We’re continuing the countdown of the most interesting, awful, and impactful crime stories of 2019. ICYMI, you can read Part 1 here.
July: The Murder of Bianca Devins
Sometimes there is a crime that exemplifies an era, that could only happen in this exact place, and in this exact time. The murder of 17-year-old Bianca Devins is such a crime.
Devins was described as shy and quiet — though friends and classmates say she was extremely kind and supportive to friends and strangers alike.
Like many teens, however, she was active on social media — she had multiple Instagram accounts and was also on Tumblr, Snapchat, 4chan, and Discord. As a pretty young woman, she had a lot of followers (though wasn’t a celebrity, by any means). These often included “orbiters,” or men who follow a (usually younger) woman’s social media feed and try to ingratiate themselves with her. Some orbiters can become obsessive, escalating their behavior into online harassment and stalking.
Brandon Clark fit into that category — though he was much more savvy about it than most. Clark, who was 21, met Devins through the chat app Discord, and then the two met in real life soon after. Clark wanted to be Devins’ boyfriend, and even met her family. But Devins had just graduated high school and was looking forward to attending college in the fall. She made it clear, time and time again, that she didn’t want to be in a committed relationship with Clark.
Nonetheless, Clark and Devins continued to be friends — though Clark routinely pushed her boundaries and would message her “obsessively.”
On July 13, the two went to a concert together. While there, they met up with another online friend of Devins. Devins, who had never met the boy in person, was instantly attracted. The two flirted throughout the concert, and when Clark was gone, they shared a kiss.
Despite being told repeatedly that she didn’t want a relationship with him, Clark got jealous. Devins messaged another friend after the concert, saying Clark was being “nasty and combative.”
The next thing anyone heard from her was just after 6 a.m. the next morning. A picture was posted to Devins’ Discord account of her with her throat slit, blood splattered all over her body. The caption read, “Sorry f — -rs, you’re gonna have to find somebody else to orbit.”
At first many thought the photo was just a prank or done with special effects. But as more and more of her online friends tried to find out where she was and what had happened, it became clear this was no prank. The image was posted to Instagram with the hashtag #RIPBianca; it went viral. The gruesome image continued to circulate on Instagram for days while the company claimed it was doing everything it could to scrub it from the platform.
Meanwhile, her friends started calling the police. Clark’s family, as well, called in. He had called them and threatened suicide; his social media posts showed him with a woman’s bloody arm with the caption, “I’m sorry Bianca,” and other strange and disturbing posts.
Then at about 7:30 a.m., Clark called 911. He gave them his location — near where Bianca had gone to high school — and told them he was committing a murder-suicide, and now he “needed to do the suicide part.”
When first responders arrived, they found Clark bloody, writhing in pain, with a fire raging nearby. He had slashed his own throat. Underneath the tarp he was lying on was Devins’ body. He was taking selfies and livestreaming the whole thing.
Clark survived his suicide attempt and pled not guilty to second-degree murder. His trial date is set for Feb. 24, 2020.
August: The Death That Launched 1,000 Memes
Jeffrey Epstein, wealthy, well-connected, longtime sex trafficker and rapist of underage girls, had gotten away with his crimes for decades. He had been prosecuted only once before, in 2008 in Florida, where he pled guilty to one felony charge of solicitation of a prostitute involving a minor — a plea deal that brought the charges down from four counts.
But he was given a suspiciously light sentence: only 13 months in jail, and he was allowed to leave the jail for “work release” 16 hours a day. This “sweetheart deal” was designed by then-district attorney Alexander Acosta, who went on to become the Secretary of Labor in the Trump administration. Under criticism over how he handled this case (as well as cutting funding for the agency charged with fighting sex trafficking), he resigned July 19. (This case alone is infuriating, and I’ve skipped over a lot. I highly recommend Julie Brown’s excellent investigative reporting on it).
