11. He said that he waited, in the car, for at least a day. He returned the car to his father at the end of the weekend.

Frustratingly, Steven did not bother to keep any records of his trip. He paid for everything in cash and threw away any of those receipts. He told Robert that he had destroyed any paper trail out of a fear of being humiliated. That seemed reasonable to Robert. He felt humiliated having to use this sad state of affairs as his primary defense.

Still, he reminded himself, it was a consistent, coherent story. Nobody doubted that Steven exhibited all the standard traits of a loser. Robert knew he could drag five or six witnesses onto the stand to testify about Steven’s lack of success in finding a date. He could probably find another three people to emphasize that Steven was not violent. According to the parents, the one girl who ever went out on a date with Steven complained that he was too boring. The prosecution did not have much. It couldn’t disprove Steven’s story. It seemed too pathetic to make up, from the outset, as an alibi. “I couldn’t have killed that girl, your honor. I was meeting my imaginary girlfriend.”

Robert stood up from his swivel, synthetic-covered chair. He walked into the kitchen of Fogg & Associates and opened the refrigerator. Like most firms, Fogg continuously supplied its employees with chemical stimulants. The higher-end firms nowadays provide fancy individualized espresso and latte drinks. One place even had some elaborate contraption that, at the push of a button, would grind, brew, and pour an individual cup of coffee. Fogg lacked the prestige and accompanying funds for anything more than regular coffee and cases of soda. Creekstone pulled a regular Coke and a Diet Coke from the fridge. He emptied them both into one large mug, labeled “T.C. Williams Law Review.” He had transported the mug, from Virginia, in his carry-on luggage. He brought the mixture of dilluted sugar and undilluted caffeine back to his office and thought more about the prosecution’s case.

Despite Robert’s assessment that the state had little in the way of evidence, he would have to deal with three items: blood in the car, hair in the car, and the identifying testimony of the hotel clerk. Those three pieces, combined with Steven’s horrible explanation, would make winning an acquittal more difficult. Additionally, for this crime, Steven just looked guilty. Obviously, normal people did not molest and kill young girls. That alone took Steven’s eccentricities and magnified them. In another context, he would just be a loner, a bachelor, or a pitiful homeless man. Robert felt confident that he could explain away each piece of the prosecution’s case.

The hair and blood probably were from Janette. The subsequent DNA tests came up with a 98% match. Robert thought of two ways to attack that, though. Steven claimed that his father had taken Janette to a summer camp once and even ferried her from school on occasion. In the midst of such transport, she probably had a bag with her, and that bag undoubtedly was placed in the trunk. The hairs probably just fell off of a brush. That would explain the few hairs.

The blood was tougher. Again, though, Robert thought of a line of questions to ask the forensic scientist and Steven’s dad. He would ask how much blood was left in the car. He knew that it was spread out, but it probably wasn’t that much, in terms of volume. It probably wasn’t enough blood to come from a gaping wound or major cut. It could have come from a little scrape or abrasion on the thumb or wrist that was just pressed, in the right way, against the inside of the trunk. If someone had fallen earlier in the day or even cut oneself on the metal from the trunk, that blood might get into the fiber– especially if you were reaching in to pick up something – like, say, a bag. There was a completely innocent explanation for both items. Sure, they could have gotten there from a dead body, but wouldn’t more evidence have been left? If someone wanted to clean up the trunk, wouldn’t that person have noticed the hairs and the small red spot?

Robert smiled when he thought about what to do to the hotel clerk. Eyewitness testimony has always been notoriously unreliable. At least, this is what is told to every second-year law student who takes evidence. Robert, as a defense attorney, readily agreed with that assessment. He wondered if he could pack his side of the courtroom with truck drivers: bearded, long-haired, and saturated with amphetamines. He imagined that he could find at least five to ten people who would look reasonably like Steven. He would ask the clerk if he was certain that the person in that hotel was that man at the table. Everyone would look at the table, and they would gasp. The two rows behind the bar would be full of similarly-looking individuals. Heck, maybe he could even dress them like Steven. If the judge disallowed the stunt, Robert might still ask about the usual details: the bad lighting in the hotel, the clerk’s poor vision, the fact that he had to look through a two-inch plexiglass screen to see the customers. The clerk’s identification of Steven’s voice was even more suspect.

