Bitterroot Lake — the celebration continues!

Bitterroot Lake

Nothing quite like the high of celebrating a new book! Bitterroot Lake with its gorgeous cover is finding its way to readers everywhere. I do hope you’re one of them!

If you’re in the Flathead, the Bigfork Art & Cultural Center and Roma’s Kitchen Shop in Bigfork have signed copies. Bookworks in Whitefish sold out of the signed copies the first day — yay! — but has unsigned copies now. If you’ve got a copy and would like a signed bookplate, drop me a line.

Two events this week to share with you, both via Zoom. I’d love to see you.

Saturday May 1, 7 pm Pac / 8 pm Mtn
Third Place Books, Seattle
Chatting cozies and suspense with Emmeline Duncan, author of the debut cozy Fresh Brewed Murder, at one of my favorite bricks & mortars bookstores.

Thursday, May 6, 7 pm Mtn
N. Jefferson Co Library (Clancy, MT)
Chatting mysteries — call the library for the Zoom link.

There’s a theory that you should be able to look at page 69 of a book and know what it’s about — or whether you’ll like it. Now, I think that’s just a creative way of talking about a book — no single page, except maybe the first or last — can possibly encapsulate the other 300+. But it was sure fun to try it out on Bitterroot Lake! Here’s my take, on the blog The Page 69 Test.

If you write, you’ll want to pick up a copy of How to Write a Mystery: A Handbook from Mystery Writers of America, ed. by Lee Child and Laurie R. King, which came out this past week. It’s full of wisdom and advice for newbies and veterans. I contributed a short piece of getting unstuck, when life or your plot won’t behave.

I had reason to follow that advice this week, as I got back to work on the next Spice Shop mystery — oh, did I tell you I signed a contract for the 6th in the series? Christmas in the Market. Look for it in June 2022 — I don’t know the date yet. But thank goodness I DO know now what happens in Chapter 18!

Happy Reading!

Lisa Black — a real-life forensic scientist and a book excerpt

Lisa Black, Kensington, Jan 2018

Welcome back to Lisa Black, a real-life forensic scientist and a heck of a thriller writer, with a great example of how real-life events inspire novelists. Read on for Lisa’s explanation and an excerpt from Perish, A Gardner and Renner Novel, new from Kensington Books. 

Why did the world’s economy crash in 2008? Well, as a Wall Street exec explains to my detectives in Perish:

“Remember way back when banks used to issue mortgages, knew who they were lending to and had incentive to make good loans? Then came computerized credit scores so consumers could shop around and get better rates. Then Lew Ranieri took these assets that weren’t liquid—mortgages take a long time to pay back and you can’t cash them out quickly—and turned it into something that could be bought and traded in the short term.”

“Securitization,” Maggie said.”

In the 1970’s Lew Ranieri of Salomon Brothers invented mortgage-backed securities. Mortgages are common and steady income, but have some qualities that make them unattractive to investors: they might be paid off early, ending the interest stream; at the same time thirty years is a long time to wait for an investment to trickle back; and since one pays down the principal every month, the amount of interest income decreases over time; and that the buyer might default and abandon the house (default).

“With securitization, mortgages were grouped together to create a pool of collateral and bonds are issued based on that collateral. The bonds are divided into ‘tranches’ based on risk—the top tranch will not suffer if any of the loans default, but the bottom tranch people agreed to a higher risk (and, not coincidentally, a higher return) and could lose their shirts. All quite aboveboard and fair, but there remained a flaw no one saw for nearly thirty years, as the exec explains:

“The two detectives sent her funny looks, but Bowman barely paused. “Exactly. This wasn’t a bad idea—even if housing prices fell in one city, they wouldn’t fall in all cities. Until they did. But instead of spreading the risk, it dispersed the disease.”

Bowman leaned back in the swivel chair, one ankle across one knee, then partially turned so he could look at the detectives, the sky outside, and the managers at their desks with only the slightest shift. “They based everything on the assumption that at the absolute worst defaults would hit six percent. They had historically been one percent. People get very attached to their homes.”

            “Ya think?” Riley said.