So, in July, it looked like Epstein was finally going to face justice: he was arrested on federal charges of sex trafficking and conspiracy to engage in sex trafficking. According to his indictment: “over the course of many years, Jeffrey Epstein, the defendant, sexually exploited and abused dozens of minor girls at his homes in Manhattan, New York, and Palm Beach, Florida, among other locations.”
He was denied bail and was awaiting his trial at the Metropolitan Correctional Center in New York City. On July 29, after he was found unconscious in his cell with injuries around his neck, he was placed in a special housing unit in the jail and put on suicide watch.
But on Aug. 10, guards again found Epstein unresponsive in his cell. According to the report from the Federal Bureau of Prisons, staff attempted to revive him, then called EMS. He was transported to a nearby hospital, but was pronounced dead by hospital staff upon his arrival.
His death was officially ruled a suicide by the New York City medical examiner, and the FBI opened an investigation into the incident.
Considering the powerful people Epstein associated with, and their likely wish to keep their names out of any court records once Epstein went to trial, many believe his death was not a suicide. Dr. Michael Baden, a pathologist hired by Epstein’s brother, says that Epstein’s injuries — multiple broken cervical vertebrae and hyoid — would be highly unusual for a suicide and are more consistent with homicidal strangulation.
Other troubling details have led many to suspect that Epstein’s death was not a suicide. For one, the day before his death, his cellmate was transferred out and no new cellmate was brought in, leaving him alone. Then, his guards fell asleep that night, failing to check on him every 30 minutes as they were supposed to do —then falsified records to cover it up. And perhaps most suspiciously, the two security cameras covering his cell malfunctioned that night.
It’s not surprising that his death has given rise to a variety of theories (some of the distinctly “conspiracy” variety) about what really happened. And now dozens of memes with the phrase “Epstein didn’t kill himself” are all over social media.
Though his death may have ended his criminal case, several of his victims have sued his estate. HBO, SonyTV, and Lifetime are said to be working on movies or mini-series based on the case.
September: Thousands of Fetal Remains Found on Doctor’s Property
Dr. Ulrich Klopfer, a South Bend, Indiana, doctor, passed away Sept. 3. That fact alone was somewhat newsworthy, at least in his local area; Klopfer had long been a controversial figure.
Klopfer started providing abortions in 1973, as soon as the procedure became legal. Over the years had performed tens of thousands of them and was considered the most prolific abortion provider in the state. In fact, at one point, it was revealed that he and another local abortion provider had engaged in a competition to perform the most procedures, leading to accusations of rushed and unprofessional standards of care.
His clinics were the frequent targets of protests and acts of terrorism. He had even been shot at. But Klopfer, who had survived the bombing of Dresden as a child, remained defiant, even “combative.”
In 2016, anti-abortion groups brought accusations against him that he had violated several documentation requirements, failed to keep his offices and equipment clean and in good repair, and that he didn’t offer sedation for all his patients. He was accused of using out-of-date techniques and of “professional incompetence.” His license was briefly suspended, though by that time, he had stopped practicing.
Perhaps due to stress, or for whatever reason, as the doctor got older, he became a hoarder. By the time of his death, his home and garage were stacked with boxes, appliances, and other items to the point where many rooms in his house were completely inaccessible.
So after his death, his widow asked her sister and brother-in-law come to the Klopfer home in rural Will County, Illinois, to help her go through his hoarde. At one point, his widow began to clear out the garage, which was stacked with boxes from floor to ceiling. As she began going through them, she came upon something shocking: a box filled with fetal remains in plastic bags.
They immediately called the family’s attorney, who notified the authorities. Sheriff’s deputies, crime scene investigators, and the Will County coroner arrived and searched the property. Inside the garage, they found 70 boxes containing 2,246 sets of fetal remains, in sealed medical specimen bags, preserved in formalin. And each of them had their medical records with them. The records indicated these were remains from abortions provided from 2000–2002.
Thankfully, there was no evidence that the doctor had performed any procedures on his property. Investigators also searched his clinics, but found no other fetal remains or any evidence of illegal activity.
