We’re continuing the countdown of the most interesting, awful and impactful crime stories of 2018. ICYMI, you can read Part 1 here.
July: Japan Hangs Mass-Murdering Cult Leader Shoko Asahara
While this story didn’t get much press here in the US, it is a fascinating case that affected thousands of lives.
He was born Chizuo Matsumoto, left partially blind from childhood glaucoma. After he failed to gain admission to any university, he began practicing acupuncture and teaching yoga. He also began studying various religions and philosophies, from Buddhism to the prophecies of Nostradamus.
In 1987, he changed his name to Shoko Asahara and officially founded the apocalyptic cult, Aum Shinrikyo (“Supreme Truth”) two years later. He and his acolytes recruited primarily on university campuses, targeting educated people who were disaffected with Japan’s strictly conformist and hyper-competitive culture.
The cult preached an odd combination of Buddhism and New Age beliefs, with a good dose of apocalypticism thrown in. Asahara claimed to have visions of the coming apocalypse, which only he and his loyal followers would survive. He also claimed to have had a vision of himself as a god of light, to have the power of levitation and to have been Jesus Christ in a past life.
Followers paid thousands of dollars for blessings, vials of his blood, and teas made of his hair. Some wore wired headsets designed to align their brainwaves with his. Others made masks in his likeness and wore them.
All these things were odd, to be sure, but Japan, as the US, respects the rights of its citizens to worship as they choose.
Yet things were not all love at light at Aum Shinrikyo. The group bought land and began creating a secret factory and stockpiling weapons. They attracted followers in Japan’s defense forces who shared military secrets with them. The group began recruiting in Russia and attracted some 30,000 followers, including many high up in Russia’s government. These new followers gave Aum Shinrikyo access to more weapons … and plans for more weapons.
Dissenters — including outsiders who brought up suspicions about the cult’s true nature — began disappearing or showing up dead under mysterious circumstances.
Neighbors began reporting the suspicious behavior to the authorities, including pictures of the cult constructing and supplying some sort of factory. Nothing was ever done.
What the group was doing was creating massive amounts of the deadly gas, sarin — enough, it was revealed later, to kill up to 4 million people. Asahara had told them that the end of the world must be brought about so that a new, more “pure” world could emerge (with them as the only survivors, of course). Their exact beliefs about this aren’t fully known, but it seems to involve instigating several terrorist incidents which would, somehow, ignite WWIII.
To that end, during the early morning of March 20, 1995, members of the cult — five armed with the gas bombs plus five getaway drivers — boarded the crowded Tokyo subway. They dispersed to separate cars and set their bombs (comprising two plastic bags with the ingredients inside, wrapped in newspaper), At some agreed-upon time, they punctured the packets with the tips of their umbrellas, causing the ingredients to mix and releasing the deadly gas into the subway and out into the surrounding neighborhood.
Either 12 or 13 people died (sources differ), choking and convulsing from the poison, and up to 6,000 people were injured. Police raided Aum Shinrikyo facilities and arrested several members. The cult’s headquarters in Tokyo was raided by police in May, where Asahara was found in a small, isolated room.
Asahara faced 27 counts of murder in 13 separate indictments — not only for the subway attack, but for the murders of ex-members and critics. It was called “the trial of the century” in Japan, and went on for seven years. His defense argued, unsuccessfully, that Asahara was insane. Some charges were dropped, but in the end, he was found guilty of 13 of the 17 charges. On Feb. 27, 2004, he was sentenced to death by hanging. His sentence (along with six other cult members) was carried out July 6, 2018.
August: The Watts Family Murders
The Watts family looked like the perfect family. But Shan’ann’s (pronounced sha-NAN) close friends and family knew things weren’t as happy as her social media posts made them look. Her husband of six years, Chris, had become distant and vague. Shan’ann, newly pregnant with their third child, was worried for her marriage.
Her instincts were right. Chris was having an affair with co-worker Nichol Kessinger, telling her that his marriage was all but over and that they would be divorced soon.
Meanwhile, Shan’ann continued posting positive things about her family and marriage, including a live video of her revealing her (unplanned) pregnancy to Chris. In all these, Chris appears to be going through the motions of a loving husband and father — smiling and playing along, but somehow also not fully there.
In August, Shan’ann went on a work trip out of state with her close friend, Nichole Atkinson, while daughters Bella, 4, and Celeste, 3, stayed at home with their father. After the trip, Nichole dropped Shan’ann off at her home early in the morning of Aug. 13, telling her to call her if she needed a ride to her OB/GYN appointment later that morning.
