Category Archives: Crime

The most dangerous animal: Was the Zodiac Killer Earl van Best?

zodiacA new book claims to have unmasked one of the most notorious serial killers, the Zodiac Killer who terrorized the San Francisco Bay Area in the 1960s and 70s, murdering at least seven people, terrorising the city and taunting the police and newspapers with cryptic notes and undecipherable cyphers and cryptograms.

It’s written by Louisiana businessman Gary L. Stewart and has the enticing title: “The most dangerous animal of all: Searching for my father and finding the Zodiac Killer.”

So enticing (the title refers to a letter the Zodiac wrote claiming ‘Man is the most dangerous animal of all’) that I picked up a copy and read it. And so have millions more, with the book earning a place on the coveted New York Times best-sellers list backed by a big name publisher, Harper Collins.  All of which lend kudos and credibility compared to the many alternative theories about who the Zodiac Killer may be.

Stewart tell the story of his father’s crimes in a “novelistic manner” and while it’s no ‘In Cold Blood’  events moves a long at a fair pace, and are neatly described with the help of journalist and crime writer Susan Mustafa.

The book begins in 2002 with Stewart, adopted at birth and now in his late 30s, the director of a Louisiana cleaning company, who receives a phone call from a woman called Judy, who says she is his birth mother.

They eventually meet in San Francisco, form a relationship and then the question about who his father was becomes something he must answer.

Judy is reluctant to tell him and for good reason. It later emerges that she fathered him at age 14 in 1962 after running away to Mexico City and later New Orleans with a manipulative, creepy man twice her age called Earl Van Best Junior or ‘Van’ as he was known. The case attracts media attention with the San Francisco papers calling it the “The Ice Cream Parlour Romance” because met Judy outside an ice-cream parlour when she got off the school bus.

ice-cream-romance

We are told the story of Earl’s early life as the son of a highly respected army minister, but later forced to live with his mother, Gertrude, a cold, unloving adultress whose only contribution to her son’s development is to teach him to play the organ.

As an alienated, unhappy young man, Stewart narrates his father’s obsession with  13 year old Judy, his various arrests and imprisonments, his numerous trips to Mexico to obtain antique books and manuscripts to sell in San Francisco, his mingling with Satanist Anton LaVey’s harem in Haight Ashbury and his violent, spontaneous crimes, cryptic notes and games with the police and newspapers.

Stewart recounts the various disturbing murders as they have been told so many times before in books, true crime documentaries and movies, but using the chilling words “my father” when referring to the horrific stabbings and shootings.

He later discovers that Earl Van Best died in Mexico City in the 1994, choking on his own vomit and visits his unmarked grave. Here he makes a startling confession:

“I loved this man in some inexplicable way. He was my father. We were bound together by some invisible, unbreakable rope.

Among Stewart’s reasons for thinking his father was the Zodiac are:

  • his resemblance to the police identi-kit of the Zodiac Killer
The police sketch of the Zodiac Killer and Earl Van Best

The police sketch of the Zodiac Killer and Earl Van Best

  • the army intelligence skills Van had learnt from his own father to create undecipherable ciphers
  • his cruelty and criminality
  • that his time and out of jail corresponded with the murders
  • that the name “Earl Van Best Jr” can be found in the ciphers
earl van best cipher

One of the Zodiac cyphers which Gary Stewart says reveals the Zodiac’s real name – Earl Van Best Jr

  • matches in the handwriting of ‘Van’ and the Zodiac letter, corroborated by a hand-writing analyst
  • a scar on his father’s finger that appears to match that of a fingerprint taken off the Zodiac Killer

The book is quite convincing, not least because you’d wonder why anyone would wish to assert that their father is a notorious serial killer, unless they were fairly certain. Of course, there is also the lure of some kind of celebrity and the royalties earned from publishing a best seller.

But the one key piece of  evidence tha would prove Stewart’s claim beyond doubt, namely DNA matching, is missing.

(It is DNA matching which appeared to prove that Jack the Ripper  was a Polish immigrant called Aaron Kominski but this has since been disputed to an alleged error by the scientist)

Stewart writes of the many years he has battled to have the partial  Zodiac Killer DNA (taken off a stamp affixed to one of the taunting letter he sent out) compared with his own DNA to prove his father was the serial killer.