Then, a month later, the family once again had a shock: in searching through one of Klopfer’s cars (which was not stored on the property), they found a box in the trunk containing another 165 sets of fetal remains.
Normally, fetal remains are sent to incinerators who dispose of other medical waste as well, at a cost of only about $10 per set of remains. So the cost didn’t seem to be a factor in Klopfer’s decision to hold onto these remains. As of this writing, no one can determine any motive for this gruesome collection.
People on both sides of the abortion debate were shocked and outraged. Anti-abortion activists particularly pointed to this case as proof that abortion clinics need more oversight and regulation. They are pressing the state for the release of the remains so they can provide a “proper burial” for them, and the Roman Catholic Diocese of Fort Wayne/South Bend offered space in its cemeteries for the remains. In Congress, Sen. Mike Braun of Indiana introduced the “Dignity for Aborted Children Act,” which would require burial or cremation of any aborted remains nationwide. Such disposal would be much more expensive and time-consuming than the current method of disposing of medical waste. There is also the question of whether women who suffer miscarriages would become criminally liable under this law.
As of this writing, the bill is in the Committee on Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions.
October: The Arrest of Brian Steven Smith
On the last day of September, a woman walking on a street in downtown Anchorage, Alaska, spotted something on the ground: an SD card. She picked it up and saw it was labeled, “Homicide at Midtown Marriott.” Curious, the woman opened it. Saved on the card were dozens of photos and videos showing a woman being tortured, assaulted, and strangled. The horrified woman immediately turned the card over to the police.
As they viewed the shocking images — scenes of torture and assault so brutal, even hardened detectives were shaken — police noticed two things: the assailant, a man, spoke with a distinctive English-sounding accent. And in footage of him taking the victim’s body to his truck, the license plate was visible.
Two days later, police found the badly beaten remains of a woman along a remote stretch of the Seward Highway. The victim looked a lot like the woman in the pictures and video. Later they would determine her name was Kathleen Henry, a 30-year-old Yupik Native Alaskan.
The perpetrator was also quickly identified by police, not only by his accent but by running a check on the license plate visible in the footage. He was 48-year-old Brian Steven Smith, a native of South Africa who had only recently become a naturalized US citizen. Police were already familiar with Smith as the subject of another investigation, which they refuse to discuss.
The time stamp on the images and footage indicated they were taken between Sept. 2 and 4, and they appeared to have been taken at a TownSuites Marriott in Anchorage. Hotel records showed that Smith had been there during those dates, which was corroborated by his cell-phone records.
Smith was arrested Oct. 8 at the Ted Stevens International Airport in Anchorage, where he was returning from a trip. Under questioning, he admitted to shooting another woman sometime between 2017 and 2018. He led police to a stretch of the Old Glenn Highway south of Anchorage where he said he dumped her body. In fact, back in April, police had discovered a skull with a bullet hole in that exact location. Dental records identified the remains as those of 53-year-old Veronica Abouchuk, also a Yupik Native Alaskan.
Smith was initially indicted on eight felony charges: one count of first-degree murder, two counts of second-degree murder, two counts of second-degree sexual assault, and three counts of tampering with physical evidence.
After his confession, he was indicted on five additional felony charges related to Abouchuk’s death: one count of first-degree murder, two counts of second-degree murder, and two counts of tampering with physical evidence.
He was also indicted on a misdemeanor charge of misconduct involving a corpse. If he is found guilty of “substantially torturing” Henry, he will face a mandatory 99 years (Alaska doesn’t have the death penalty).
Smith’s arrest helped to shine a national spotlight on the epidemic of murdered and missing Native American women. In some areas, Native American women are 10 times more likely to become victims of murder than the national average. As a marginalized population, many of their murders go unsolved.
As of this writing, Smith remains in jail under $2 million bail; his court date hasn’t been announced yet.