But Shan’ann didn’t show up for her doctor’s appointment, nor for a work appointment she had later. Nichole noticed Shan’ann wasn’t posting on social media and found this extremely unusual for her. She tried texting and calling her, but got no answer. Now Nichole knew something was definitely wrong with her friend.
So just after noon, she drove to Shan’ann and Chris’ house to check on her. What she saw worried her: Shan’ann’s car, with the girls’ car seats still inside it, parked in the garage. Just inside the front door were Shan’ann’s shoes. Nichole used the passcode to try and go inside, but another lock inside the house prevented her from entering and set off the home’s alarm system. This sent an alert to Chris’ phone. When Nichole told him that she was worried about Shan’ann, he glibly replied that she’d gone on a play date. Nichole, no dummy, asked, “Then why is her car and the girls’ car seats still here?”
He told her he’d come home as soon as he could, but apparently he took his time. Nichole called him multiple times, and she said she felt like he was basically blowing her off. So she called the cops.
When the officers arrived, Nichole explained her fears to them, and fortunately, they took her seriously.
Within minutes, Chris arrived and gave the officers permission to enter his home.
The police saw no evidence of a struggle or forced entry, but did note a few things that weren’t quite right: Shan’ann’s purse and cell phone were still in the house, as was Bella’s medication. Chris claimed that they had all been home when he left for work.
He later went on to appear on the local TV news, begging for their safe return — while conspicuously dry-eyed and even smiling.
Soon police questioned their neighbor, who happened to have a home surveillance video of Chris backing his truck into his garage in the early morning hours, and going in and out several times to load items in it. The neighbor also voiced his deep suspicions to the police.
But what ultimately did him in was the mountain of digital evidence against him: texts and calls between him and his mistress, internet searches, GPS and cell phone pings showing his whereabouts. Each time a new fact came to light, he would change his story to fit it in.
After failing a polygraph test, he finally broke down and admitted killing Shan’ann. But he claimed he only killed her because he caught her in the act of killing their daughters. He led police to an oil field where he’d hidden their bodies: Shan’ann in a shallow grave, the girls in giant oil tanks.
After their autopsies contradicted his latest story — the girls had been smothered and Shan’ann had been strangled — he finally broke down and confessed. People across the nation were horrified that a father could so brutally kill his two little daughters and a pregnant wife who loved him so deeply.
He was arrested Aug. 15, only two days after Shan’ann and the girls were reported missing. On Nov. 6, Chris Watts pled guilty to nine felony counts, including three counts of murder in the first degree and a count of unlawful termination of a pregnancy. He was sentenced to three life sentences without the possibility of parole plus 48 years. He is being kept in solitary confinement for his own protection.
September: US Border Patrol Agent Accused of Killing 4 Women
On Sept. 4, police found the body of a woman on a rural stretch of I-35 outside of Laredo, Texas. She would later be identified as Melissa Ramirez. She had been shot in the head with a .40-caliber pistol.
Ten days later, along that same stretch of road, a woman was found with a .40-caliber gunshot wound to the head, barely alive. Her name was Claudine Ann Luera. Sadly, she died at the hospital.
The next day, a terrified Erica Peña flagged down a state trooper at a gas station. She told a harrowing tale of escaping from a man who had pointed a pistol at her head and told her he was going to kill her. She had jumped from his moving truck, which she described to police. They were now on the lookout for the man who they believed might be responsible for the murders of Ramirez and Luera.
However, the killer was not deterred. That same night, he managed to kill two more women — Guiselda Hernandez Cantu and Nikki Enriquez — before police apprehended him in a motel parking lot, where he had brandished a cell phone in an attempted “suicide by cop.”
The killer was Juan David Ortiz, a Navy veteran and 10-year agent with US Customs and Border Patrol. He was married and had two children. Yet he described himself as a “vigilante” who was “cleaning up the streets” of Laredo, as his victims were all sex workers or addicted to drugs.
The arrest was bad news for the Border Patrol — in the Laredo sector alone, he was the fourth agent arrested this year. The rash of violent crimes and misconduct had earned them a reputation as “the green monster.”
On Dec. 6, after only 20 minutes of deliberation, a grand jury returned a capital murder indictment. For his crimes, Ortiz will face the death penalty.
October: The Murder of Journalist Jamal Khashoggi
2018 was not a good year for journalists. The Committee to Protect Journalists reports that at least 34 journalists were killed in reprisal for their work worldwide, nearly double the number killed in 2017. Jamal Khashoggi, a Saudi-born US resident, was one of them — but his murder would ignite an international firestorm exposing horrific brutality, torture and corruption among some of the world’s most powerful leaders.