He claims a San Francisco police cover up has prevented this from ever being tested. The reason for the cover-up: his mother Judy’s marriage to ground-breaking homicide detective and later deputy mayor of San Francisco Rotea Gilford (the first black man to achieve both those positions), who worked on the Zodiac case and who died in 1998.

The SFPD, Stewart suggests, has stalled the testing to protect Gilford’s name  were it to emerge that he married the teenage bride of the Zodiac Killer.

As with Jack the Ripper, a veritable community of amateur sleuths and conspiracy theorists exists to weigh up the evidence and suggest theories about who the Zodiac Killer really was.

The most comprehensive website is zodiackiller.com, which recently celebrated its 16th anniversary and claims to get 10 million hits a month. It’s run by Zodiac fanatic Tom Voigt. He gave Stewart’s book just one star in his review on Amazon.com, systematically dismissing any link Stewart has claimed between his father and the Zodiac Killer:

Stewart claims his father looks like the Zodiac – Voigt writes: “Open any high school yearbook from the 1960s and half of the males pictured will resemble the sketch of the Zodiac killer. It’s not “evidence” of guilt. Not impressed.”

Stewart says his father’s name is in the codes – Voigt’s response: “So is mine. So is yours. People have been finding what they were looking for in the codes for 45 years. This is nothing new. It’s not evidence” of guilt. Not impressed.”

(On this point, I have to confess, I have trouble understanding Stewart’s explanation for finding his father’s name in a Zodiac cryptogram.)

There are a dozen people who claim to know the identity of the Zodiac Killer. These include Dennis Kaufman who claimed that his stepfather Jack Tarrance was the Zodiac Killer, but whose claims were later discredited.

The most famous suspect is Arthur Leigh Allen a schoolteacher, named by former San Francisco Chronicle journalist Robert Graysmith in what is considered the best book on the murders, ‘Zodiac’.

Graysmith’s book formed the basis for the exceptionally disturbing and very good 2007 David Fincher movie. Arther Leaigh Allen denied all his life he was the Zodiac killer and his DNA was later found to not be a match for the partial DNA obtained from the stamp. (The DNA itself may be a red herring, as there is no proof the Zodiac Killer licked the stamp affixed to the envelope, something Stewart does admit to in his book.)

But Gary Stewart remains convinced that his father, Van, is the Zodiac as he writes at the end of the book:

 I have handed the SFPD their killer. I’ve given them motive, means, opportunity, a forensic handwriting match, identical scars, and my father’s name embedded throughout the Zodiac cyphers. And I have DNA profile of my father waiting for comparison.

The legion of Zodiac ‘experts’, disagree and why wouldn’t they, after all – what would they do, if the mystery was solved.

Serial killers: a reading list for the obssessed (or uninitiated)

jack the ripperIn 1997, I went on the famous Jack the Ripper walk through the East End of London, visiting all the spots where he had committed his grizzly Victorian-era murders. The tour ended at the Ten Bells pub in Whitechapel, where two of  ‘Jack’s’ victims – prostitutes Annie Chapman and Mary Kelly – were said to have regularly frequented.

Our guide on the night was Donald Rumbelow, one of dozens of writers who had theorised about who Jack the Ripper might have been. I remember I bought a copy of his book after the tour and devoured it in a hurry.

At the time and throughout my twenties, I had perhaps an unhealthy interest in these evil monsters, reading book after a book, utterly fascinated and repelled in equal measure.

I had and still do have a fascination with the darker side of human nature, particularly when the crimes are committed by seemingly ‘ordinary people’.  But doesn’t everyone?

Recently, it was revealed that testing of DNA on a shawl that belonged to one of the Ripper’s victims – Catherine Eddowes – was a 100 per cent match for the sister of a Polish-born hairdresser called Aaron Kosminski, a suspect in almost any reputable book about the crimes. This, it seems has dealt a body blow to 120 plus years of speculation and intrigue and an industry of ‘Ripperologists‘ comprising amateur sleuths and published writers.

zodiacThis re-ignited my interest in the subject of serial killers, which had already been stirred by a book I came across in Big W of all places.

I was intrigued by the cover and its title: “The Most Dangerous Animal of All – Searching for my father…and finding the Zodiac Killer.” by Gary L. Stewart.

I have not read it yet – I am still making my way through, of all things a comic novel by Howard Jacobson called “The Making of Henry  – but it’s next on my reading list.

On the back cover it says tantalizingly:

An explosive, revelatory memoir of a man who discovers that his father is one of the most infamous and still-wanted serial killers in America.

