Involuntary actions

SleepWalking blog post 2

One night in 1987, Kenneth Parks drove fifteen miles to his in-laws’ house.

He parked his car outside, walked up to the house, and broke in through a window. He then seriously assaulted his father-in-law, and fatally stabbed his mother-in-law. After this attack, he got back in his car, drove to a police station, and confessed to what he had done.  He was subsequently charged with both murder and attempted murder, and, after a lengthy trial, was acquitted on all counts.

He wasn’t found guilty for one simple reason – he was asleep at the time of the attack.

Now, I know what you’re thinking, because I thought it too when I first came across this case. That Parks was using the ‘I was asleep, guv’ defence which would turn out to be nothing but a desperate attempt to get away with murder. However, as it turned out, no less than five neurological experts testified that they believed he was asleep at the time of the attack.

Let me rephrase that, five separate experts, who spend their lives investigating neurological problems, issues and phenomena, swore under oath – essentially staking not only their reputations but also their liberty (perjury, anyone?) – that they believed Kenneth Parks was asleep at the time of the assault and killing.

And as if that wasn’t strange enough, Kenneth Parks’ defence – automatism – had already been used before this case, and has also been used since.

Automatism

The automatism defence essentially states that a person accused of a crime was not aware of their actions at the time of the incident. Their actions are deemed to have been involuntary, which then means they cannot be culpable.

There are even two different types of automatism; the first is called ‘insane automatism’ which is considered to be caused by a ‘disease of the mind’. Committing crimes while asleep falls under this category.

Then there is ‘non-insane automatism’, which is considered to be caused by external factors, so for instance through mixing certain medications with alcohol which then cause the person to act involuntarily.

Automatism cases are thankfully very rare, and plenty of people have tried and failed to use this as a defence for crimes they have committed, but there have certainly been some strange cases which do appear to be genuine.

Tragedy

Another tragic case is that of Brian Thomas, who for fifty years suffered from horrific night terrors. One night he dreamt that he and his wife were being attacked and that he had to fight to save her. In actual fact he wasn’t saving his wife, he was strangling her as she slept. He woke up to find his wife dead, and came to the horrific conclusion that he had been the one that killed her. Just like Kenneth Parks, Thomas was cleared of murder, although I imagine this was little consolation to either of these poor men.

Then there’s the case of Jules Lowe, who beat his 83 year old father to death, inflicting over 85 injuries. Again, he claimed to have been asleep at the time of the incident, and again, this was met with the initial disbelief that you would expect. However, the court accepted the automatism defence, concluding that he had been sleepwalking at the time and so was not aware of what he was doing.

And this isn’t just a recent affliction either.

In the 19th century, a French detective named Robert Ledru was tasked with investigating the murder of a man named Andre Monet, who had been shot and killed on a beach at Le Havre. There were only two real pieces of evidence to use – the killer’s footprints, and the type of bullet he used.

The footprints were very distinctive, as the killer was missing the big toe on his right foot. Ledru found this information incredible, as he himself also suffered from this same affliction. Thinking back to the morning after Monet died, Ledru also realised that he had woken up with strangely wet socks.

(I’m sure you can see where this is going…)

Ledru also discovered that the killer used the same types of bullets as he himself used. Putting the evidence together, he could come to only one conclusion – that he had killed Monet, while asleep.

His colleagues were sceptical – to say the least – and decided to carry out an experiment. They kept Ledru in a cell overnight so as to observe whether he would sleepwalk. As it turns out, he did, although this obviously didn’t prove he was capable of murder.

So the next day, the police officers placed a gun in his cell, and then observed him again. That night, Ledru fell asleep, walked around the cell, then picked up the gun and started firing at the officers.

(I imagine at this point the officers were wondering why they thought it was necessary to actually load the gun…)

It was eventually decided that even though it appeared Ledru had killed Andre Monet, he couldn’t be considered responsible for the death. So instead of being imprisoned, he was exiled to the country. He lived there for the rest of his life, albeit in the company of both guards and nurses. Who presumably either slept during the day, or wore Kevlar every night.

Comedy

There are also less tragic and – let’s give it a name – actually pretty funny cases.

One guy repeatedly gets up in the middle of the night and starts painting in his sleep. He does this so regularly and prolifically that he’s even been given a nickname – ‘Kipasso’.

Another guy once woke up in the early hours of the morning and found himself in his garden, having just mowed his entire lawn.  As if that wasn’t bad enough, he was completely naked at the time too.

