In the grand tradition of year-end wrap-ups, here is an entirely subjective list of the crime stories that dominated the headlines in 2018, month by month. Some of them are old cases that were solved this year; others are cases that had dramatic national — and international — impact. And some were just so gruesome we couldn’t stop talking about them. So let’s take a walk down memory lane, starting in…
January: The Turpins’ “House of Horrors”
The year opened with one of the most shocking and horrifying child-abuse cases the US had ever seen. On Jan. 14, 911 operators in Perris, California, received a call from a 17-year-old girl who had managed to escape her home with a deactivated cell phone. The story the girl told the operator was unbelievable — that her home was so filthy she couldn’t breathe, that the children weren’t allowed to bathe, and that her parents kept them chained up and beat them. The girl didn’t know her address because, as she said, she “didn’t get out much.”
Police who responded to the call were faced with what would become a kind of grim title: a “house of horrors.” Twelve of the girl’s siblings — five other underage children and seven adults — were chained to their beds, emaciated from hunger, and surrounded by utter filth.
Once they were safe, the siblings told of horrific physical abuse at the hands of their parents, David Allen and Louise Ann Turpin. They were kept imprisoned 20 hours a day and forbidden to bathe. The children had been so isolated some of them didn’t know what police were.
The Turpins psychologically tortured their children as well: while the parents were starving their children to the point of physical and mental delays, they would leave food and treats out on counters to mold, forbidding the children to touch them and beating them if they disobeyed. The abuse had apparently been going on for years, even decades.
The Turpins’ trial is set to begin in September 2019, when the couple will face up to 50 separate charges, including several counts of torture, false imprisonment and child abuse.
*Note: I take a deeper dive into this case in this article.
February: The Parkland/Stoneman Douglas High School Massacre
Nowadays, here in the US, mass shootings have become so common they are barely even newsworthy anymore. Yet the shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, stands out not so much for what happened at the crime scene, but for its aftermath.
On Valentine’s Day, 19-year-old Nikolas Cruz, who had been expelled for disciplinary reasons, walked into the school carrying a .223-caliber AR-15 rifle hidden in a duffel bag. After entering the building, he pulled the fire alarm. When the confused students exited their classrooms, he began firing. Cruz made his way methodically through the school, shooting his way through all three floors.
During the shooting, many terrified students posted live updates to various social media, documenting the massacre in real time. They were also able to identify the shooter to authorities.
By the time he slipped away by blending into the crowd of fleeing students, Cruz had killed 17 people and wounded 17 more, making it the deadliest school shooting since Sandy Hook Elementary. He was arrested not long afterwards, calmly walking along a residential street nearby.
In August, a tape of Cruz’ tearful confession was released to the public. In it, Cruz says, “kill me.”
But that is not the end of this story. After the shooting, many of the survivors were critical of the government’s typically toothless response (“thoughts and prayers”) to the massacre and demanded gun-control legislation. Three students formed Never Again MSD to advocate for stronger gun-control laws. It immediately attracted thousands of followers, including fellow MSD students Emma Gonzalez, David Hogg and Delaney Tarr. The group spoke out on national media about their cause and organized a rally just days later at the Florida capitol. On March 24, they organized the March for Our Lives on Washington, DC. Then, on April 20 (the anniversary of the Columbine High School Massacre in 1999), students across the country walked out of their schools to demand gun-control legislation.
Yet their activism was not without blowback. Conspiracy theorists — aided by Russian-linked troll farms — claimed the young activists were actually “crisis actors” and that protestors were paid to do so by George Soros. National figures such as Laura Ingraham, Alex Jones, Rick Santorum and Ted Nugent ridiculed and criticized them, and they were subjected to online harassment and even death threats. While some of the activists have retreated from public life in the face of such threats, most of the students say they plan to continue their activism to make schools safer.
At this time of this writing, the federal government still hasn’t passed any gun-control legislation, but 69 such measures have been passed by state legislatures since the massacre. In addition, the November election saw Democrats take a majority of House seats, and the incoming Democratic representatives have vowed to make federal gun-control legislation a priority.
Meanwhile, the NRA, the largest lobbying organization dedicated to preventing any gun-control measures in the US, has seen its membership dues decline precipitously, and it is facing a Congressional inquiry into whether unreported Russian money violated U.S. laws prohibiting foreign election contributions.
Cruz, meanwhile, is in jail facing 17 counts of premeditated murder and 17 counts of attempted first-degree murder (along with some additional charges resulting from attacking a guard while in prison) and is facing the death penalty.
March: The Hart Tribe Murder/Suicide
On March 26, a German tourist spotted something troubling off California’s Highway 1 — a crumpled GMC Yukon, belly-up, at the bottom of a steep cliff. Once police gained access to the SUV, they found the bodies of three African-American children inside, then the bodies of two white women. None of them had been wearing seat belts.
The deceased were soon identified as Jen and Sarah Hart and three of their adopted children: Markis, Abigail and Jeremiah (Sierra’s body would wash ashore two weeks later; Devonte and Hannah are still missing and presumed dead).