Like Jack the Ripper, the Zodiac Killer – who murdered seven or more people in Northern California in the late 1960s and early 1970s – was never caught. In another similarity, the Zodiac Killer also sent cryptic notes to the police, one in which he stated that man “is the most dangerous animal of all”.

There were numerous books written about the Zodiac killer and a very good 2007 film called “Zodiac” directed by David Fincher and starring Jake Gyllenhaal,  Robert Downey Jr and Mark Ruffalo.

If this Zodiac book is as convincing as the back cover claims, than that would be two famous serial killer mysteries solved. Never mind, countless others remain as does the question: who or what makes these monsters?

Here’s my list of six of the best books I’ve read about serial killers:

1. Written in Blood by Colin Wilson
This is actually a book about forensic science, but within its dense pages are countless tales of serial killers including Bela Kiss, Peter Sutcliffe (the Yorkshire Ripper) and Albert Fish to name just three plus insights into their psychological make-up and motives. Wilson, a prolific writer on crime, the occult, philosophy and countless other topics sadly passed away last year.  “Will enthrall connoisseurs of violent crime”- is on the cover of my well-thumbed paperback edition.

2. The Stranger Beside Me by Ann Rule
The most chilling and fascinating book every written about a serial killer. Ann Rule was a friend of  the charming, well educated and good looking Ted Bundy, only later to discover to her huge shock and revulsion that he was a vicious serial killer.

3.  Ten Rillington Place by Ludovic Kennedy
The story about one of the most infamous murderers in British history, John Christie, and the wrongful arrest and execution of his neighbour Timothy Evans. Made into a brilliant, hugely disturbing film starring the late Richard Attenborough as John Christie in 1971.

A poster for the movie "Ten Rillington Place" starring Richard Attenborough

A poster for the movie “Ten Rillington Place” starring Richard Attenborough

4. Killing for Company by Brian Masters
Noted crime writer Brian Masters tell the story of Londoner Dennis Nilsen, who brutally murdered 15 men in the late 1970s and early 1980s, kept them as companions and then later buried them under his floor or dismembered them and flushed them down the plumbing. What haunted me was that he had lived close to a cousin of mine in Muswell Hill, North London.

5. Lust Killer by Ann Rule
The story of Jerry Brudos, a married man with children in Portland, Oregon, who kidnapped, murdered and violated women in the workshop of his family home in 1968 and 1969. His wife had no clue.

death in belmont6. A Death in Belmont by Sebastian Junger
Written by the author of “The Perfect Storm” it tells the story of Albert DeSalvo who by an incredible coincidence worked on a construction job in Junger’s family home in the early 1960s and who later confessed to being the “The Boston Strangler”. Junger theorises that DeSalvo was also the murderer of an elderly woman in the neighbourhood, not a black man called Roy Smith, who was jailed for life for the crime. Deeply disturbing, the book has on its front cover a photo of DeSalvo posing in a family photo with the author as an infant.

Greed is not good: Our dangerous love affair with American-style capitalism

capitalism_a_love_story_xlgIn one of the early scenes of Michael Moore’s scathing 2009 documentary on free market corporate greed “Capitalism: A Love Story”, the filmmaker interviews a farmer and his wife, who are having their property repossessed.

It’s recurring image in the film, the sheriff knocks on the door, working class people are thrown out onto the street with their furniture, and the house is boarded up, later to be sold for a quarter of the price.

The farmer, his life packed into the back of a van, says he tried everything “except robbing a bank” to save his farm.

“I’m thinking about doing that. It’s one way someone can get their money back. They did it to me. I don’t know why I can’t do it to them,” he says.

As the camera pans back over the abandoned farm buildings, Moore narrates:

“This is the capitalism of taking and giving…mostly taking.”

Later, Moore questions how capitalism allows commercial airlines to pay pilots less than $20,000 a year forcing them take second jobs or apply for food stamps.

To which he answers: “I guess that’s the point of capitalism, it let’s you get away with anything.”

Australian-style capitalism

That’s the exact sentiment I felt when reading about the multi-million dollar handouts to executives at the scandal-ridden Commonwealth Bank financial planning division. People like retiring CBA banking executive Grahame Petersen (total pay $5.6 million), who oversaw the division responsible for the systematic destruction of customer retirement savings through investment in risky products recommended by the bank’s licensed financial planners in return for millions of dollars in commissions.