November: Man Stabbed to Death Over a Popeye’s Chicken Sandwich
To much fanfare, Sunday, Nov. 3, Popeye’s re-released its popular fried-chicken sandwich. When it was originally released in August, it proved immensely popular, and stores sold out of it within two weeks. This time, it was no different. Stores all over the country reported long lines of hungry customers eager to get their hands (and mouths) on it.
One Popeye’s in Oxon Hill, Maryland, just outside of Washington, D.C., had to set up a separate line for people ordering the sandwich. The day after the re-release, Monday-evening dinner crowds were waiting in this line when 28-year-old Kevin Tyrell Davis entered the restaurant and began “methodically” cutting in line.
As Davis got closer to the front of the line, one man called him out for it. The two argued, then left the restaurant. Seconds later, the man stabbed Davis in the parking lot, in full view of customers — including children. He then fled the scene in a vehicle with an unidentified female companion.
Davis was rushed to the hospital, but succumbed to his wounds about an hour later.
This wasn’t the only time people had gotten violent over the popular sandwich. Fistfights and verbal altercations had been reported from all over the country, and in Texas, one angry man pulled a handgun on staff after learning the store sold out of the sandwich.
After viewing surveillance footage from the restaurant, police identified Davis’ attacker as 30-year-old Ricoh McClain of Washington, D.C. Already wanted on previous warrants for failure to appear in court for drug charges and unauthorized removal of a vehicle, he became the object of a major manhunt and a $35,000 reward.
McClain was finally arrested Nov. 12. A grand jury indicted him on murder charges and carrying a dangerous weapon with intent to injure. His court date is pending.
Prince George County Police Chief Hank Stawinski called the murder “pointless” and “disrespectful,” and Davis’ friends and family say they don’t want his death to be about a sandwich.
December: Jersey City Shootout
On the afternoon of Dec. 10, Jersey City Police Det. Joseph Seals spotted a suspicious U-Haul van parked near a cemetery where he was waiting to meet an informant. The van was linked to the murder of Michael Rumberger, who had been killed that weekend. As Seals approached the van, he was shot dead.
The van then fled the scene, headed directly towards the Jersey City Kosher Supermarket, in a predominantly Orthodox Jewish neighborhood. Surveillance footage showed two suspects, a man and a woman, exit the van and run directly toward the store. On the way, they shot a Hasidic Jewish man in the street, wounding him.
The pair fired directly at the store as they entered, killing three people — two customers and a clerk. Responding to the gunfire, officers from the Jersey City Police Department, sheriffs from surrounding counties, the New Jersey State Police, the N.Y.P.D., the Port Authority, the A.T.F., and the F.B.I. responded. The couple barricaded themselves in the store, firing on the officers.
Police, trying to keep the public safe, closed down the streets, and schools were placed on lockdown. The shootout lasted four hours, during which two more officers were shot and wounded.
In the end, police used an armored car to ram into the storefront. The pair were found dead inside, killed by police gunfire.
In the wake of such a horrific crime, the community — particularly the Jewish community where the shootout took place — had questions.
At first investigators didn’t believe the attack was a hate crime or an act of terrorism. But Jersey City Mayor Steven Fulop spoke out immediately, condemning the act as a hate crime — and faced backlash for saying so.
But as the Hudson County prosecutor’s office, FBI, and ATF investigated, they discovered the suspects — 47-year-old David Anderson and 50-year-old Francine Graham — were involved with the Black Hebrew Israelites, a group labeled by both the Southern Poverty Law Center and the Jewish Anti-Defamation League as a hate group for its black supremacist, anti-Semitic beliefs.
Inside the U-Haul van — which had been stolen, and where the two had been living for some time — police found a crudely made pipe bomb, a handgun with a silencer, and some writings by Anderson. In them, he stated, “I do this because my Creator makes me do this, and I hate who He hates.”
The shooting was the latest in what has been a recent surge in hate crimes, particularly against Jewish people. The investigation into this crime is still ongoing.
That does it for the worst crimes in 2019. Did I miss one? Let me know in the comments!