            “So that even if the entire bottom tranch, say twenty percent, defaults, the two top tranches are one hundred percent safe. Except that housing had never seen the leaping increases that occurred in the first ten years of the new century. So historical data might not have been the best indicator, but no one wanted to think about that. People took out home equity loans or bought houses on spec based on the assumption that the value would keep shooting up. Construction workers and waitresses were trying to become real estate moguls. But every market eventually saturates, and defaulting on an investment is not as wrenching as suddenly being out on the street.

“So banks finally realized their mistake and a bunch of mortgage lenders went out of business or got bought by other banks and they all tightened up their lending practices. All our budding real estate moguls couldn’t sell their investments and couldn’t even pay for their own, as values dropped and all these balloon payments came due and those adjustable rates that sounded so good at first jumped up and tripled their monthly bill. The housing market crashed like a pelican diving for a fish, and the economy followed.”

“Interesting,” Jack said. “But why is Joanna Moorehouse dead?”

Lisa Black has spent over twenty years in forensic science, first at the coroner’s office in Cleveland Ohio and now as a certified latent print examiner and CSI at a Florida police dept. Her books have been translated into six languages; one reached the NYT Bestseller’s list and another has been optioned for film and a possible TV series. Visit her website, , and follow her on Twitter, @LisaBlackAuthor.

Truth May Be Stranger Than Fiction — guest, Lisa Black

Time to welcome back my guest, Lisa Black, forensic scientist by day and thriller writer by night. Not surprisingly, Lisa’s become fascinated with the case of the Black Dahlia, and she uses it to tell us about the differences between real-life investigation and creating a fictional case, below. Here’s the scoop on her newest book, Unpunished, published by Kensington Books this week!  

unpunished       It begins with the kind of bizarre death that makes headlines—literally. A copy editor at the Cleveland Herald is found hanging above the grinding wheels of the newspaper assembly line. Forensic investigator Maggie Gardiner has her suspicions about this apparent suicide inside the tsunami of tensions that is the news industry today—and when the evidence suggests murder, Maggie has no choice but to place her trust in the one person she doesn’t trust at all….

Jack Renner is a killer with a conscience, a vigilante with his own code of honor. He has only one problem: Maggie knows his secret. She insists he enforce the law, not subvert it. But when more newspaper employees are slain, Jack may be the only person who can help Maggie unmask the killer–even if Jack is still checking names off his own private list.


By Lisa Black

Writing murder mysteries means I can make up everything I need to happen. Sometimes that involves juggling some logistics—actually it always means juggling some logistics—but if some plot twist is really giving me a problem, I can simply rewrite it. True crime, however, stubbornly refuses to dot every i or even consider crossing every t. Take the case of the Black Dahlia, which I have been researching for a presentation at the Sleuthfest mystery writer’s convention.

First there was the nightclub owner who ran a sort of free boarding house for young starlets. He employed them in his burlesque show where they hoped to be spotted by those elusive Hollywood agents. No red flags there, right? But according to him he had a house full of these girls, overseen by his long-time girlfriend, and the address book with his embossed name on the cover found in Beth’s luggage had been ‘liberated’ from his desk without his knowledge. Certainly none of these budding starlets ever complained of harsh treatment at his hands. But this was 1947. Women didn’t complain about much—it didn’t help, and only got them more of the same.

Then there was the control freak/charming-when-he-wants-to-be Dr. George Hodel. Though married (always temporarily; he tended to abandon wives like used razor blades) he had a habit of picking up young beauties to photograph them. As a surgeon he certainly had the means to rent a room for the killing and a car to transport the body, and for motive you need look no further than his fascination with the Marquis de Sade. Unfortunately we don’t even have an embossed address book in the way of hard proof that Hodel ever met Beth Short.

Then there’s the tall, skinny guy with a limp. Not kidding. A tall guy with a limp turns up in a number of places in Beth’s timeline and also in the narrative surrounding some other L.A. murders. But in the days before cell phone cameras made selfies ubiquitous, ‘tall, thin and with a limp’ was the most detailed description available to detectives. But this was only a year or two out from WWII, so there were probably quite a number of veterans with leg injuries. And with average daily caloric intake at near-record lows around this time, it wouldn’t be surprising if most people had figures we would envy in today’s TV-watching, corn-syrup-sweetened world. So that doesn’t really narrow it down.