I thought that the retirees who had lost everything to this free market system that rewarded greed and deception could be forgiven from thinking about doing something similar to the American farmer: walking into a Commonwealth Bank branch and “asking for their money back”.

This is something Michael Moore does in the documentary in his typical sardonic style, walking up to the head office of Goldman Sachs in New York to perform a citizen’s arrest of chairman Lloyd Blankfein (2013 annual salary: US$23 million), after accusing the bank of “stealing’ US$170 billion of American taxpayer’s money to save it from collapse. Later he wraps police crime scene tape around the whole building.

henry paulsonAs Moore explains in the film, the bail out of the banks after the collapse of Lehman Brothers that sparked the Global Financial Crisis, was orchestrated by former Goldman Sachs CEO Henry ‘Hank’ Paulson (one of 25 people Time magazine blames for the crisis happening in the first place).

The then US Treasury Secretary cut a backroom deal that gave the banks $700 billion of US taxpayers money to keep them afloat. Paulson was apparently unaware of the irony that he had broken the basic law of capitalism – that you don’t ask the government for help, you either sink or swim on your own.

It seems this form of failed American style free-market capitalism – so brilliantly depicted in Moore’s film – is what the current Australian government wishes to mimic with its plans to increase the cost of car fuel, doctor’s visits and university education while Australia’s poorest paid workers earns a minimum wage that is the lowest in history relative to average full-time pay (currently $640.90 a week, or $16.87 an hour).

The 3% pay rise they got this year was more than double what the The Australian Chamber of Commerce and Industry – the powerful lobbying body, which represents big business, wanted. It suggested a 1.25% pay rise, less than half the projected cost-of-living increase of 2.7%.

Perhaps Treasurer Joe Hockey – a man who proves himself time and time again to be completely out of touch with most Australians – and his investment banking advisors should watch Moore’s documentary to see the longer term outcome of such policies in the US before and after the GFC: hundreds of thousands of job lay-offs, the poorest people unable to afford basic health care, the boarding up of whole suburbs and ruination of cities like Detroit and Cleveland.

Of course, there is also a message of hope at the end of Capitalism: A Love Story as Moore documents the fight back by ordinary Americans against the systemic free market failure (this appears to be happening in Australia too, at least in political opinion polls)

He tells the story of the employees of Chicago Republic Window and Door factory, who, having been told they will lose their jobs in three days time without being paid their wages lock themselves inside refusing to leave until they get what is theirs. The local community rallies around them providing food and encouragement. Then there’s the story of the Warren Evans, Sheriff of Wayne County, Detroit who decides to stop all home foreclosures, when he realises the hypocrisy of what is happening to working class homeowners after the US$700 billion hand-out to the banks.

More widely, Moore reports of how Barack Obama’s form of democratic socialism has been embraced by young American voters (33%), with only 37% favouring capitalism and the rest undecided.

As explained by Vermont independent senator Bernie Sanders, democratic socialism means “the function of government is to represent middle-income working people rather than just the wealthy or the powerful”.

He goes on to say that America “worships greed”

“We put on the front cover of magazines guys who have made  billions of dollars, rather than the cops, fireman, policeman and nurses, who are doing so much in the lives of people. We have to change our value system.”

Sound familiar?

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You can watch the whole documenatry ‘Capitalism: A Love Story’ for free on YouTube.

Downloading a movie is wrong, but is it the same as stealing a car?

Perhaps you remember this ad:

It was an anti-piracy commercial warning the DVD viewer that downloading pirated movies was the same as stealing a car, or a handbag or a television.

People who downloaded movies were very bad people, the ad insinuated, a message that was replicated around the world in similar campaigns like this:

illegal download campaigns2

M-Tv anti-piracy ad

I was reminded of this campaign strategy after reading that the Australian government under the direction of Attorney General George Brandis planned a fresh move to crack down on movie pirates. Mr Brandis said:

“The government will be considering possible mechanisms to provide a legal incentive for an internet service provider to co-operate with copyright owners in preventing infringement on their systems and networks.

“This may include looking carefully at the merits of a scheme whereby ISPs are required to issue graduated warnings to consumers who are using websites to facilitate piracy.”

It’s unlikely this will succeed.

In 2012, an Australian High Court ruled that internet service provider iiNet (the second biggest ISP in Australia) was not responsible for the conduct of its subscribers and could not be ordered to terminate services of repeat copyright offenders.The five high court judges in the case ordered Warner Bros, Disney, Fox and Paramount Pictures and 29 other companies including Australian independent distributors and TV networks under the umbrella of the Australian Federation Against Copyright Theft to pay $9 million in court costs.

