Books of 2020

So far I’ve read 115 books this year. Eight days to go. This is the first time in several years that I’ve kept track of how many books I’ve read, and it’s far less than I used to read. Back in I think 2011, in the full swing of the Great Headache Crisis, I read over 400 books in a single year. Now I have other hobbies and so don’t read as much as I used to, something I feel vaguely guilty about, though I know I still read far more than most people do.

Some of the best books I read in 2020, in no particular order:

  • The Origins of AIDS by Jacques Pepin. Started reading this in the spring, as the coronavirus pandemic was getting itself comfortable for a long stay. It was a fascinating story about the perfect storm of events that created the AIDS pandemic. I wrote a little about it on this blog in May.
  • Kaffir Boy: An Autobiography–The True Story of a Black Youth’s Coming of Age in Apartheid South Africa by Mark Mathabane. Before I read this I had no idea how awful life for black people was under Apartheid; I didn’t know much about it at all. I learned a lot.
  • A Thousand Lives: The Untold Story of Hope, Deception, and Survival at Jonestown by Julia Scheeres. A comprehensive look on the events leading to the massacre at Jonestown, the killings themselves, and the aftermath. Very sad. I could identify with the people at Jonestown, who seem to have been very good folks, idealistic, hoping to make a better world. They trusted the wrong person and most of them came to realize it after arriving in Guyana, but they were unable to leave–Jonestown was basically a concentration camp.
  • A Book of the Blockade, by Ales Adamovich and Daniil Granin. This book took a long time to read; I actually started it in 2019 but didn’t finish till 2020. It was about the Siege of Leningrad in World War II, and includes numerous accounts from people who were there, including a detailed diary by a teenage Leningrader who probably starved to death (although they’re not 100% sure on that; the evidence is inconclusive).
  • 999: The Extraordinary Young Women of the First Official Jewish Transport to Auschwitz by Heather Dune Macadam. The transport consisted of young, unmarried Slovak girls, in their teens and twenties I believe, who were under the impression they were going to a labor camp and would return home in a few months. Of course very few of those women survived. It was a fascinating story.
  • “Promise Me You’ll Shoot Yourself”: The Mass Suicide of Ordinary Germans in 1945 by Florian Huber. The book explores not only the mass suicides themselves (these were mostly people who were rightly terrified of being raped and tortured by the invading Soviet soldiers) but also what led the German public at large to make Adolf Hitler their leader and do, well, all the stuff they did. I actually found myself more interested in the backstory part than I was in the suicides.
  • Prairie Fires: The American Dreams of Laura Ingalls Wilder by Caroline Fraser. A detailed biography of Laura Ingalls Wilder and of her daughter Rose Wilder Lane.
  • Trials of the Earth: The True Story of a Pioneer Woman by Mary Mann Hamilton. This was a detailed memoir by an ordinary woman who’d started out life in I think Arkansas in the mid-nineteenth century and lived in various places in the Mississippi Delta area. It was a pretty hard life, but pretty typical for someone of that time and place. The Kindle version of this book is only $2.99 right now, if you want it.
  • The Wilkomirski Affair: A Study in Biographical Truth by Stefan Maechler. Bruno Grosjean aka Binyomin Wilkomirski is a Swiss man who wrote a book which he said was his memoir of surviving the Holocaust in early childhood. (He was adopted by his Swiss parents at age four.) The book won some awards and much critical acclaim, then was proved to be fictional. However, Grosjean is not your typical fraudster, and seems to genuinely believe he was a Holocaust survivor. In this book, Maechler examines Grosjean’s life, and the available evidence, and tries to determine what on earth happened in this case. It reads like a great mystery story, and in a sense it is.

Sorry for the recent silence

Yeah, I haven’t updated in a bit and I’m sorry. The last week has been super busy, mainly with wedding stuff. Michael and I are getting married Saturday.

I picked up my dress at the alterations place yesterday and it fits me perfectly. In my completely unbiased opinion I’m going to be the most beautiful bride in the world. There’s not going to be any honeymoon because of Covid. Michael will go back to work on Monday and so will I.

So, in lieu of Charley Project updates, here’s a sample of the more interesting recent missing and unidentified persons news:

  1. A woman whose body was found off Interstate 5 in Sacramento, California in 1981 has been identified as 26-year-old Lily Prendergast, who was last seen when she left her family’s Texas home in late 1980.
  2. John Michael Carroll disappeared from Victor, Idaho in 2005. His skeletal remains were found “in the general area” where he lived in 2013, and were identified this month.
  3. Hollis Willingham has been arrested in the murder of Jim Craig Martin, who disappeared from Normangee, Texas on August 6, 2007. It doesn’t look like Martin’s body has been found, however.
  4. Thomas Drew disappeared from Salisbury, Connecticut in 2007. He used to be on Charley but then his daughter asked me to remove the case. She didn’t like what I’d written, I guess. Anyway, he is still missing, and his daughter has recently published a memoir, Searching for My Missing Father: An American Noir. It sounds very interesting and I added it to my wishlist.
  5. Blackfeet Community College, in corroboration with Montana’s Missing Indigenous Persons Task Force, has launched a website to help streamline missing persons reports of Native American people: “The website [linked here] allows families and friends to complete a Contact Information Form about the missing person online. In the past, missing persons’ loved ones have expressed reluctance to report missing individuals directly to law enforcement. The BCC reporting system will serve as the go-between for those reporting and all levels of law enforcement. Once the form is submitted on the website, an automatic notice will be sent to local tribal law enforcement.”
  6. A woman’s torso found washed ashore in the seaside community of Benicia, California in 1979 has been identified as Dolores Wulff, who disappeared from Woodland, California that year. Dolores’s husband Carl Wulff Sr. had actually been charged with her murder in 1985, but the charge was dismissed later that year and he died in 2005.
  7. A skull found on Mount Hood in Oregon in 1986 has been identified as that of Wanda Ann Herr, who had left a Gresham, Oregon group home a decade earlier at the age of nineteen. No missing persons report was filed at the time and the most recent photo available showed her at age twelve. The police are asking anyone who knew Wanda or has any info on her 1976 disappearance to contact them.
  8. The police have identified a new suspect in the 1973 disappearance of Barbara Jean Aleksivich from Bath, New York. The suspect, Richard W. Davis, is now dead, but he was recently identified through DNA as the killer of Siobhan McGuinness, a Missoula, Montana six-year-old who was kidnapped, raped and murdered in 1974. Barbara, who was 24, was way out of Richard Davis’s preferred age range for victims, but he did live in Bath at the time Barbara disappeared. A previous suspect in her case, who still lived in the Bath area last I knew, has been cleared.
  9. The body of Ethan Bert Kazmerzak, who disappeared from Hampton, Iowa in 2013, has probably been found. At least they found his car submerged in a local pond, with human remains inside. The remains have been sent to the state medical examiner to be identified, but it’s highly unlikely it’s anyone but Ethan.

Hope everyone is doing okay out there

Hi all. Hope y’all are doing okay and are in good health. Michael and I are doing well, though it’s getting hard to stave off depression. I never went to many places, but the fact that now I basically never leave the house at all is getting to me. On top of worrying about Michael possibly getting infected at his job. But I know a lot of other people are worse off.

Recently I read an interesting book called The Origins of AIDS. It was extremely interesting and all the little connections, the butterfly-effect stuff of what happened, was astounding to me. At around 1910 a hunter in sub-Saharan Africa cut himself while killing or butchering a chimp, some of the chimp’s blood got in the cut, and a century later 30 million people are dead. And there were a lot of events that happened in the intervening years, and if even one of them hadn’t happened as it did, the history of AIDS would be much different now.

Stay safe, everyone. Wear a mask. Wash your hands. No one should consider themselves immune from COVID-19. Something like 15-20% of the people who have died were under 65, and around 10% had no underlying illnesses at all. That doesn’t even count the people who only survived by the skin of their teeth after a stint in ICU. Coronavirus is insanely unpredictable; a 108-year-old woman survived while a healthy five-year-old did not.

On the bright side, a Chinese man who was abducted in 1988 has been reunited with his parents after 32 years.

Asian Pacific American Heritage Month: Alexandria Suleski

In honor of Asian Pacific American Heritage Month, I am profiling one Asian or Pacific Islander MP for every day of the month of May. Today’s case is Alexandria Christine Suleski; her father is white and her mom is Korean. She disappeared from Radcliff, Kentucky on October 26, 1989, at the age of five.

What happened to her is known, and two people were convicted, but I don’t think it’s possible to recover her remains: supposedly the bones were crushed to crumbs.

I updated her case recently after reading Alexandria’s stepsister Nyssa’s self-published memoir, Dark Secret: The Complete Story: The True Account of What Happened to Little Alex Suleski. For a self-published book it’s pretty good, and it’s available on Kindle Unlimited. (Though you might want to skip the last hundred pages or so; the post-trial stuff dragged on and on and on.)

The book describes in vivid detail what life with Nyssa’s sociopathic mother was like, how her mother ultimately tortured and murdered Alex because she kept having potty accidents, and how Nyssa ultimately turned against her mother and testified against her in court.

Poor Alex was let down by every adult in her life. The best that can be said is that after her death, her siblings were all raised by good people, and her killers are both still in prison.

Incidentally, Alex was also a family abduction victim: her dad told her mom he was just taking her and her sister on a vacation, but never returned them, and within two months Alex was dead.