Of course there’s always the mob. As in any large city they had a presence, and with a girl like Beth looking for a way into the studios it doesn’t take a lot of imagination to see her cozying up to a made man at a nightclub. Unfortunately, imagination is most of what we have. Like any well-brought up girl, Beth didn’t kiss and tell. She often made reference to ex-boyfriends, even jealous ex-boyfriends, but never named names.

Then there’s Arnold Smith, aka, Jack Anderson Wilson, who supposedly sent an informant to the cops to relay his tale. This informant, unnamed in the books, said that Arnold Smith said that a guy he knew named Al Morrison told Smith, in great detail, how he had killed Beth Short. Smith, incidentally, was described by the informant as tall, thin, and walking with a limp, and detectives figured this Al Morrison never existed and served the “I’m not asking for me, but for a friend of mine” purpose. Most significantly, he knows details of Beth’s anatomy that the police never leaked. Unfortunately the cops never got to speak to Wilson directly. He would only meet the informant by chance at a bar and though the informant, with cops around him, kept waiting, Smith didn’t show. Instead he continued a bad habit of smoking in bed and set his hotel room on fire, taking his secrets into the next life.

And since the crime occurred 60 years ago, witnesses cannot be re-questioned for more details, no phone records or hotel registries have survived, and the autopsy report was never made public so we can’t even be sure what is myth and what is fact in the swirl of cyberspace language regarding the life and death of Beth Short.

No wonder I write fiction.

PS If you want to know more about the Black Dahlia murder and the evidence that exists implicating these and other suspects, come to MWA’s Sleuthfest in Boca Raton this February!

Lisa and powderAbout Lisa: Lisa Black has spent over 20 years in forensic science, first at the coroner’s office in Cleveland Ohio and now as a certified latent print examiner and CSI at a Florida police dept. Her books have been translated into 6 languages, one reached the NYT Bestseller’s List and one has been optioned for film and a possible TV series. Find out more on her website, , and chat with her on Twitter, @LisaBlackAuthor.

A Day in the Life of an Expert Witness — guest Lisa Black

Welcome back to Law & Fiction: the Blog author and forensic scientist Lisa Black, whose experiences as an expert witness remind lawyers to be verrry considerate of our experts, and give both writers and readers an insider’s view of the criminal justice system. Her newest novel, THAT DARKNESS: a Gardiner and Renner novel , releases tomorrow, April 26.

that darkness coverI have testified in court as an expert witness approximately sixty times in my 20 years as a forensic scientist, and I can positively state that I would rather respond to the scene of a decomposed hoarder death in a house skittering with roaches and bedbugs then present myself in court for any reason whatsoever. At least I’d only be surrounded by trash and bad smells for an hour or two, whereas a court appearance can stretch into days.

There’s absolutely nothing fun or glamorous about it. You are jerked away from whatever it was you were doing (work, your day off, a vacation) and plopped into a cold, boring room in the cold, boring courthouse. If you’re lucky the room has a window and a minimum of chatty co-witnesses. You have to stay there for as long as the attorneys think they ‘might’ need you and will be freed only after at least one of them has done their best to make you look incompetent at best and conspiratorial at worst. The whole experience, quite frankly, sucks.

And it’s the most important thing we can do. All the crime scene work, swabbing up blood, wearing surgical masks to be able to breathe amid the stench, straining our eyes staring at fingerprint ridges for hours upon hours—all these things count for nothing if they don’t stand up in court.

But that’s the big picture, and usually I’m stuck in the pixels.

The waiting isn’t so bad when it isn’t your vacation you’ve been pulled away from, and you’ve prepared by bringing snacks, change for the pop machine and a book to read. I’ve taken my laptop along and gotten my writing done while waiting (though you may have to dodge those chatty fellow witnesses). If you have a smartphone, I highly recommend downloadable e-audiobooks from your library system (heaven!!). Our courthouse even has free wifi for surfing the web or answering email.

Also sometimes I have to go on Mondays, when our local courthouse does all the ‘housekeeping’ kind of stuff—pleas, motions, continuances—to collect a defendant’s palm prints or footprints, which the regular court bailiffs don’t do. This is the only kind of non-stressful court appearance I have since no one is going to ask me questions and I get to sit inside the courtroom for a change. There I can watch a sometimes interesting parade of people and hear the mini-synopsis of their predicament, such as the guy who got into an argument with someone, called 911, and as the officer arrived to explain that 911 was only for emergencies, called 911 three more times to complain about being told not to call 911.