Nothing in the case connected Steven directly to Janette. No one could positively say that Steven’s car traveled to that hotel. Steven never confided any double-secret plans to his friends. They only knew about the HotChik.

Robert flipped back to the photograph of the girl. He kept wondering if he had seen her picture before, somehow, somewhere. The picture did not originate from a digital camera. It was slightly off-color, and part of the border was frayed. The photo had some kind of dark spot in the upper left corner, as if it had been crumpled in the corner before it was scanned. It only showed her body to her shoulders. The shoulders showed two small straps that probably were to a dress. Robert couldn’t tell. He began wondering what she’d look like without those straps, and then the similarity hit him. He turned his chair to face his office laptop and typed in a website. His finger maneuvered the eraser-sized- mouse and its accompanying cursor. Within four minutes, he located the photograph of HotChik. He groaned like one who tripped and fell onto the back of a folding chair. The person normally associated with the picture was Monique Dore. The image came from a Victoria’s Secret catalogue. Robert dropped his forehead onto his desk and wondered if anyone would believe Steven’s story.

Anyone could have created the dialogue, using any common word processor. The picture, obviously, could have been faked. The entire computer hard drive had been deleted – twice. It just looked horrible. Robert returned to the kitchen and found a bendable straw. He placed it into his mug and resumed placing his head on the desk.

Fine. The girl was completely made up. That supports the original claim. Some cruel prankster prompted a gullible, lonely, and desperate man to travel across the country, in search of satisfying lust. That isn’t incredible. It sounded like a Howard Stern prank. Good. Robert resigned himself to the fact that his client was a moron. That’s how he would present the case, anyway.

Still, he wondered. Stupid people wouldn’t reformat a hard drive. They wouldn’t even know how to reformat a hard drive. He admitted that he’d done it himself. Stupid people would have slipped up once. They would have bought a Coke with a credit card or have run out of money and had to use plastic to get gasoline. A stupid person wouldn’t have known J.S. Mill if he’d walked up, in 19th Century garb, and kicked him in the back of the knee. A stupid person wouldn’t memorize his entire story to the police and repeat it to his own attorney. A crazy person might, but a stupid person – probably not.

Robert knew how he would present the case and he would want the jury to see Steven. He also wanted to know what kind of man he was representing. He did not want any surprises. The jail would re-open for visitors at 8 a.m.. He would talk more with Mr. Buchanan at that time. Creekstone yelled for Janice, having forgotten that she had left an hour earlier. He found the keys to his rental car in his desk. He packed his case materials into his black, expandable briefcase and carried it, along with his law school mug, into the night.

Brenda Cundiff sat with her back to her desk. She had spun her chair four times around in her last attempt and felt slightly dizzy. She had looked at the papers on her desk for the last four hours, without yielding any new information. Cundiff was the Chief Prosecutor for the Kansas City District Attorney’s office. She was a career attorney, having started work there in 1987, at the age of 27. She began in traffic court and moved her way up the chain of felonies.

By the time Charles Pregerson was elected as the District Attorney, she had compiled an impressive won-loss record in felony cases. Pregerson, who represented the party previously out of power, felt compelled to fill his staff with some people who had had ties to the prior administration. The appointment to Chief Prosecutor was tailor-made for Cundiff. She appeared in court whenever Pregerson should have appeared in court. The man enjoyed running the district attorney’s office. He hated being an attorney. She loved her husband and her children, in the abstract, but she hated spending too much time with them. Otherwise, they’d get used to her. When she came home, they wouldn’t be happy to see her. At least, the kids were happy.

The Buchanan case represented her first major test. The most serious of her prior felonies was a manslaughter-DUI count. In the one case where she thought she had a murder trial to herself, the bastard pled out. In the case of a serial killer who had shot six people in a three-state area, Pregerson formed a task force and allowed a more senior prosecutor from an adjacent county to manage the prosecution. Now she had a murder case all to herself. She wished Pregerson had let North Carolina or the FBI handle the case. At least, she wished he had waited on arresting Buchanan. That was part of Pregerson’s problem. He saw a guilty man, and he arrested him. She saw a difficult-to-convict suspect, and she wanted to have more time.