For decades, he was close to the Saudi royal family and even served as an adviser to the government. He was a prominent journalist, covering some of the biggest international stories for various Saudi news agencies. However, his criticism of the royal family led to his falling out of favor with them, and when he criticized US President Trump, he was banned from writing.
So, in 2017, he moved to the US and became a legal resident. While here, he wrote an opinion column for the Washington Post. In it, he was critical of Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (MBS), and his very first column expressed his fear of being arrested in a crackdown on dissenters.
On Oct. 2, 2018, Khashoggi returned to the Saudi consulate in Istanbul, Turkey, ostensibly to obtain some papers so he could marry his fiancee. He had been to the consulate before, where he said he had been treated warmly, and he did not think that anything bad could happen to him on Turkish soil.
Surveillance video shows a team of men arrived at the consulate around 12:30 p.m. Khashoggi arrived about 45 minutes later, leaving cell phones with his fiancee with instructions to call for help if he did not return. He did not. Video footage leaked in December shows the Saudi men carrying bags allegedly containing his remains and loading them into a van, then the van leaving for the consul’s residence.
Four days later, Turkish officials admitted that Khashoggi had been killed in the consulate; a US official stated that his body had been dismembered and flown out of the country. Yet for three weeks, Saudi Arabian officials continued to deny that Khashoggi was dead.
During that time, the chair and ranking member of the US Senate’s Foreign Relations Committee sent a letter to Pres. Trump invoking the Global Magnitsky Human Rights Accountability Act, giving him 120 days to investigate Khashoggi’s death and, if it was a human rights violation, to impose sanctions on Saudi Arabia.
Back at the consulate, Turkish investigators were not allowed to search the building until the 15th, after a cleaning crew was filmed entering. Inside, investigators found that walls and other surfaces had been freshly repainted.
On the 19th, Saudi Arabia finally admitted that Khashoggi was dead, but now claimed it was the result of a “fistfight.” They detained 18 people in connection to the crime, but didn’t release their names or allow Turkey to extradite them. Most world leaders were not satisfied with this new story, and soon afterwards Germany, Finland and Denmark cancelled all arms deals with Saudi Arabia.
The US, however, took the opposite stance. On the 16th, US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo flew to Riyadh to discuss the Khashoggi murder with King Salman and the Crown Prince. Pompeo seemed to take the Saudis’ denials at face value and stressed what a “great ally” they are in the fight against Iran. Coincidentally, Saudi Arabia made a $100 million payment to the US that very day.
Meanwhile, in the face of global outrage and disbelief, the Saudis changed their story yet again. This time they admitted that it was Saudis who killed him, but they were a “rogue operation.” The CIA, along with other intelligence agencies, disagreed, stating that the Saudi Crown Prince was responsible for the killing.
Between Halloween and the Day of the Dead, Turkish prosecutors leaked the horrific details of Khashoggi’s murder: that he had been strangled, then dismembered, then his remains dissolved in acid. Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan said the order came from the “highest levels” of the Saudi government.
On Nov. 11, Turkey let representatives from several countries, including the US, listen to tapes obtained from the consulate (US National Security Adviser John Bolton refused to listen to them). The tapes are difficult to listen to — they record the last minutes of Khashoggi’s life, where he is interrogated, tortured and murdered. Listeners can hear the sounds of cutting and sawing as his body is dismembered. There could be no doubt, now, that the murder was premeditated.
Saudi Arabia continues to assert the murderers were “rogue” agents not operating under any authority, and they say they have indicted 11 people and are seeking the death penalty for five of them. They have not released their names or allowed Turkey to extradite them. The UN continues to push for an independent investigation.
Meanwhile, US Pres. Trump seems strangely conciliatory towards the Saudis, either accepting their version of events or making vague threats of consequences “if” the allegations (of the international intelligence community) are true. He’s uncharacteristically honest about why: he has stated time and time again he does not want to halt the very lucrative arms deals the US has with Saudi Arabia, including the largest arms deal in US history. Congress, however, continues to push for an independent investigation and possible sanctions.
While a Google search for “Khashoggi’s last words” returns the transcript of his murder, his real final words are much more powerful, and deserve to be remembered. His final column, which the Washington Post received the day after he was reported missing, is titled “What the Arab World Needs Most is Free Expression.”
Rest in power, Mr. Khashoggi.
November: Deadly Camp Fire Kills 87
Wait, I can hear you, Dear Reader, saying. This is supposed to be a story about murder! A wildfire is just a terrible natural disaster.
Yes, Dear Reader, you are right. Wildfires, when they’re caused by lightning or accidents, are just very tragic natural disasters. But the Camp Fire wasn’t an accident — it may indeed be an act of aggravated murder.