What drives me to distraction, however, is my increasing appearances in court for sentencing hearings. When a person is convicted after a trial or plea, their fingerprints (not palms) are rolled in open court as an official record that this, indeed, is the person who was convicted in this particular court case. When they are convicted again, before they are sentenced, the prosecutor wants to establish that they have prior convictions so that the sentence can reflect that. So I have to compare the in-court prints from that conviction not yet sentenced to the in-court prints from one or two or five prior convictions. This is a minor thing, an easy comparison since the prints are usually decent and if, say, the right thumbs are smeared, you have nine other fingers to choose from. However I still have to do the comparison, hand it off to another examiner to re-do and therefore verify the comparison,  write the report, give it to my verifier to check and initial, then give to my supervisor to check and initial, make a copy for me, contact the court liaison to tell him he can pick up the report, then go to court and wait a half-hour or hour or two, then put up with the defense attorney complaining about my report (not long enough, too long, I made a typo in the birth date) as if he or his client is really suggesting that they are not the person incarcerated on these previous charges—because if they weren’t, surely they would just say so.


Yes, I whine. But this does represent an outlay of taxpayer-paid time, and not just my time—my co-workers, the attorneys, the judge, the jury—and all to prove something that is already documented and that no one is questioning.

Attorneys have told me that this practice, which only began about four years ago, is due to some court decision, but I don’t believe it. I think it’s something they do ‘just in case’ it may prove to be a point of appeal. They’re trying to protect their body of work, but meanwhile more and more cases are dropped or plead down to nothing because the court’s schedule can’t handle them all. Sometimes crossing every t and dotting every i means that other t’s and i’s suffer.

Another new practice of the extreme stating of the obvious is asking ballistic experts to take bullets apart and then testify to the fact that they are bullets, with a slug and gunpowder, etc., to be used in a firearm. This is apparently requested when the use of a firearm is part of the charge or sentencing considerations, and in addition to verifying that the firearm itself is functional. After all there are several reasons why a firearm might not be able to fire as well as very realistic looking air guns—but nothing else quite looks like a bullet. And if the defendant wants to make the case that his bullets were not functional, he can, again, say so. Then order the testing. But to do it reflexively in every case adds up to a colossal waste of time and resources.

So, yeah, I don’t really enjoy going to court!

(A reminder to writers: local practices vary, and the new procedures Lisa has encountered in Florida are not required everywhere, so talk to a local expert before using them in your scenes!)

Lisa and powderThat Darkness is now available wherever books are sold!

It seemed like a typical week for crime scene specialist Maggie Gardiner–a gang boss shot in an alley, a lost girl draped over an ancient grave, a human trafficker dumped in the river–nothing all that out of the ordinary for the Cleveland police department as spring turns toward summer along the Erie banks. The methods are usual, the victims unsurprising–but when she notices a pattern, a tenuous similarity among the cases, she begins to realize that her days will never be typical again. How much of her life, her career, her friends, will she be willing to risk to do what’s right?

Jack Renner is a killer who does not kill for any of the conventional reasons…no mania, no personal demons. He simply wants to make the world a safer place. He doesn’t think of himself as a dangerous person–but he can’t let anyone stop him. Not even someone as well-meaning as Maggie Gardiner.

Maggie has the self-sufficiency of a born bit-of-a-loner. She works with a bevy of clever experts surrounded by armed police officers.        She is both street smart and book smart, having seen the worst the city has to offer.

But Maggie Gardiner is not safe. And, until she can draw Jack Renner into the light, neither is anyone else.

Jeff Lindsay, author of the Dexter series, says: “Lisa Black always delivers authentic characters in riveting stories. That Darkness takes things to a spellbinding new level with a taut and haunting story that will stay with you long after you finish reading it.”

Publisher’s Weekly says: “The intriguing forensic details help drive the plot to its satisfying conclusion.”