In the early stages of the investigation, Steven hadn’t hired a good attorney. With enough coaxing from the more experienced detectives, he probably would have made a slip-up somewhere. Sickos like this want to confess. At least, that’s what she gleaned from her undergraduate criminology class. It was confirmed in the two or three novels she read. Manson confessed, she thought. Anyway, now Steven wasn’t talking. The attorney – this Creekstone fellow from Virginia – had him controlled and sealed off from the outside world. She probably could arrange the evidence and combine it with this guy’s creepy demeanor. It might garner a guilty verdict. If she scouted the jury well enough, she could probably find enough people who would trust the prosecution over some hyper-anal adherence to reasonable doubt. She just didn’t want to lose her job.

The phone rang, and Brenda looked to the caller ID. She wasn’t the only person left in the office – Lord knows a case like this would require the resources of numerous attorneys, working at odd hours – but she appreciated the distraction. It was an area code from North Carolina. She picked up the receiver.

“Cundiff. Yes, that Cundiff. The B stands for Brenda. Can I help you?”

The speaker on the other side of the receiver spoke quickly but with a soft Southern monotone. He spoke for about fifteen seconds and stopped abruptly, obviously expecting a reaction from Cundiff.

“I . . . I have no idea what you said. Speak more slowly, please.” Cundiff talked at the pace she obviously expected from her conversing partner.

He repeated his words. Now she understood the words, but she doubted that she heard them correctly.

“I’m sorry. Could you repeat that?”

He did.

“Where? Right. Right. Wow. When will you know? Thank you. What are you guys doing working this late, anyway? Right, federal overtime.” She chuckled. She wanted to get off the phone and did so quickly.

She stared at her desk and tried to calm her rushed breathing. She drank the rest of her water and walked to the cooler for another cupful. She wanted to make sure she sounded right when she made this call. The rules of ethics – and the law of Missouri – mandated that the prosecution should notify the defense immediately when it learns of certain relevant information.

She might keep her job, after all.

“Hey!” she screamed into the presumably occupied offices down the hall. “Does anyone have Robert Creekstone’s cell number?”



Monday, December 08, 2003

Yep, I'm back.

Installment #3 (possibly of 5 . . . don't see how it'll be done in four)

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III.

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Janice Neeland met Robert when he stepped off the plane in Kansas City. Neeland was a twenty-something paralegal with Fogg and Associates, a two-attorney firm owned by a law school classmate of Creekstone's. Fogg agreed to lend her services and a small office to Robert, provided he direct media traffic to the outside of the law firm's office building. Creekstone held his first press conference immediately in front of the building, with the firm's sign located in plain view over his right shoulder. Within two days, Fogg received fifty-four calls from prospective clients.

Neeland actually was quite intelligent. The "Associate" of Fogg and Associates often would ask her to write a suggested memorandum or a few sample questions for a witness. More often than not, Mr. Associate would just use her work product as his own. She told people about the impressive work she performed on a regular basis. While her family members would nod approvingly, her friends oftentimes would pretend that they couldn't hear her. One friend in particular had developed a habit of yelling seemingly random statements whenever she anticipated the onset of a legal war story. If a male walked within ten feet of them, she would comment on his looks. If a female was in view, she would make a statement about the person's hair.

When Neeland learned that she would work on the most-publicized trial of the year, she could hardly contain her excitement. She hoped that a recommendation letter from Creekstone--or even the trial judge--commending her for her brilliant analytical skills and deft use of language would get her into a mid-level law school. If anything, it might compensate for her 152 score on her LSATs and her 2.7 undergraduate GPA.

Unfortunately for Neeland, Creekstone had little interest in using Neeland's brain. He did appreciate her ability to carry things, to run the firm's ancient copier, and to schedule meetings with witnesses. As his first assignment, he asked her always to carry three of his press kits with her at all times. Robert originally created the kits at his home but, through the help of Kinko's, dramatically improved their quality. He even had a CD-ROM that contained video footage of one of his famous closing arguments in Virginia.

During their first meeting together, she offered to wander down to the state police DNA lab to see if anything was amiss. Robert stopped her. "I'm not Matlock, and you're not Della Street." His eyes rolled into a corner. "I mean, I'm not Perry Mason. Right. Matlock's investigator was, uh, Tyler somebody. The black guy. Anyway, I'm not Matlock. I'm not Perry Mason. I'm not any of those defense attorneys on television. Do you know why, Miss Neeland?"

She shook her head, silently.