Then there’s the lady who gets out of bed in the middle of the night and sleep-gorges on both food and, well, non-food (Vaseline, paint, washing powder). She also regularly cooks in her sleep using her gas oven and hobs. So this one is kind of funny, but also potentially kind of horrific…

One of the strangest of the ‘funny’ cases is that of the nurse who, one night in January 2003, left her house wearing only her nightshirt, crashed her car, urinated in the street, and then got into a fight with the police officers who, some might say unsurprisingly, took exception to her behaviour. In her case the prosecutors only partly accepted the automatism defence though, and she eventually pleaded guilty to a highly reduced charge of careless driving.

So what is going on?

Ordinarily, our brains paralyse our bodies as we sleep so as to prevent us from acting out our dreams/nightmares. This paralysis can itself go wrong at times however, so as bad as acting out your dreams/nightmares is, waking up and not being able to move or breathe properly is pretty horrific too (as anyone who has suffered sleep paralysis – myself included – can attest to). Generally speaking though, the fact that our brains stop us acting out our dreams as we sleep is usually a good thing, and helps to keep both us and other people in the room/property/world safe.

The current view on this is that this type of sleepwalking happens when the brain tries to transition from a certain type of sleep (known as deep non-REM slow wave sleep) to full wakefulness. What happens is that the brain gets caught up between the sleep state and the wake state, and then – to coin a phrase – ‘hilarity ensues’.

The explanation for sleep paralysis is actually quite similar in that the current understanding is that the brain gets ‘stuck’ between two states, and causes the sleeper to not be fully awake but not be fully asleep either. So it’s a similar problem but causes a very different outcome.

(cough)

I actually wrote a psychological thriller based around sleep paralysis, which you can find out about here.

(cough)

Back to the point, what all these cases undoubtedly show is that our brains are both amazing and amazingly complex, with even the smallest deviation in our sleep processes causing things to go from ‘normal’ to ‘odd’ to ‘potentially criminal’ in mere seconds. Poor old Ledru – and, I guess, even poorer old Monet – are testament to that.

The really scary part is, if any of us are ever afflicted by this phenomenon, we won’t actually know about it until we wake up again. At which point we may well find ourselves either handcuffed in the back of a police car, or breaking into a DIY store looking for some paint to eat…

 

The Disappearance of Brandon Swanson

Night road

 

According to official statistics, in the US alone 2,300 people go missing every day.

Around 91% of all cases are closed within 48 hours, and 99% of cases are solved completely within one year.

This of course leaves 1% of cases that aren’t solved.

The case of Brandon Victor Swanson is one of them.

 

The Disappearance

Nineteen year old Brandon Swanson lived in Marshall, Minnesota with his parents. On the night of 14 May 2008, after celebrating the last day of college classes with a friend, he was driving home along a gravel road, and somehow crashed his car into a ditch.

Unable to move it himself and get back onto the road, he called home at some time after midnight and asked his parents to pick him up near Lynd, a small town Southwest of Marshall.

His parents left the house and began driving to pick up Brandon, at the same time speaking with him on his mobile phone to determine exactly where he was.

After getting to the location which he had described, they started flashing the car’s headlights so that Brandon could start walking towards them. Brandon told them he couldn’t see the lights at all, so he got back into his car and started flashing his own headlights in the hope that maybe they would see him. His parents said that they couldn’t anything either.

Both sides got increasingly frustrated, and Brandon eventually said that he was going to start walking towards the town of Lynd, to a friend’s house. He said that he knew which direction to head in as he could see what looked like the lights of a town.

His father dropped Brandon’s mother back at home, then began driving again to find his son.

At around 2am Brandon and his father were on the phone to each other, with Brandon desperately trying to direct his father to where he was, and Brandon’s father equally desperately trying to locate his son.

Forty-seven minutes into the phone call, Brandon suddenly exclaimed, ‘Oh shit!’ and the line went dead.

And that was the last time anybody heard anything from Brandon Swanson.

His dad tried calling back a number of times, but Brandon never picked up his phone. His frantic parents continued the search but were unable to find him. A few hours later – at around 6.30am – they notified the police.

 

The Aftermath

Since that day more than five hundred volunteers have spent over one hundred and twenty days looking for Brandon – or any evidence pointing to where he could be – covering over one hundred square miles in the process. This has included over thirty dog handlers from nine different states.

The result? No evidence. No clues. Nothing.

The only thing that has ever been found is Brandon’s car, which was discovered around twenty miles away from where he told his parents he thought he crashed.

The authorities say that there is neither any evidence of foul play, nor any evidence that Brandon would have staged his own disappearance. They have also said that they do not believe there was any evidence that he was intoxicated or ‘impaired’ in any way. (And if he was drunk for instance, then it’s likely that his parents would have picked up on this over the phone).