In addition, prosecutions of individuals who pirate material remain rare and are primarily restricted to those who make and sell pirated DVDs (the kind you can pick up overseas or in a dodgy market for a few bucks) and the websites that host them.

Campaigns like “You wouldn’t steal car…” and more recent ones by the Intellectual Property Awareness Foundation which appeal to the public’s guilty conscience have also failed.

Australians are downloading pirated movies and TV shows in record numbers, as seen in the recent download stats for hit HBO show Game of Thrones, where they accounted for the highest proportion (around 11 per cent) of the 7.5 million people worldwide who downloaded the finale of season four within days of it being shown on pay television, according to website Torrentfreak.com.

By comparison, about 500,000 people watched the episode legally on Foxtel when it premiered.

thrones-cast

“Australia, I am sorry to say, is the worst offender of any country in the world when it comes to piracy,” Senator Brandis told the Australian Senate.

But, contrary to what’s being said, people who download or stream movies illegally (between 25 per cent and 55 per cent of Australians depending on what survey you read) are not also stealing cars or handbags or televisions. They’re not trying to put someone out of work (about 6,000 jobs are lost each year as a result of piracy) or send a production company bankrupt.

Most go to work, pay their taxes, pay their mortgage, pay for their groceries at the checkout counter and pay for their petrol after filling their tank. They’re your friends, your work colleagues, your bank manager, the guy making your chai latte at your favourite cafe, your kid’s kindergarten teacher – everyone is doing it.

The main reason people download shows illegally are convenience, to save money and anger and frustration at the cost of paying for it legally.

The internet has made it incredibly easy and safe to download or stream favourite show just by clicking on a link.

Many people are rebelling against the high cost of movies (now above $20 for some time slots), and the inflexibility and arrogance of providers like Foxtel, which does not allow subscribers to pick and choose their movie channels they want (channels are bundled) and which has a virtual monopoly on pay television in Australia, (though this is being challenged by online competitors).

There’s also the anger at service providers like Apple iTunes, which charges Australian customers between 50 and 100 per cent more for movies and music than they do customers in the US (as highlighted in the ABC’s The Checkout) for the same products

The relative cost of buying the movie "Life of Pi" in Australia and the US (from The Checkout)

The relative cost of buying the movie “Life of Pi” in Australia and the US (from The Checkout)

There’s nothing like the feeling that you are getting ripped off to encourage you to try and get something for free.

There’s also the harm factor. While some Australian companies may be impacted by lost revenue to piracy the public will also be aware that the really big entertainment companies are still doing rather well despite it.

Time-Warner reported revenues of US$7.5 billion for the first quarter of 2014 and earnings of $1.5 billion primarily from shows like Game of Thrones, True Detective and The Lego movie. Nobody at Time-Warner is crying poverty.

Australia’s biggest entertainment group, Seven West Media (owners of Channel 7) reported a 4 per cent rise in television revenue to $683 million for the six months to December 2013 and profits of $190 million.

Foxtel – half-owned by Rupert Murdoch’s News Corp – has 2.5 million subscribers (not far off one in two Australian households) and last year had revenues of $3.1 billion and earnings of almost $1 billion.

Add the $20 – $30 million plus some Hollywood stars get paid to appear in a single movie  and you can understand why some people’s attitudes to movie piracy is this:

illegal download campaign - parody

Or this:

illegal download campaign - parody2

Intriguingly, while pay television companies, cable networks and cinema owners shake their fists at the public for being pirates and Australian attorney general George Brandis threatens tough new measures, others are taking a far more realistic view.

Jeff Bewkes, CEO of entertainment giant Time-Warner, owner of network HBO, which produces Game of Thrones, said during an earnings call last year that having the most pirated show of the year was “a tremendous word-of-mouth thing” and “better than [winning] an Emmy.”

He wasn’t alone. Game of Thrones director David Petrarca said piracy contributed to the show’s “cultural buzz”, while author of the novels, George R.R. Martin also called it a “compliment,” (though one he would rather not receive).

Mr Bewkes compared piracy to “cable-splitting” (illegally sharing a cable subscription) and said it had in fact contributed to HBO subscriptions and greater penetration of the HBO brand.