"Because I'm not trying to find the real killer." He tilted his head to the side and smiled. His voice expanded, and his volume increased. He was practicing a closing argument. "I don't know whether Steve killed that poor girl. Since I just got here and since you haven't scheduled a meeting with Steve, he hasn't told me much. He swears he didn't do it. Good. I hope he's right. But really, Miss Neeland--Janice--we are only here for one job: we have to show that the prosecution is wrong to have picked poor young Steve as its scapegoat. It's called reasonable doubt. We don't have to build a complex, coherent case. We just have to break down their case, to show that their theory is too complex and too incoherent."

His tempo slowed, and his inside voice hit its ceiling. "Our entire criminal justice system is built upon one thing: a strong adversarial meeting, in a courtroom, between two different people. One person has an idea about how something took place. Of all the millions and millions of combinations and permutations of people, weapons, motives, and alibis in the world, that lawyer has to prove that one story actually took place. The other attorney -- that'd be us -- merely has to say that, no, surely some other person or some other circumstance caused this unfortunate situation. Jail's a pretty bad place to live, you know. We, as a society, have to make as close to one-hundred-percent sure that only the guilty ones go there. God help us all if the system ever fails to protect the innocent and the ambiguously guilty." His voice dropped into a growl. "So you understand our job, don't you Miss Neeland?"

She did not even has to look up to see Creekstone's mild smirk. She closed her eyes and nodded. "I'll call the jail and set up a meeting with Mr. Buchanan."

"That'd be great. Thanks." She noticed that his voice had completely changed. It no longer commanded the room, and she no longer felt incredibly small. His tone was low -- so low, that it reminded her of a Gospel quartet bass singer. She barely had any idea of what he was saying. "God, it would've helped if Steve fell into some minority group. He's not gay, is he? What about atheist?" She responded that she had no idea and left to make the appointment. An hour later, Robert appeared at her desk and suggested that she might want to review some of the files from the DNA tests.

The first meeting with Steve lasted approximately two hours. At its conclusion, Robert felt slightly more confident abouinnocencee, though not because he was convinced of Steve's innocense. He denied every suggestion that he had done anything wrong. Neeland noticed that Robert's voice had returned to its earlier volume and pitch.

Robert's third question -- intentionally placed out of order to rattle his client -- queried point blank: "Did you do it, Steve?" He responded by asking Robert what he meant by "it." His client was a smart-ass. Wonderful. Then again, he might just not have understood what Robert meant. Immediately after asking the question, Steve begun to look off into a corner. The lawyer contemplated the possibility that his client simply was mentally deficient.

Robert took three conscious breaths and described, in painstaking detail, the actions that the actual perpetrator must have taken. He laid out the kidnapping, the violation, the killing, the possible post-mortem violation, and the disposal of the body. He finished the last two ounces of his prison-made coffee and resumed the question: "Did you do that, Steve?" He paused after saying "that."

Steve's eyes bulged, and his head shook. It did not merely swivel on a horizontal axis but instead tiled at some acute angle that Robert had not heretofore seen. "No. No sir. I did not do those things. Whoever did that was evil. Whoever did that is a sinner--a vile, devilish creature bound for the pits of Hell. Janette was a beautiful, wonderful girl. Nobody deserves what happened to her."

The strength of the condemnation intrigued Robert. "Okay, Steve. Why don't you tell me what you did the weekend that Janette disappeared?"

Steve talked ceaselessly for at least half an hour. Robert thought he had heard portions of the story previously. He flipped purposely through his briefcase and found a folder marked "Statement." It contained all of Steve's signed statements to the police. Robert opened it to page three and tried to match Steve's words with his statement. Steve began describing the woman who prompted him to borrow his father's car. He thought he was going to meet her in a restaurant in Columbia. Robert found the right page. "She said she was blonde, 5 foot four. I like blonde girls. Always have. I usually don't get to meet women. I just don't know what to say to them."

Robert's lip curled. Steve was reading -- or, was reciting -- from the statement he gave to the police. Every word out of his mouth, including the apparent punctuation, matched the language from the signed, typed pages. "I like blonde girls. Always have." Robert wondered if Steve would finish his statement by reading his name, as well as that of the notary public's, but he just stopped with a final denial. When he pressed his client for greater detail, Steve replied that he couldn't remember much of anything else. He did point out that he had computer printouts of his conversations with the girlfriend and that those would prove that he was driving to South Carolina. Robert had heard about those printouts and knew they laid somewhere in a folder. He promised to look at the pages soon enough.