Their social media posts showed what looked like a free-spirited, loving family who loved to travel to concerts, festivals and events together. Friends described them as a happy family, even “perfect,” who went by the name “the Hart Tribe.” Everyone was saddened by what looked like a tragic accident.
Yet once investigators took a closer look, things were not at all what they seemed. For starters, the crash did not look like an accident. Tire tracks at the scene, as well as the car’s computer, indicated that the driver, Jen, had actually pulled to a stop off the highway, then sped up, sending the vehicle flying off the cliff and into the ocean below. Toxicology tests revealed she had a blood-alcohol level above the legal limit, and Sarah and the children all had diphenhydramine, a common over-the-counter allergy medicine that causes drowsiness, in their systems.
The facade of an idyllic family life portrayed by their social media posts began to crumble under scrutiny as well. Red flags had been popping up since 2008, when 6-year-old Hannah came to school with bruises on her arm, telling teachers that her mother whipped her with a belt. The Harts denied any wrongdoing, and without any further evidence, the case was closed.
Through the years, over and over, the children would tell teachers and other adults of abuse such as hitting them with their fists, whipping them with belts, holding their heads underwater, and withholding food. The Harts usually could convince caseworkers that the children (whom they claimed had developmental disorders and histories of abuse) were just making things up, and the cases would be closed for lack of evidence. Or, when the pressure got to be too much, they would pull the children out of public school and relocate — moving from Texas to Minnesota to Oregon to Washington.
Meanwhile, Jen continued staging feel-good photo-ops with the children, posting them to Facebook to create a narrative of a happy, loving family.
It was in Woodland, Washington, where the final tragic act played out. The summer before their tragic death, Hannah showed up at next-door-neighbors the DeKalbs’ house in the middle of the night, disheveled, wrapped in a blanket, pleading with them to hide her. She was tiny — the DeKalbs thought the 16-year-old was about 7 — and was missing her front teeth. Hannah told them that her mothers whipped them with belts.
The Hart mothers showed up immediately and began contradicting Hannah’s story, using the same excuses they had used before. They made Hannah apologize and convinced the DeKalbs that this was just a misunderstanding. Though Dana DeKalb maintained her suspicions, her husband didn’t want to stir up trouble with the neighbors.
Then Devonte began asking for food, which the DeKalbs gave him. Devonte told them he needed more food for his siblings, and begged them not to tell his mothers because, he said, they would punish him.
Finally Dana DeKalb had seen enough. She called CPS to report suspected child abuse. However, when CPS came knocking on the Harts’ door, no one answered. They tried twice more, but the Hart Tribe was not to be found.
The family’s cell phone pings show that they traveled south, into California. The last image of them is a store surveillance video of Jen buying snacks in Ft. Bragg. Then, at some point, Jen pulled the Yukon off the road in Mendocino County to overlook the ocean below. Only this time, instead of taking the family’s picture, Jen took their lives.
Since the tragedy, former friend of the family Alexandra Argyropoulos (who had previously reported the Harts to CPS) started a petition to create an agency-wide National Child Abuse Registry that would allow state agencies immediate access to prior reports of abuse. The petition was later closed due to lack of signatures.
*Note: WolfOfJournalism has a good deep dive into the case here: https://medium.com/@wolfofjournalism/the-mysterious-and-tragic-case-of-the-harttribe-family-6230e7568450
April: The Golden State Killer is Arrested
In 1976, someone began brutally raping women in the Bay Area of Northern California. Police and the media dubbed him the East Area Rapist.
Two years later, the rapist began striking farther south, to Santa Barbara County. And in 1981, he escalated from rape to murder — and a new moniker, the Original Night Stalker.
In all, the killer had committed 50 rapes and murdered 13 people between 1976 and 1986.
Despite the existence of a few clues, there was nothing to tie a specific suspect to the crimes, so the cases went cold for more than 30 years. It wasn’t until 2001 that DNA evidence confirmed that one person was responsible for all the crimes — but that person’s identity remained unknown.
Enter true-crime writer Michelle McNamara. She began looking into the case around 2013, and was offered a book deal by HarperCollins to write what would later be titled, I’ll Be Gone in the Dark: One Woman’s Obsessive Search for the Golden State Killer.
Tragically, McNamara died in 2016 from an accidental overdose before the book was finished. Her widower, Patton Oswalt, wanted to finish McNamara’s work, so he worked with true-crime writer Paul Haynes and journalist Billy Jensen to update and finalize her manuscript for publication. I’ll Be Gone in the Dark hit the shelves in February of 2018 and immediately shot to #2 on the New York Times Bestseller list for non-fiction.
Meanwhile, using an undercover profile, officials had uploaded the killer’s DNA profile (obtained from a Ventura County rape kit) to the open-source personal genomics website GEDmatch. From that DNA, the website identified several distant relatives. Using that information, a team of investigators working with a genealogist were able to narrow it down to two suspects, one of whom was excluded by a relative’s DNA test.