Also interesting to note is that US movie streaming service Netflix uses piracy data to decide which shows to buy, a back-handed compliment to the tastes of online pirates.

And perhaps also a concession that piracy is part of the entertainment industry like popcorn and paparazzi – and something that they will have to learn to live with even as the authorities threaten a clampdown.

Mexico is indeed “gentle and fine”, Jack Kerouac

lonesome_travellerIn Lonesome Traveller, he’s poetic, mystical, sometimes incomprehensible account of wanderings and odd jobs in the mid-1950s, the beat writer Jack Kerouac writes of a trip to Mexico:

“There is no violence in Mexico, that was all a lot of bull written up by Hollywood writers or writers who went to Mexico ‘to be violent’.”

Kerouac continues:

“I know of an American who went Mexico for bar brawls because you usually don’t get arrested there for disorderly conduct, my God I have seen people wrestle playfully in the middle of the road blocking traffic, screaming with laughter, as people walk by smiling – Mexico is generally gentle and fine, even when you travel among the dangerous characters as I did – ‘dangerous’ in the sense we mean in America – in fact the further you go away from the border, and deeper down, the finer it is, as though the influence of civilizations hung over the border like a cloud.”

I recall the warnings from well meaning friends and family – There’s still time to change your plans/It’s not safe/It’s a dangerous place/Don’t go – before we boarded a New York flight in Christmas 2010 for a month long Mexican bus sojourn from Cancun all the way west to Guadalajara.

Though the notion of Mexico as a violent place is indeed “a load of bull” but still seemingly engrained in the American psyche more than fifty years after he wrote about it, Kerouac’s description of Mexico as “generally gentle and fine” is wonderfully precise.

There is little violence south of the shady border towns where the stories of gangs, beheadings, shootings and drugs garner garish headlines in American newspapers and stoke the flames of fear.

DSCN1093

A fruit stall, Mexican style

As travellers, we found the biggest danger in Mexico to be from a falling coconut while snoozing under the shade of a palm tree on an unspoilt sandy beaches on Isles Mujeres or Tulum.

Or perhaps from one of those mad windy bus journeys – where brakes are unnecessary accessories – up through the mountains to postcard perfect town like San Cristobel de las Casas, where the only sense of danger are the dolls, paintings and postcards for sale in souvenir shops depicting the Zapatista rebels with guns criss-crossed across their chests (and scary steely stares).

DSCN1082

The colourful, quite streets of San Cristobel de las Casas beneath the mountains

I write in my journal of a day spent in this oasis of bright colours, cobbled quiet streets and lazy wanderings:

“Students and tourists abound.The streets are lined with brightly painted mainly single story houses and shops in shades of yellows, reds, blues and oranges and with slanting roofs of Spanish-style red tiles…the perfect place to wander, sit and sip a coffee or beer and people watch.”

In comparison to the constant pleadings, coercions and tourist tricks and traps in Thailand, India, Morocco and Egypt (all places I nonetheless loved), Mexicans are so laid back they hardly bother when it comes to approaching tourists.

On Isles Mujeres, the little island off Cancun, this lack of savvy was perfectly captured by a man offering boat trips to see whales:

“Wanna go on a whale ride?” he enquired as we strolled by one afternoon.
“No gracias,” we replied.
Silence, then he said sleepily:
“Lotta whales…”

DSCN0833

Ice creams in the park, Valledolid

No one harasses you in Mexico. Not in the small, sleepy afternoon siesta towns like Valledolid (where we visited the ruins of Chichen Itza and swam in the underground Cenotes) and not in sprawling, bustling Mexico City, the world’s best functioning mega-sized city.

Are there dangers in Mexico? Of course. I would not be so naive as to suggest otherwise. But the risks are small unless you’re smuggling drugs, heading for the seedy border towns or in the words of Kerouac going there “to be violent”

The Mexico I remember is that of little black haired men with moustaches; their plump wives pulling chihuahuas on leads, climbing steps to find churches painted in brightest pink and orange, wandering streets in shades of yellow and red, the little taco stands sizzling away by the side of the road, poodles sleeping in hammocks, glorious, colonial Spanish architecture, the boulevards of Mexico City, the murals of Diego Rivero, Frida Kahlo’s sad paintings in the blue house in Coyoacán, ancient Mayan ruins overlooking beaches and azure oceans.

Alive in colour, light and smiles. A sentiment Jack Kerouac would have agreed with, I think.