This is just to say…

Norman Zierold’s book about the abduction of Charley Ross, which I read under its original title of Little Charley Ross, is on sale today under a new title Defy All The Devils, for $1.99 on Kindle. I read the book years ago and enjoyed it very much.

I just thought I’d mention this in case any of y’all want to get a copy.

Darron Glass revisited

So I just finished reading this book about the unsolved 1980 disappearance of Darron Glass, the only presumed Atlanta Child Killer victim who is still missing. I’ve written about Darron on this blog twice before.

The book is self-published and more of a booklet than a book, only 28 pages long in large type. Normally I wouldn’t have bothered with it, but it was written by Thomas Bailey, who was Darron’s foster care caseworker at the time of his disappearance, so I thought it might have some insights. It did.

Bailey says much of what has been reported about Darron is wrong. His foster mother, Fannie Mae Smith, was interviewed by the media and described him as “immature but streetwise.” However, Bailey says Darron was in fact mentally disabled, and that his IQ had tested at 65, and he “was in no way streetwise.” Smith claimed Darron, or someone claiming to be him, called her on the day of his disappearance, but Bailey doesn’t believe Darron called or even knew his foster home’s phone number.

I’m not sure what to make of this information. Certainly I’m going to put the info about Darron’s mental disability on his Charley Project profile, but I don’t think his low IQ necessarily means Smith didn’t know what she was talking about.

An IQ in the 60s indicates a mild mental disability. According to some research I did, most people with IQs in that range function relatively normally. They can take care of themselves in terms of stuff like bathing and dressing and keeping their living area clean and so on. They can conform socially and they can acquire reading and math skills up until around the sixth-grade level. With some support, they can usually work a job and live independently as adults.

With this in mind, and given that Darron grew up in inner city Atlanta and had a rough life (per Bailey, Darron’s father murdered his mother in front of him), I can totally see him presenting as “immature but streetwise” to most people. If anyone is in a position to speak about children with mild mental disabilities, I’d be happy to hear it.

Bailey has more to say. Fannie Mae Smith’s foster home, he says, was very unsuitable, both for a mentally disabled child and for kids in general; in fact, he says, “How this home became certified is a mystery to me.” He says there were often “people of questionable character” in the home, and suspicion of drug use and even drug selling. Bailey says he had raised concerns about the placement with his supervisor but was ignored.

Per Bailey, he was informed of Darron’s disappearance on September 15, the day after it happened. That same day, he got a call from a woman who identified herself as Darron’s sister. Darron did have a sister whom he wasn’t in contact with, and Bailey wasn’t sure how she would have gotten his number.

The caller said she lived out of state and wanted to adopt Darron. Bailey told her Darron was missing, and she ended the conversation without leaving any contact info, and did not call back.

Bailey started getting anonymous calls saying if he would give the caller money, the caller would disclose Darron’s whereabouts. He says it was always a child’s voice, “maybe a young boy with adult voices in the background.” He told the police about the calls and they put a tap on his phone. Nothing seems to have come of it.

Bailey does not believe Wayne Williams was the Atlanta Child Killer, or at least that if he was a killer, he did not kill all the victims lumped under the Atlanta Child Killer case. (I agree.) He also thinks Darron was probably not murdered at all.

Bailey’s theory is that Darron’s sister was in contact with Fannie Mae Smith and that there was some kind of plan for the sister to take Darron, and that she did so on the day Darron disappeared, and that Darron is alive and well today.

He has a lot of criticism for both the Department of Family and Children Services, and the Atlanta Police Department, and thinks the police were too quick to dump Darron in the pile of serial killer victims instead of actually looking for him.

77 years ago today

Another Executed Today entry by me, this one about the massacre of 3,500 Jews in Zloczow, occupied Poland on July 3, 1941.

My biggest source for this entry is the wonderful diary by Ephraim Sten, 1111 Days in My Life Plus Four. It is, hands down, the greatest Holocaust diary I’ve ever read, and I’ve read EIGHTY of them. It’s beautifully written and tells a thrilling, edge-of-your-seat story.

Ephraim was a thirteen-year-old Jewish boy and he was not present at the massacre, but his father was and miraculously survived it. For awhile, anyway — his father’s health was ruined by the physical and mental trauma and he died later that year. Ephraim and his mom survived the war, hidden by some Ukrainian Catholic heroes.

A murder-without-a-body case out of Britain/India

Last night I read a book called Shamed: The Honour Killing That Shocked Britain – by the Sister Who Fought for Justice, by Sarbjit Athwal, describing the “honor killing” of her sister-in-law, Surjit, and the subsequent missing persons investigation and eventual prosecution of two of the people involved: Surjit and Sarbit’s mother-in-law, Bachan Kaur Athwal, and Surjit’s husband, Sukhdave Singh Athwal.