Neeland drove the car back to the office. Robert considered the possibilities of his client. He might be a moron: someone who thought he developed a brilliant plan for satisfying his urges and disposing of the evidence but, in actuality, had failed in almost every respect. Alternatively, he might simply be insane. Unfortunately, the state-mandated tests that the prosecution had to conduct prior to seeking the death penalty suggested otherwise. The tests did not merely suggest. They overwhelmingly and empirically stated that Steve possessed every ounce of competence that every sane man in America possessed. Still, most normal capital defendants don't memorize seventeen typed pages of their own words. That led Robert to the third option. Steve might be an evil genius. Whichever was true could turn on the believability of the conversations with the mysterious blonde girl.

Still, the prosecution's case was weak. Robert reminded himself of that fact. If he couldn't decide on the culpability of his client, perhaps a few members of the jury would have the same kind of problem. Otherwise, He did not seriously consider whether Steve committed the act, because that did not matter to him. What mattered was what the prosecution could argue and how he could make the jury think twice about those claims. Still, it was good that Steve hadn't admitted doing anything wrong. That would make Robert's case a bit easier. He wouldn't have to lie consciously, he wouldn't have to make some oblique statement like "the prosecution can't prove Steve's guilty," and he would be able to put together yet another layer on top of his defense -- one based on actual innocence.

Some of Steve's descriptions had brought to mind one of Robert's previous girlfriends. To his friends, Robert simply referred to her as "the blonde girl." He rarely bothered with names or deep analyses of moral guilt. Of course, the blonde girl eventually disappeared from Robert's life. All women did. Most of them departed willingly and happily. The happiness arose out of the leaving, not from anything Robert had ever done. He hoped that he had not experienced love yet. If he had, it seemed tremendously overrated. He had yet to spend enough time with any woman to want to devote his whole life and half of his earthly possessions. Until he found the mysterious perfect woman or until he finally had to retire due to senility, Robert satisfied himself with making money from his law practice. Those who watched Robert or talked with him at any length would not be able to guess how much money he had saved in the last 15 years of practicing law. He made monthly payments on a decrepit, used condominium. He ate out three nights a week and packed his lunch on most days. His suits were nice enough, but they usually were bought from a clothing warehouse that advertised on the local television station. He drove a 1994 silver Honda Civic that he purchased at a police auction. Still, he managed a reasonably successful, independent legal practice. Although Robert Creekstone was worth approximately 2.2 million dollars, he did not consider himself to be rich. He was just another working stiff who tried to save money for a rainy day.

He loved that phrase, "rainy day." During the first eighteen years of his life, Robert's mother reminded him repeatedly about the Creekstone family's former fortune. Apparently, his great-grandfathers or great-great grandfathers invested in steel and oil, before it became popular. They had millions of dollars in stocks, until the early 1930s hit. Conveniently, according to the mother, they also wasted half of the funds on prostitutes and expensive bourbon. "That bourbon did not help them in the end," she would say. The entire tale seemed too formulaic and too perfectly moralistic to be true, but Robert took the point. He never knew when the economy might tank or when the structures of society might crumble a little. Better to collect the money now and put it safely somewhere than to have it disappear in a flood, hurricane, or economic collapse. When the unknown disaster would hit, he would be ready.

He had no idea what kind of disaster that would be or when it would happen, but that was the point. He'd already seen one economic plague hit a cousin of his. While in college, Ernie invested heavily in the tech sector, about three weeks before anybody else realized that pets.com, monster.com, and the rest would be profitable. Of course, they weren't profitable, but no one knew that at the time. Ernie never took his money out of the stocks, and, once his portfolio plummeted to about two-hundred dollars, he eventually found himself facing mortgage payments that he could not meet. Since he never finished the college degree, Ernie now works for a temporary agency and largely moistens envelopes for $6.75 an hour. Robert did not want that to happen. He would not be like Cousin Ernie, Uncle Ray, Uncle Maury, or his sister. He'd be ready, and he would survive.

He spread his deposits across fifteen different banks, to take advantage of the FDIC. He also occasionally would read accounts of the Savings and Loan debacle of the late 80s, just to be sure that he had not made the same mistake. In the event that his investors or his bank engaged in some illegal practice, Robert already had typed civil complaints onto his computer and saved them -- just in case.