In November, conditions were ripe for a conflagration in the Northern California town of Paradise. There had been a drought lasting several months, but a late-spring rain had contributed to an unusually dense growth of grasses. Those grasses, along with all the other vegetation, were subsequently stripped of all their moisture by the annual Santa Ana winds — hot, dry winds coming down from the mountains — creating a tinderbox.
For two days before the fire started, Pacific Gas & Electric noted that the high winds posed a danger of snapping power lines, and notified its customers it might shut off power. However, they did not.
Just before sunrise on Nov. 8, a PG&E employee reported seeing a fire burning beneath some power lines in Pulga, California. Several other people, mostly PG&E employees, also reported the fire, and PG&E sent a fire officer out to assess the situation.
Capt. Matt MacKenzie was the first on the scene, where he observed the fire spreading rapidly beneath a downed power line. He immediately radioed in a request for resources and evacuations, saying, “this has got potential for a major incident.”
Air resources were delayed first by having to wait a half-hour until sunrise, and then by the high winds. The Butte County Sheriff’s Office began evacuations from Pulga and other communities, including Paradise.
By 8 a.m., the fire had reached Paradise. Yet many residents of both Concow and Paradise were unable to evacuate in time due to the fast-moving nature of the fire (the town of Concow didn’t get notice to evacuate until 20 minutes before the fire arrived). Emergency alerts failed to reach 94 percent of residents in some areas, both due to technical errors (including the loss of 17 cell towers) and because city officials failed to include four at-risk areas of the city in their evacuation orders.
The fire spread rapidly, sometimes by hundreds of thousands of acres per day. It took two and a half weeks to be contained. As of this writing, the death toll stands at 88, with three still missing and 15 people injured. It destroyed nearly 19,000 structures and did $7.5–10 billion in damages, making it the deadliest and most destructive wildfire in California history, and the deadliest in the US in a century.
What makes this disaster even more tragic is that it could have been prevented. In a document obtained by CNBC News, PG&E acknowledged that it may bear responsibility for the fire. At the very least, the company may have been criminally negligent by failing to follow state regulations on maintaining its power lines. In fact, PG&E has been implicated or found responsible in dozens of wildfires dating back over two decades due to violations of state safety regulations. It is still on probation for for its role in the 2010 explosion of a gas line in San Bruno that killed eight people and destroyed nearly 40 homes.
California Attorney General Xavier Becerra has said the company could be prosecuted for murder, manslaughter or lesser criminal charges if investigators determine that “reckless operation” of its power equipment caused any of Northern California’s deadly wildfires in the past two years. However, Becerra’s brief is purely advisory; if any criminal charges are filed, they would be filed by county district attorneys, not the state. And so far, the district attorneys have shown little appetite for prosecuting PG&E, according to the Sacramento Bee.
Meanwhile, PG&E’s stock price has fallen by half (as of this writing), and California’s Public Utilities Commission is looking into possibly breaking up the company. PG&E is also being sued by the three major insurance companies and at least 35 families in civil court.
*Note: In January 2019, PG&E has started the process to declare bankruptcy (while still remaining in business).
December: Samuel Little Confesses to 90 Murders
Samuel Little (AKA Samuel McDowell), 78, was already serving a life term for three murders when his name and DNA were submitted to ViCAP, the FBI’s Violent Criminal Apprehension Program. One murder from 1994 in Odessa, Texas — that of Denise Christie Brothers — popped up. So a pair of FBI crime analysts and a Texas Ranger flew out to California to talk to him.
And he was willing to talk, in exchange for a transfer to a better prison. Over the course of a few months, Little told them he had murdered 90 women across the country between 1970 and 2005. He recalled very specific details about the murders: what city they were in, what car he was driving and what the victim looked like.
He told them he targeted women who worked as prostitutes or were addicted to drugs — in other words, women whose deaths might not be investigated. Plus, he traveled widely around the country, leaving a state before any pattern could emerge for law enforcement to pick up on.
Finally, his method of killing didn’t always leave evidence that the death was a homicide. The former competitive boxer usually knocked out his victims with powerful punches before he strangled them. With no stab marks or bullet wounds on the bodies, many of these deaths were attributed to drug overdoses, accidents or natural causes.
At the time of this writing, 34 of his confessed killings have been confirmed, though no charges have been brought yet. If the others are confirmed as well, Little will surpass Gary Ridgway, AKA the Green River Killer, as the most prolific serial killer in US history.*
That does it for the worst crimes in 2018. Did I miss one? Let me know in the comments!
*With the possible exception of Charles Cullen, who may have killed up to 400 people, though only 35 are confirmed.