What it amounted to, basically, is that the Athwal family were very conservative Sikhs living in Britain, and Bachan Kaur had a high reputation in the community as a very devout woman. In fact, within the family she was an absolute tyrant and her sons were terrified of her, to say nothing of her daughters-in-law. When Surjit wanted a divorce from her abusive husband, Bachan Kaur decided she couldn’t have her daughter-in-law shaming the family like that.

So she convinced Surjit to go on a trip to India with her to attend a family wedding. When they were in India, some goons Bachan Kaur had hired drugged Surjit, kidnapped her, strangled her, removed her gold jewelry and dumped her body in the river. It was never found — at least as far as anyone knows. That particular river runs into Pakistan, which doesn’t have the greatest relationship with India, and corpses dumped in from India tend to wash up in Pakistan and never get identified.

Sarbjit Athwal had been at the family meeting where Bachan Kaur announced what she was going to do, and she called the police with an anonymous tip hoping they would stop Surjit leaving for India, or rescue her once she arrived, but the police did…nothing. After Surjit “disappeared”, Sarbjit wrote the police an anonymous letter describing exactly what had happened, in great detail, and the police did…nothing. Then she confided in her sister, who went to the police and gave a statement, and they did…nothing. And so on.

Sarbjit was too afraid to actually go to the police openly, because the Athwals made it clear they would kill her too. Something like a decade passed before the case broke open, and Sarbjit started cooperating with the cops. They went to her house and arrested everyone, including her (in order to trick the Athwals into thinking it wasn’t her who spilled the beans), but instead of taking her to the station they took her to her parents’ house. She was in witness protection for ages before the trial, staying in grimy hostels with her baby whom she was nursing.

I wouldn’t say justice has been entirely achieved in this case. The identities of the people who actually killed Surjit in India are known, but they have never been prosecuted and for legal reasons they weren’t even named in the book. (Media reports I found said one of them was Bachan Kaur’s brother.) Sarbjit’s husband, Hardave, was at that original family meeting and passively let the whole conspiracy unfold, repeatedly lied to the police, and threatened Sarbjit when he found out she was going to testify, but he wasn’t prosecuted either.

Surjit’s daughter, Pawanpreet “Pav” Athwal, had been told her mother abandoned her. She was a teenager when she found out the truth. Pav has been active in Britain speaking out against honor killings and set up a hotline for women who are afraid of being the victim of an honor killing or being forced into marriage.

I would recommend the book if you’re interested in this kind of thing. I’m glad the US isn’t the only country that prosecutes no-body homicides.

And of course it’s always worth saying there is no honor in murder.

For Kindle users

I found out the book Finding Everett Ruess: The Life and Unsolved Disappearance of a Legendary Wilderness Explorer, by David Roberts, is on sale in its Kindle form for just $1.99. I’m not sure how long the deal’s going to last, though.

I had Everett on Charley years ago — he disappeared from Utah in 1934. Then there was big news cause they thought his skeletal remains had been found, and I removed him and put up a resolved notice. Then it turned out the remains weren’t his. But I’ve never put him back up.

Thought y’all would like to know about this. I’ve never read the book, but if you’ve got a Kindle and a spare two bucks, it seems worth checking out.

Let’s talk about it: Ann Marie Burr

This week’s “let’s talk about it” case is the abduction of eight-year-old Ann Marie Burr from her home in Tacoma, Washington on August 31, 1961.

WHAT happened is clear enough. This is an “every parent’s nightmare” scenario: a child taken from her own home in the middle of the night, never to be seen or heard from again. The mystery here is WHO DID IT. Because there are a lot of people who believe, with very good reason, that little Ann Marie was a then-teenage Ted Bundy’s first victim.

Ted knew Ann and her family and lived just blocks from their home. He was only fourteen years old at the time of her abduction, but it’s not unheard of for a serial killer to begin at that age, and Ted was extraordinary even by serial killer standards. Independent evidence — the size of the footprint outside the Burr family’s living room window — suggests whoever took Ann was young.

Ann Rule herself, Bundy’s biographer and onetime friend, believed Ted was involved. In her book — if I recall correctly, I read it several years ago and no longer have a copy — she said someone had contacted her once claiming they had been a high school classmate of Ted’s and at one point Ted invited to take this person “to see a body.”

The whole “did he or didn’t he?” question has occupied the minds of Bundy hobbyists since his serial murder career exploded onto the national news in the 1970s and 1980s. I don’t really have a strong opinion on the subject and I don’t pretend to be an expert on Bundy.

Rebecca Morris published a book about it, Ted and Ann, in 2013. I read it and thought it was excellent, and it’s got 4 of 5 stars on Amazon with 251 reviews. I highly recommend the book; if you’ve got a Kindle it costs just $4.99.

So do you guys think Ted Bundy took Ann, or do you believe it was someone else entirely? Let’s talk about it.