The authorities received over seventy-five tips about Brandon, but none have borne any information that has led anywhere near to finding him. The last official search was conducted in October 2011, and age-progressed photos have also been distributed in the hope that somebody may recognise him.

 

The Theories

There have been a number of theories around what happened that night, with the most prevalent being that Brandon must have fallen into a river or creek – possibly the Yellow Medicine River – which is fifteen feet at its deepest point, and would have been running incredibly fast at the time he disappeared. The problem with this theory however, is that there would be some trace if he had fallen in, and so far nothing has been found at any point of the river.

A number of other theories have been considered, including the idea that Brandon might have hidden in an abandoned structure to escape the cold and then succumbed to hypothermia, or that he was attacked by an animal and taken away. Yet again, the main problem with these theories is that of evidence – or, more specifically, the big fat lack of it. If for instance he did hide in a structure, then surely it would’ve been found by now? Not to mention the fact that an animal attacking, fatally wounding and then dragging a person away would leave a huge amount of evidence behind.

Yet more theories are that Brandon was either hit by a car or picked up by an apparently helpful driver who turned out to have a malicious intent. These theories have major flaws, however; if a person has time to register danger, swear down the phone and then end a phone call, surely they would have time to get out of the way of an oncoming vehicle? And if he was picked up by someone, surely he would tell his dad, who he was on the phone with at the time?

Also, if someone had just offered to give him a lift home, why would he swear at all ?

On the subject of the phone call, a huge question here is why the phone call was ended. If something dangerous was imminent, it seems unlikely that Brandon would actually hang up the phone. He would be more likely to drop the phone, and his parents would then hear anything that was going on (such as a struggle, or the whooshing of the river, or the impact of a car). But instead somebody pushed ‘end’ on the phone. As has been asked so many times in this case- why?

An answer might be that Brandon dropped the phone, causing the battery to fall out and so ending the call that way. However, Brandon’s dad said that after the call ended, he kept trying to call Brandon but that he wasn’t picking up the call, which means the phone was in working condition but not being answered.

 

No Trace

At time of writing – six years later – there is still no evidence or even a trace indicating what happened. In spite of all the searches using state of the art equipment and techniques, and all of the theories and hours of investigations and searches, we are still no closer to knowing what occurred that night, or where Brandon Swanson is now.

Just as with the case of Elisa Lam in Los Angeles, there seem to be more questions than answers.

Impossible as it may seem, a nineteen year old man seems to have – literally – disappeared without a trace.

 

Blue
Note: As a result of these events, a new law has been introduced. This requires police in Minnesota to begin immediate searches for missing adults under the age of 21, as well as any older adults who have been reported missing where there are suspicious circumstances.  It has been named Brandon’s Law.

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The tragic and unexplained case of Elisa Lam

Hotel photo

The tragic and unexplained case of Elisa Lam

I can’t actually remember when I first became interested in behavioural science and real-life crime cases, but I do know it’s been a long time.

I’ve never been particularly interested in the gory side of the crimes, more the psychology of the perpetrator/s.  In other words, for me it’s always been about the ‘why’ rather than the ‘how’ – which is probably why I write psychological thrillers rather than, say, detective novels.

Every so often I come across a case (such as the disappearance of Brandon Swanson) that I absolutely cannot get out of my head – sometimes because of the ‘how’, sometimes because of the ‘why’.  And sometimes because of the unanswered questions surrounding the crime, occasionally bringing into question whether it was actually a crime at all.

Which brings us to the case of Elisa Lam.

Now, I’m not going to go into every minute detail of this case – there are plenty of other websites and articles that do that – but I do want to give a brief outline of it.

In early 2013, residents of the Cecil Hotel in downtown Los Angeles started complaining about the water, both that the pressure had dropped and that it had a strange colour and taste.   On investigating these complaints, on 19th February 2013, the hotel staff looked inside the four water tanks on the roof, and in one of them they found the naked, drowned body of a 21 year old student, Elisa Lam.

This raised a lot of questions, not least of which was how she/anybody could successfully have gained access to the roof when it was both alarmed and securely locked?

Not to mention just how this petit girl could then climb up and into a massive water tank (8-foot tall, and 4-foot in diameter), and then somehow replace the heavy lid by herself?  And, even if she was physically able to do this – which is generally considered impossible – why would she?

And why without her clothes?

At this point, the most logical assumption is that somebody else was involved, maybe a hotel employee who had access to the roof and alarm codes.  But, according to investigators, Elisa Lam’s body showed no evidence of any kind of trauma.  So if somebody did force her into the tank, they somehow did it without touching or injuring her at all.