“Black is one of the best writers of the world of forensics, and her latest introduces Maggie Gardiner, who works for the Cleveland Police Department. Her relentless pursuit of answers in a dark world of violence is both inspiring and riveting. Readers who enjoy insight into a world from an expert in the field should look no further than Black. Although Cornwell is better known, Black deserves more attention for her skillful writing – and hopefully this will be her breakout book.”– RT Book Reviews, 4 Stars (Top Pick)

Lisa Black has spent over 20 years in forensic science, first at the coroner’s office in Cleveland Ohio and now as a certified latent print examiner and CSI at a Florida police dept. Her books have been translated into 6 languages; one reached the NYT Bestseller’s List, and one has been optioned for film and a possible TV series.

And yep, that’s her looking like a happy chimney sweep! 

Miranda Magic: Strengthening Your Story — guest Lisa Preston

Orchids coverGather round, children, as we welcome Lisa Preston to the blog. A veteran police officer and EMT, as well as a horse trainer and backcountry adventurer, she’s the author of the new novel ORCHIDS AND STONE. (Read more about Lisa, below.) Today, she’s sharing a cop’s perspective on Miranda warnings, and how you can use them to strengthen your story without breaking the law. 

Miranda Magic: Strengthening Your Story

I once read (part) of a novel by a best-selling author in which a character pleads guilty to murder then the rest of the plot develops over the succeeding criminal trial. Of course, this is not at all what would happen; there would not even be a trial. Only those who plead not guilty receive criminal trials.

Most legal goofs are not so egregious and will likely be missed by many readers, but the writer will lose credibility with readers who roll their eyes when a writer bends the legal system too far for the reader to ride along. As a retired cop, I am one of those readers who doesn’t tolerate fiction with significant goofs in legal procedure. As a writer, I was amused when an editor thought the police officer who had arrested my protagonist should have Mirandized her. This brings me to the two major misunderstandings I see writers struggle with on Miranda warnings.

[LAB: Just because the cops turn the proper noun Miranda into a verb by adding -ize does not mean you may do so in any other context. We shall tolerate this one grammatical misuse only!]

First, Miranda [LAB: Named for the U.S. Supreme Court’s 1964 decision in Miranda v. Arizona) applies to custodial interviews. The cliché scene of a cop snarling Miranda warnings the minute the suspect is handcuffed is not the way police Mirandize. To do so would create an adversarial approach, lessening the chances of the subject being cooperative. Moreover, there’s no reason to Mirandize if there’s no interview.

Whether or not an interview is custodial for the purposes of determining if Miranda warnings are required is not as straightforward as asking whether or not the person is under arrest. It’s possible to not be under arrest, yet be in custody. Here is the 3-pronged test to establish whether or not the interview was custodial:

∙ What did the officer believe (about whether or not the subject was free to leave at any time)? Was the interview subject in the back of a patrol car (from which he could not let himself out)? The officer knows that person is not really free to leave at any time; the interview is custodial and Miranda is required.

∙ What did the interviewee believe (about whether or not he was free to leave at any time)? Was the interviewee in a police station behind locked doors? If he was escorted deep within the building and doesn’t feel free to leave, Miranda is required.

∙ What would a reasonable person believe (about whether or not a person in that situation would feel free to leave at any time)? Was the interview subject first told by the police officer to sit down on the park bench? Maybe the officer is standing over the person now, asking questions. A reasonable person could find that custodial.

Second, there’s nothing magic about a police officer giving the Miranda warning; the key is that the interview subject must waive Miranda rights before being questioned. The 3-prong test for a clean waiver of the Miranda rights is a knowing, intelligent and voluntary waiving of the right to not talk and to not have an attorney present. If the officer read Miranda but the interview subject never waived his rights, then anything learned in the interview could be suppressed or not admissible in court because there was no waiver.

Of course, a writer can use good information to develop a story in any direction. Want the cop to be incompetent? Have him scream Miranda at the arrestee, scaring the subject right out of talking to a cop with an aggressive attitude. Want the cop to be dirty? Have him bait the guy into talking then turn on a recorder and catch what he says without benefit of a Miranda advisement and waiver. Want good procedure? Follow good procedure. Use reliable resources to clarify the legal rules that apply to your fiction. Leslie’s guide, Books, Crooks and Counselors, is an excellent resource, one I recommend to all writers. For details that touch on all senses in a given police scenario, talk to officers who have been in similar situations. We’re happy to share experiences with writers who want to strengthen their stories.