Jack Keroauc top left next to the poet Allen Ginsberg and firends in Mexico City

Jack Keroauc top left next to the poet Allen Ginsberg and firends in Mexico City

Snake oil: Door-to-door salesmen and other scams

snakeoilIf an alien crash landed on earth, probably the first thing that would happen to him is he’d get scammed and he’d have to fly back to his faraway planet in just his space undies. That’s if someone hadn’t stolen his identity and sold his space-craft already.

My wife and I were the proverbial ‘aliens’ a couple of years, when we flew into Cairo for a week’s visit as part of a round-the-world trip in 2010.We figured since it was so short a visit and all we wanted to do was see the Pyramids of Giza, the Egyptian Museum, take a cruise on the Nile and wander around the ancient streets that we’d not bother to buy a guide-book and just wing it.

Big mistake!

We got conned on our way to the pyramids.We got conned wandering the ancient streets. I got conned on an evening stroll when looking for a place to eat. Conned. Conned Conned. By old kindly looking men. By young boys. By exuberant fathers with stories about their children. It was incredible.

camel ride

Riding a very expensive camel in Cairo, October 2010

The scams were not sophisticated in the way they are in Australia and other westernised cities and “harmless” in the sense that all you lost was a bit of dosh. Looking back they were somewhat endearing (or perhaps pitiful) and assumingly thought-up as a means of getting by in a very tough city.

Back in Australia, it’s a far more dangerous proposition with greed the primary motive. There are scam-artists waiting on the telephone, in the letter box and at the front door. It’s so bad that the government has a dedicated website called Scamwatch to warn you about each of them with real-life stories and advice.

Our home phone, which we hardly ever use except for our internet service is a constant source of dodgy phone calls. We hardly ever answer it now, figuring that if it’s an important call, people will try our mobiles or Skype.

The other day I picked up the phone and  a woman proceeded to tell me she was from Microsoft support and that I had downloaded a virus on to my computer. She implored me to go on to my computer and search for a certain file to verify this. I could hear she was talking from a faraway place, and with a strange manner of speaking English, so I just hung up the phone. Sure enough this was a scam as described on this UK website with the end result that you download a real virus that steals all your personal information.

Then’s there’s the door-to-door energy salesmen trying to get you to switch energy accounts.

Twice this has happened to us in Melbourne. The first time the salesman identified himself as from an energy company, the second time was more sinister.

Last week, just before dinner, a guy appeared at our door with a clipboard. He pulled out a spreadsheet, told me he was from Jemena and said he needed to see my last energy bill to compare what I was currently paying.

Jemena is an energy infrastructure company which provides electricity and gas to homes. This electricity and gas is then on sold to consumers from retail suppliers like Origin Energy, who are our gas and electricity supplier.

The salesman gave me the impressions this was all very official and pressing so I rifled through a cupboard full of documents and on my iPad until I found an online bill. The man stood there quietly, smiling with his clipboard. I showed him the bill and he studied it. Then he said something like “Oh my god” and went on tell me I was paying 20 per cent more each month then  I needed to. He said he would sign me up and that I would save money from next month.It was then I realised this wall all a deceptive little scam.

He wasn’t from Jemena, but from a retail energy supplier called “Simply Energy”. I told him I wasn’t going to sign up to anything on my doorstep and he left with a piece of paper on which he had scribbled his mobile phone number in pencil in case I changed my mind.

I googled Simply Energy. The reviews were scandalous. It got an average rating of 1.4 out of 5 from 235 reviews on productreview.com.au with stories of customers being overcharged, having their gas and electricity supply cut and even contacting a customer’s current supplier to say they had switched to Simply Energy even when they never agreed to.

They use to call these people snake oil salesmen, referring to travelling charlatans selling miracle cures and quack medicines. Now the scams have become far more sophisticated and devious.

Have a look at the Scamwatch website, there are dozens of scams preying on the naive, weak-minded, plain unlucky or vulnerable from online auctions, to pharmaceutical products to real estate scams.

One of my most popular blog posts was about a letter I received in the post over a year ago covered with Spanish stamps and postmarks. It was addressed to me in person, offering me the chance to share in an inheritance of an oil magnate called “Albert Schlesinger” who had apparently died in a car crash in 2004.

Seems ridiculous right? Who would fall for that? But every year thousands of Australians do.

A program on the ABC’s 7.30 Report reported that every month, Australians lose $7 million just through internet scams.