Janice pulled the car into the firm's parking lot, and the two members of the Steve Buchanan defense team resumed their work. Janice grudgingly began scheduling an interview for Robert with a Detroit-based radio talk show. Robert walked into his office and began reading Steve's conversations with his blonde, virtual alibi.

Thursday, November 13, 2003

Give me a few days. The next installment will not appear on Monday. Maybe it'll be Wednesday. I had a chance to engage in a little travel, and I took it. Check back later this (or maybe next) week...

Monday, November 10, 2003

Installment 2 of (probably) 4:
(those who want to read what Installment I is, scroll down a bit)

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II.

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Janette Buchanan disappeared from her neighborhood, located within 50 miles of Kansas City, Missouri, in May of 2000. According to her mother, Janette went out to play with the neighborhood children at around 3:30. Westside Elementary School let out at 2:30, leaving the children of the Western Pines Community typically to congregate at the playground. Janette scampered off of the bus, ran into the house, dropped off her book bag, ate a snack, and told her mother good-bye. It was a regular routine that Lauren, Janette's stay-at-home mom, had grown accustomed to following. Janette always reappeared at 5:30, to help Lauren prepare dinner and to watch re-runs of The Family Feud. On May 9, the Buchanan daughter did not return to her home. By 6:30, Lauren walked the neighborhood and talked with every child she could find. Nobody remembered even seeing her for more than a minute or two, and she had not appeared to anyone for the last three hours or so.

By the next morning, the local Pinevale newspaper ran the disappearance on the front page, employing a typeface so large that it was last used to announce the high school football team's state championship in 1997. Almost the entire city's population of 27,000 sprung to work for a day, as neighborhoods were canvassed and as houses were searched. The state had yet to set up one of those Amber Alert networks, and the Missouri State Police did not employ a special lost children division. Consequently, the rest of the state failed to work with the diligence of Pinevale and the surrounding localities.

After the local and state police admitted that they had no evidence and few leads, the FBI appeared on the scene on May 16. The Fox News Channel saw the opportunity for a national story and reported the disappearance within a day of the FBI appearing. The network secured the first public interview with the family and co-promoted the disappearance with two John Walsh "missing children" specials. The parents brought pictures of Janette - hundreds of photographs, in fact - that showed her at various stages of maturity. Dave, the father, showed an article of clothing that resembled what Janette wore when she last left the house. He also had a book bag, which bore a Pokemon-themed exterior. The news anchor asked one question, "What is going through your mind?" and did not complete the thought before Dave and Lauren began to gush. They talked extensively about their only child, their nine-year-old baby, without further prompting from the interviewer. They walked chronologically through her brief life and mentioned the moments that meant the most to them. They talked about a piano recital, a Kindergarten graduation from four years ago, and a spelling bee she had recently won. In the midst of the parents' talk, both Lauren and Dave threw in appeals to others to call someone, anyone, if they might see a sign of their daughter.

The camera never shifted its gaze from the two parents for the two hours the interview took. While one would cry, the other would carry on the discussion. To the cynical in the audience, it seemed somewhat choreographed, but not smooth enough to be completely choreographed. They spoke with such organization in some matters - about how Janette impacted each member of the family, for instance - that one might not believe all of their sincerity. Those cynics, however, did not have children. The parents in the audience thought about how they would react if their children disappeared, and they realized that no loving parent could synthesize the tender pauses, the ever-shifting tone of voice, and the glassy eyes that dammed a genuine flood of tears.

Although Fox signed the first interview, it did not sign an exclusive agreement with the Buchanans. Lauren and David appeared on other national talk shows, including Larry King and Oprah. They appeared on local television and radio stations in every adjoining state. They repeated their calls to others to bring forward information and largely talked about their love for their daughter. By the third or fourth interview, the spontaneity had disappeared, and their pleas seemed more formal. By mid-June, the networks did not grant them an audience every week. By the end of July, Dateline NBC ran one "where are they now" special. The local networks and newspapers continued a weekly update, but everybody within hundreds of miles already knew about Janette, what she looked like, and what she might look like if her kidnapper altered her appearance. Only Fox continued regular coverage, but the Buchanans knew that Walsh and the network benefited from Janette's disappearance. From a ratings standpoint, they did not necessarily need for Janette to reappear any time soon. In August, the family quietly purchased an additional plot, adjacent to theirs, in the Pinevale Methodist Burial Grounds.