LisaPreston_01With one semester to go in high school, Lisa Preston moved to Alaska and almost immediately began mountain climbing. To improve her first aid knowledge, she took an Emergency Medical Technician course, which included ride-alongs on the Fire Department’s Advanced Life Support ambulances. She moved to Oregon for training and was soon back in Alaska, pulling 24-hour shifts as a paramedic.

After a number of years, she transferred to the Police Department. Her second career started with the position of street officer and she still claims it is the most demanding job in law enforcement. Faced with a choice between K-9 and detectives (she’d trained protection and tracking dogs), she became a detective, working in the Vice unit  and later in Crimes Against Children, with a special assignment as a Hostage Negotiator. She went back to the street as a sergeant, and eventually returned to investigations, supervising Internal Affairs.

She teaches three writing workshops (The Query Class; The Right Rewrite; Ambulances, Badges and Courtrooms). She’s an ultrarunner and rides solo for long distance on her AKhal Teke horses, exploring in the backcountry.

Her publishing credits include nonfiction on the care and training of animals Her thriller, ORCHIDS AND STONE, will be released in trade paperback, e-book and audiobook in April 2016. Connect with her on her website, 

Everything’s better with butter — a book launch update

IMGP3023Thanks to all of you who’ve helped me celebrate the release of BUTTER OFF DEAD, the third book in my Food Lovers’ Village Mysteries. Some of you joined me at the release party at Frame of Reference on June 26, at Montana Book and Toy on July 11, or at Fact & Fiction on July 14, when debut mystery writer Christine Carbo and I interviewed each other. Others bought a copy and curled up in a favorite chair to beat the heat by getting lost in a book set in February in Montana! However you celebrated, my thanks — and cheers! (Yes, that ‘s one of Erin’s huckleberry margaritas shown with the book. In a plastic glass — we don’t want any repeats of the Event that set Fresca off!)

IMGP2435If you’ve read BUTTER, I hope you’ll take a minute to post a review online or to tell your friends about it. Word of mouth and those brief reviews mean a lot to an author, as well as boosting sales and helping a series continue. Plus those online reviews involve stars, and you know how much Erin loves her lucky stars!

Festival 2014If you’re in Western Montana, I hope you’ll come visit with me at the Bigfork Festival of the Arts on Sat and Sun, August 1-2. Look for me in front of Frame of Reference Gallery on Electric Avenue. And in Billings, please swing by Barnes & Noble at 2:00 on Sat, Aug 8, when romantic suspense author BJ Daniels and I interview each other!

Guest posts, reviews, and giveaways: I’ve visited a few book blogs in the last couple of weeks, sharing bits and pieces of the writing life and dishing about my characters. And if by chance you don’t have a copy of BUTTER OFF DEAD yet, a few include publisher giveaways that are still open:

Fresh Fiction — Collecting can be murder! A few of my own collections — happily, none leading to a deadly obsession!

Lori’s Reading Corner — A Vocabulary of My Ownest — making up words to put in my characters’ mouths!

Escape with Dollycas — Killing Christine, or how my victim chose me! Contest ends midnight July 24!

Fresh Fiction — The Family Business. The lovely women at Fresh Fiction liked me so much, they let me come back and talk about the challenges Erin faces in running a business with her mother!

Dru’s Book Musings — A Day in the Life of Tracy McCann, sales clerk and chocolatier Contest open till midnight July 22!

A Cozy Girl Reads — A lovely review!

Moonlight Rendezvous — Another lovely review! Contest open till July 27!

And I’ll be on the Gotta Write Network this week, talking about how Erin manages to solve crime and run a business with her mother — without killing her.

Also thrilled to share with you a guest of my own, on Mystery Lovers’ Kitchen — real-life spice shop owner Amanda Bevill, of World Spice Merchants, shares “The Secret Ingredient” to making a family recipe for apple cake even tastier!

Of course, I continue to share recipes at Mystery Lovers’ Kitchen on the 1st, 3d, and 5th Tuesdays, and my characters take the stage at Killer Characters on the 27th of the month. This month, meet Erin’s mysterious brother Nick, who runs with the wolves.

cat on desk


Happy Reading — and remember, everything’s better with butter! And a cat on your desk. 