They’re impossible to avoid unless you choose to live like a hermit, never answering the phone, turning on your computer or answering the doorbell.

Not Wikipedia worthy: The story of Jennifer and Jordan Nash

wikipedia

One Saturday morning in July, I received a call from Jennifer Nash, a single mother living in Logan City, south-east Queensland.

She asked if I would consider writing an article about her son, Jordan Nash, to  be posted on Wikipedia, the free user-sourced internet encyclopedia. She hoped a Wikipedia article would draw attention to his sad story.

jordan nash

Jordan Nash, as a young school kid

I said I thought I could help.

Her story tumbled out over the phone: she was at war with the Queensland government and the Federal Government since Jordan  – who has learning difficulties – was removed from school almost 10 years ago.

Jennifer claimed she’d been bullied, mistreated, harassed, ignored, hit with a $28,000 court bill and been the victim of judicial corruption because a court transcript – which proved she had been bullied and mistreated – had been “edited”.

Over the next few months I spent many hours on the phone with Jennifer, an exhausted, but determined and sincere woman, as she described what had been done to her.

Much of her and Jordan’s story appeared on unofficial media sites – essentially citizen journalism or blogging sites like Independent Australia  – but some of it did make it into the mainstream media.

In March 2011, WIN Television reported her address to former Queensland state premier Anna Bligh at a community forum at Toowoomba, where she said, quite eloquently, that “this soul crushing travesty of justice cannot be allowed to be covered up any longer”.

Last year she appeared in the  Brisbane Times, which incorrectly reported that she’d called then prime minister Julia Gillard “white trash” at a community cabinet meeting at Redbank Plains outside of Brisbane. The story, later corrected by the online newspaper, was that she had in fact told the prime minister “We are not white trash” as she explained to radio presenter Gary Hardgrave on radio station 4BC

Jennifer and Jordan Nash speaking out at a community cabinet

Jennifer and Jordan Nash speaking out at a community cabinet

Her battle reached the upper echelons of power this year, when both her and Jordan were  banned from attending a federal government community cabinet in Rockhampton by Jamie Fox, a government secretary working within the cabinet of then prime minister, Kevin Rudd, who was due to speak at the event.

Asked why she’d been banned, Jamie Fox responded via email that following checks by “security agencies” the government had been advised by the Attorney-General’s Department and the state police that she had a “history of disrupting public events” at other community cabinets and would not be permitted to attend.

“I am responsible for organising community cabinet meetings and this decision is taken on my authority,” wrote Fox.

Jamie Fox's email to Jennifer Nash

Jamie Fox’s email to Jennifer Nash

Just what had a single mother without any financial or political muscle done for the Australian government to ban her from airing her views in a forum seemingly open to all?

The answer: stand up on a chair and demand justice for her and her son.

Hardly the sought of behaviour I thought to warrant a security crackdown or a sneering email from one of Kevin Rudd’s flacks.

In late August, I submitted the story of Jennifer and Jordan Nash to Wikipedia.

It was rejected by someone called “Sionk” who wrote:

This submission’s references do not adequately evidence the subject’s notability

Sionk also remarked:

Maybe there has been extensive news coverage of Jordan Nash, but there isn’t any presented here. The way this is written is also problematic, Wikipedia isn’t the place to make lengthy, one-sided (and poorly sourced) legal arguments.

Essentially, what Sionk was saying was that Jordan Nash was not worthy of  a Wikipedia article because his case had not been reported in the mainstream press and he was not someone of note.

I explained to Jennifer that no matter how many times I re-wrote it, I did not think her story would make it onto the pages of Wikipedia for the reasons above.

Every now and then I do a search for “Jordan Nash” wondering if Jennifer has managed to convince Wikipedia editors they should publish her story. But there’s still no entry.

Interestingly, many of the people who she accuses of mistreating her do have Wikipedia entries such as Queensland state member for Logan, Michael Pucci, who Jennifer says refused to help her, Supreme Court justice Jean Dalton, who dismissed Jennifer’s initial complaint at the Queensland Anti-Discrimination Tribunal (QADT) and former minister for education, Cameron Dick who dismissed further investigation into claims the court transcripts had been edited.

There’s some consolation for Jennifer. At least Jamie Fox, the government flack who barred her from the forum, doesn’t get a Wikipedia page.

(If you’d like to read more about Jennifer’s case, Independent Australia  provides a fairly comprehensive summary).