On November 17, officers of the North Carolina Department of Health discovered Janette's body. They were performing a surprise inspection of the Family Efficiency Inn on Route 220, near Greensboro. The Family - competitors called it the Dysfunctional Family - rented rooms and suites by the week to seasonal employees, displaced families, and marriage partners who no longer wished to live in the primary matrimonial domicile. The Inn did not provide a maid service, and rarely did it offer a functioning heater-air conditioner unit. Over the course of a month, fourteen guests had complained of cockroaches, rotting food, and a disturbingly frayed carpet. Two guests complained of an odd smell originating out of the room adjacent to theirs. As the Health Inspectors worked their way through the inn and ticked off the major health code violations, they opened Room 322. The combination of Lil' Tree air fresheners and Citronella candles forced the agents to cover their mouths and noses with their sleeves. They located Janette in the half-sized refrigerator that came complete with all of the rooms. Her four-and-a-half-foot tall frame had been folded in half, joined at the wrists and ankles, and shoved into the unit. The temperature had been set to its coldest mark. Two bags of ice were placed around her body, in the small openings that remained in the refrigerator.

Aside from the body, few clues were left in the room. The perpetrator crammed Janette, unclothed, into the refrigerator. Her body had been cleaned meticulously, and the police failed to locate her clothes. The corner estimated that her death had occurred months previously, but he could not specify any day or even any week. He assumed, from the odd treatment of the body, that some sexual trauma had occurred, but he could not identify exactly what had happened. If nothing else, the pervert who handled this girl violated her in his post-mortem cleanup.

When the police asked about who rented the room, the clerk at the Family Inn pointed to a single entry - dated October 22 - in the facility's ledger. A "J. S. Mill" signed the rental agreement and had paid for two months' occupancy, in cash. The renter did not register a car and, aside from the first night, had apparently never made use of any of the room's facilities. The clerk vaguely remembered seeing the renter's car on the first night he signed the contract and distinctly remembered wondering why the renter refused to register the car. It was a blue Ford - one of those boring cars that insurance companies give to their sales agents. He also specifically recollected that he could not identify anything distinctive about the man's appearance. He wore a gray trench coat and a ridiculous brown hat with ear flaps. What little of his face that peered over the collar of the coat seemed white and bearded.

The national news quickly remembered the Buchanans and lamented the tragedy that befell Lauren, David, and Janette. John Walsh hosted another two specials entitled "Justice for Janette." At this point, the family did not want to talk with the media. They family attorney, whose primary work involved trusts and estates, acted as their spokesman.

At the same time as the family stopped providing information to the public, the police - all of the police - began a disorganized and frantic effort to locate the killer. The Pineville District Attorney wanted to charge someone for this horrible crime and begged the local police for additional manpower. The Buchanan's church established a charitable foundation to pay for extra investigators and extra overtime. The Missouri State Police felt embarrassed that someone could have traveled across their highway system, with a dead body in the car, and received the same amount of attention as one who carried a honey baked ham. Of course, if the criminal did not speed, drive without his headlights, or verbally assault a police officer, it would make no sense that a cop would just pull over a random driver. Nevertheless, a girl probably died under their watch, and the police wished to vindicate this perceived gap in protection. The FBI, of course, felt obligated to make appearances as well. The girl obviously had traveled across state lines. No evidence existed to suggest where the killing occurred. Until they had some evidence about the location of the killing, the feds wanted to participate.

A Federal Agent Jankowski made the critical insight that brought some focus and direction to the investigation. While the local and state police investigated the family, they rarely failed to look beyond the physical evidence. They only considered what was in the houses, the cars, and the statements. Jankowski knew that family members would be more likely to know about the minute habits of Lauren and Janette. They might have some odd rivalry with or hatred for Lauren. If nothing else, the 32 members of the Buchanan family who lived in Missouri might have more information than their statements reflected. Jankowski began to check the statements to see if any family member admitted leaving Missouri in the last six months. Eight admitted that much. Six of the travelers traveled on business, and the flight records confirmed their travel plans. None of those flying approached North Carolina or any East coast state. Another traveler, Lauren's Aunt Karen, flew to Washington, D.C., for a class reunion. Her flight did not travel anywhere south of the Mason Dixon line.