So… maybe she was drugged?  Nope, that’s been ruled out too.  According to the authorities, there was no evidence of drugs in her system.

Some people have claimed she might have got into the tank voluntarily and alone in order to go for a swim.  If this is true, then it does go some way to explaining the ‘why’ of getting into the tank, but it doesn’t even get remotely close to explaining the ‘how’.

Oh, and then there’s the video.

Like most hotels, the Cecil Hotel had a CCTV camera set up in the lift of the lobby.  This video shows Elisa Lam in the minutes before her death going in and out of the lift, pushing buttons, gesticulating, looking like she’s talking to somebody standing outside, and essentially behaving in a pretty odd manner.

At this point, let me tell you that Elisa Lam had apparently been diagnosed with bipolar disorder, which some people have claimed may explain her behaviour in the video, as well as her decision to go swimming in the water tank on the roof.  I’m not convinced of this, but ok, let’s say for argument’s sake that we can attribute those things to her bipolar disorder.  But – and as far as buts go, this is a pretty big one – having bipolar disorder wouldn’t somehow allow you to access the locked and alarmed roof of a hotel.  It also wouldn’t magically give a 21 year old student the strength she would need to climb into and then somehow seal herself inside a water tank.

Still not a mysterious enough case?  Ok, let’s look at the hotel itself.

The Cecil Hotel has a pretty gruesome history, which has caused some people to explain the death of Elisa Lam by invoking some kind of supernatural cause.  I personally don’t buy into the ‘a ghost must have done it’ argument, but some of the history of the hotel is admittedly pretty unnerving and does add to the overall creepiness of this case.

For instance, in 1991 a man named Johann Unteweger lived in the hotel for a while.  And by ‘a man’, I mean ‘a serial killer who had been released from jail in 1990 and pretty much immediately started killing again, allegedly murdering 3 prostitutes while staying at this very hotel’.  In 1985, the sadistic murderer Richard Ramirez (known as the ‘Night Stalker’) lived in the hotel for a number of months too.  Going even further back, in 1964 a resident of the hotel was found dead in her room having been viciously attacked and murdered by a still-unknown perpetrator.  And, lastly, there has also been some speculation that the hotel was one of the last places that Elizabeth Short, aka the ‘Black Dahlia’, was seen the night she was horrifically murdered in 1947.

Remember that name by the way, it comes up again later.

There have also been a number of suicides at the hotel, although personally I think it’s likely that all hotels would have had similar incidents over a long enough time period.  (Although in saying that, one of the people who jumped from a window of the Cecil somehow managed to land on – and kill – a man walking in the street below too, which probably isn’t so common…)

Now, from a crime investigation standpoint, this information is pretty much meaningless, unless you’re going with the whole ‘supernatural causes’ explanation, but it does illustrate just how strange this whole incident is in light of the hotel’s history.

And, believe it or not, there are also a couple of other strange details here too.

Firstly, in 2005 a film called Dark Water was released, which featured a young woman who sadly drowned in the water tank of a hotel.  One of the characters was called Cecilia (the ‘Cecil’ hotel), another character was called Dahlia (remember Elizabeth Short, above?), and there is also a scene in the film showing a lift not working properly.

Secondly, days after Elisa Lam’s death, there was a huge TB outbreak near the hotel, and the authorities had to use a specific test to diagnose which people had tuberculosis.  The name of the test?  The Lam-Elisa…

Again, from a crime investigation standpoint these aspects of the case mean nothing – they’re certainly not helping solve the mystery of what happened to poor Elisa Lam – but they do give the whole incident a more sinister feel, and may go some way to explaining why this case has captured the imaginations of so many people (including me).  The footage from the lift is also incredibly unnerving, although I do wonder whether it would have the same effect if Elisa Lam hadn’t died so soon afterwards, and in such mysterious circumstances.

There is talk about a feature film being made about this case, which I have mixed feelings about.  Yes, the case is interesting and – as overused as this word is – haunting.  But we’re still talking about the mysterious death of an actual person here – a 21 year old student who still has surviving family members and friends who are probably still trying to come to terms with her demise and the various questions surrounding it.

Hopefully, at some point we – or at the very least poor Elisa Lam’s family – will have answers to all these questions.  In the meantime, we’re left with the tragic, unexplained death of a young woman which is steeped in mystery and unanswered questions.

And which, sadly, is apparently no closer to being solved now than it was in February 2013.

 

As a mark of respect, I intentionally haven’t included any photos of Elisa Lam or linked to the CCTV video.  The photo at the top of this blogpost is not the Cecil Hotel either, but a stock image of another hotel.

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