However, one suspect remained: 72-year-old former police officer and Vietnam veteran Joseph James DeAngelo. Officers surreptitiously collected DNA samples from the door handle of a car he had been driving and a tissue found in DeAngelo’s garbage. Both samples were consistent with the Orange and Ventura counties’ suspect profiles.
On April 25, 2018 — two months after I’ll Be Gone in the Dark was published — the Sacramento County Sheriff’s Department arrested DeAngelo on eight counts of first-degree murder. By the time he would appear in court in August, DeAngelo would face a total of 13 counts of murder and 13 counts of kidnapping in six counties (the rapes, unfortunately, could not be prosecuted because the statute of limitations had expired).
Though the police credit McNamara’s book with shining a light on the case, they said it didn’t directly result in DeAngelo’s arrest. Oswalt, however, believes differently. “You did it, Michelle,” he posted to his Instagram account. “Even though the cops are never going to say it, but your book helped get this thing closed.”
The case has also stirred up controversy around commercial genealogy and ancestry sites that collect — and store — people’s DNA. The ACLU has raised privacy concerns, and DeAngelo’s defense could call the DNA evidence into question, since officers knowingly falsified their identities to upload DeAngelo’s DNA. (Note: Kristen V. Brown does a deeper dive into this whole issue in Bloomberg).
Meanwhile, DeAngelo’s next court date is scheduled for April 10, 2019. HBO Documentary Films has acquired the rights to I’ll Be Gone in the Dark, to be developed into a docuseries with Academy Award nominee and Emmy winner Liz Garbus directing.
May: First Death from Tainted Romaine Lettuce
On May 2 the CDC reported that a Californian had died from eating romaine lettuce contaminated with E. Coli. At that point, 121 people across the country had already been sickened from eating the tainted romaine, but this was the first person to die from it.
By the time the CDC declared the outbreak over in June, four more people had died and 27 had suffered from kidney failure. Those who were “only” sickened suffered from bloody diarrhea and vomiting, high fevers, and swollen, painful intestines. It was the worst foodborne illness outbreak since 2006, when E. coli-infected spinach sickened 200 people and killed three.
The cause of the outbreak was attributed to tainted irrigation water at a farm in Yuma, Arizona. All fruits and vegetables can be exposed to E. coli this way because groundwater can easily become tainted by livestock or wildlife waste, which can make its way into irrigation water. Lettuce and other salad greens are especially dangerous, since they are eaten raw.
So in 2011, Congress passed legislation requiring farms to test their irrigation water for pathogens, including E. coli. However, as Wired reports, Trump’s FDA caved under pressure from the agriculture industry and the president’s demands to eliminate regulations, and shelved the water-testing rules for at least four more years.
In the months following this catastrophe, there has been a salmonella outbreak in cut fruit that sickened 60 people and another outbreak of tainted romaine lettuce — this time with a “particularly nasty” strain of E. coli (O157:H7). As of mid-December, 59 people had been sickened, though thankfully, no one has died. The source of this outbreak was traced to Adams Bros. Farms, along with possibly other farms, in central California, where an irrigation water reservoir contained contaminated sediment.
As of this writing, there has been no word from the FDA about reinstating the water-testing rules.
June: Capital Gazette Newsroom Shooting
On June 28 — a Thursday afternoon — Jerrod Ramos entered the Capital Gazette newspaper offices in Annapolis, Maryland, carrying a a 12-gauge pump-action shotgun and wearing a backpack containing smoke bombs, flashbang devices and grenades.
Ramos was angry with the paper for publishing an article about him in 2011, in which they said (correctly) that he had been put on probation for harassing an old high-school acquaintance via social media and e-mail. He had sued the paper over it, but a judge dismissed his lawsuit. So he turned his monomaniacal fury on the paper, sending threatening letters and e-mails.
Like most mass shooters, Ramos had been sending up red flags for years. Besides his harassment and stalking of the high-school acquaintance (a woman who rejected his advances — a common trigger for mass murderers), many people close to him described him as a “calculated, manipulative loner, who would become angry when things did not go his way,” and were convinced he would someday hurt someone.
Former Capital editor and publisher Thomas Marquardt had previously contacted the Anne Arundel County Police Department about Ramos, but the police took no action. At the time, Marquardt had consulted the paper’s attorneys about a restraining order, warning them, “This is a guy who is going to come in and shoot us.”
On June 28, Ramos carried out this threats. He first shot out the office’s glass door, then began firing at employees. At some point, Wendi Winters, a community beat reporter for the Capital, confronted Ramos, charging him with a trash can and recycling bin. This gave many survivors a chance to escape; however, Winters did not.
In all, Ramos claimed five victims, including Winters, and injured at least two others. The Committee to Protect Journalists has said this was only the second shooting in which multiple journalists were killed in the U.S. — the first was in 2015.
Ramos was arrested on the scene. He has been charged with five counts of first-degree murder, one count of attempted first-degree murder, six counts of first-degree assault, and 11 counts of the use of a firearm in the commission of a felony. His court date is currently set for June 3, 2019.
Come back next week, when we’ll finish counting down the top crimes and murders of 2018.