Steve Buchanan was the only one who admitted being out of state, without having a verifiable record of where he traveled. Steve was a cousin of Dave's, had recently graduated high school, and attended the community college near Pinevale. He lived in his own apartment-he was proud of that fact-and worked part-time at the motor pool at his father's insurance company.

Steve told investigators that he left Missouri for a road trip to Miami. He said that his high school friends wanted to go to the beach during the off-season and to take advantage of the lower hotel rates. They drove in James Blaine's 1987 Toyota Cressida. His friends-all of whom lived in Pinevale-corroborated Steve's story. Agent Jankowski noted, however, that none of his friends gave any details about where they stayed, the route they took, or anything beyond the dates they drove and their final destination: Miami.

In reviewing Steve's class schedule, Jankowski noted that he was in the process of taking a survey course: "Foundational Political Philosophy: From J. Locke to J.S. Mill." Jankowski knew that the lead was tenuous and recognized that only a moron would leave a trail and signature this odd. Still, it was something.

Jankowski talked with each of Steve's friends and asked more specific questions. Two of their stories did not agree with one another in terms of the route taken and where they stayed. After the third friend failed to produce a description that matched either of the other two, Jankowski put all three of them in a room. He threw around terms like "federal obstruction of justice" and "conspiracy to commit murder."

Within two minutes, they all told the truth, at least as much as Steve had imparted to them. Steve wanted to meet a girlfriend out in South Carolina. He wanted a cover, so he asked for their help. He didn't think his parents would approve of the new lady, especially since he met her on the Internet. The friends admitted that Steve didn't exactly get along easily with women. He froze up, usually said the wrong thing, and occasionally even displayed a self-directed temper that could appear aggressive. They were happy that he found any girl who would spend time with him, so they willingly covered for his whereabouts.

They also admitted that they didn't take James Blaine's car. James's car stank from years of cigarette smoking and beer spills. They said that Steve didn't want to frighten the girl with James's car, so he borrowed the company car his dad normally drove. The Insure America Company keeps 32 blue Ford Tauruses for claims adjusters to use when making on-site visits. Upon further questioning, James remembered the license plate from the car Steve took: INSUR5. Each plate had the same "INSUR" beginning, and only the subsequent number changed. Steve's father still had the car sitting in his driveway when the agents arrived with their search warrant. The forensics experts who searched the car found two hairs that likely came from Janette. They also found a one-inch square of dried blood that matched Janette's type. Both the hairs and the blood were located in the trunk.

The clerk from the Family Inn subsequently identified Steven Buchanan from a line-up and from a voice sample. The Pinevale Sheriff arrested Steve Buchanan in February of 2001. Again, every major network and cable outlet covered the arrest. The local, state, and federal authorities conducted separate press conferences every five or six hours, for no apparent reason. The local police, for example, once held a conference to announce that Steve, due to digestive problems, would not be fed milk products in prison. Both CNN and MSNBC covered that affair live. The family spokesman refused to pronounce Steve guilty and just said Lauren and Dave would wait for justice to run its course.

From Virginia, Robert Creekstone watched the entire buildup toward Steve's arrest with an intense curiosity. Where others saw obvious guilt, Robert saw opportunity. He saw an incredibly weak prosecutorial case built on a questionable identification and on ambiguous forensic evidence. Furthermore, nobody apparently saw Steve take Janette. None of the police would publicly state where the murder took place. Steve Morris Buchanan was the high-profile, high-likelihood-of-success case that he wanted. Given the emotional investment people would have in the case, though, most people would consider the man guilty and would substitute the government's judgment for their own. A win in this case would push Robert's profile into the strata normally occupied by the likes of F. Lee Bailey and Alan Dershowitz. Everyone in America would know the names of three attorneys: the local prominent ambulance chaser, Johnny Cochran, and Robert Creekstone.

When the networks announced that the court appointed an attorney to represent Steve, Robert decided to make the case to represent the defendant. Despite the diplomatic statement from the Buchanan spokesman, nobody in the family felt like spending money to pay for Steve's legal defense. Robert called Steve Buchanan, in prison, and offered to provide free legal representation for the trial. He convinced the trial judge to let him appear in court in Missouri, for this one case. On March 1, 2001, Robert officially filed as the attorney of record for Steven Morris Buchanan.

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