Chilling Halloween Law cases

This Halloween special is a reblog from NW Sidebar, the blog of NW Lawyer, the journal of the Washington State Bar Association, written by Jennifer M. Richards. 

“Chilling Halloween-Law Cases from Washington


A “tombstone” inscription from Purtell v. Mason.

Everyone has heard of the Stambovsky vAckley case, where the court found that, as a matter of law, a house was haunted. Stambovsky vAckley, 169 A.D.2d 254 (N.Y. App. Div. 1991). Other strange and spooky case law includes personal injuries from corn mazes or haunted houses, flammable costumes, and other supernatural and sordid tales. See, respectively,Deborah Mays v. Gretna Athletic Boosters Inc.(court held being frightened in haunted house was part of the experience and no duty to protect plaintiff from injuries she sustained); Purtell v. Mason (couple with large motor home received angry response from  neighbors and retaliated by placing tombstones in their yard telling of the untimely deaths of those neighbors — see illustration); Ferlito v. Johnson & Johnson (couple dressed up as Bo Peep and her sheep sued after sheep costume made of cotton balls caught fire).

But what about some “Halloween law” from right here in Washington state?

  1. In a Halloween prank gone awry out of Spokane, the decision begins, “The night was black, and a heavy rain fell.” The parties crossed the railroad tracks on October 31 intending to play a trick on a friend. However, the trick turned into tragedy when “they rammed into a freight train as it coasted quietly through the crossing at the western edge of Lyle.” Hewitt v. Spokane, P. & S. Ry. Co., 402 P.2d 334, 66 Wn.2d 285 (Wash. 1965)
  2. The appellate division had a real treat when it decided a defamation claim for an ad involving the plaintiff’s name written on the side of a pumpkin. The advertisement invited the public to “spend Halloween Night” at a local bar. The phrase “Mark Crossman is…” was written on the left side of the pumpkin. Crossman alleged that his name was written on bathroom stalls at 15 other bars and his reputation had been tarnished. Crossman v. Brick Tavern, Inc., 655 P.2d 1206, 33 Wn.App. 503 (Wash.App. Div. 1 1982)
  3. The plaintiff stated that he was a “spiritualistic medium” with a supernatural power. He used his contacts with the dead to induce the defendants to enter into promissory notes to satisfy spirits beyond the grave. Specifically, “he induced them to believe that there were certain spirits which demanded that they execute the notes in question, for the purpose of what he called a materialization.” He filed suit to enforce payment of the promissory notes. The Court ruled in favor of the defendants, finding that the notes had been entered into through fraudulent representation instead of legitimate clairvoyance. Du Clos v. Batcheller, 49 P. 483, 17 Wash. 389 (Wash. 1897). 

For more spine-tingling lawsuits, check out the October 2014 issue of NWLawyer, which features our Top 10 Legal Cases that Will Spook You!

About the Author

Jennifer M. Richards. Jennifer is an associate attorney at Feldman & Lee, P.S. A native Nevadan, she enjoys cheering on the Nevada Wolfpack, Gonzaga, and exploring the Pacific Northwest. She occasionally blogs at Queen City Addendum, and loves to connect with other professionals on LinkedIn.”

CSI for Real: Lisa Black on Fingerprint Facts & Fictions

Today we welcome Lisa Black back to the blog. A latent print examiner and crime scene investigator in Florida, she’s also a suspense writer extraordinaire. I still remember that sleepless night, home alone, when I stayed up too late finishing one of her books and the smoke alarm kept going off…

We see Abby or Nick or someone in the background on Bones do it every week: scan a fingerprint picked up at a crime scene into some omnipresent Batcomputer and search it against everyone who has ever been printed in the entire United States, including job applicants and military.

This is a myth. It has always been a myth.

Databases are local. My database includes everyone arrested in the city of Cape Coral, Florida, since about 1998 and people arrested by the surrounding county agency since about 2008. No job applicants, certainly no military. Not even our own personnel. (Kind of embarrassing if the prints you collect at scenes come back to your own clumsy cops…it’s better to not even go there.)

Latent means hidden, referring to a print that can’t really be seen until it’s processed with something—powder, superglue, fluorescent light. But we use the term to mean unidentified prints, prints lifted at crime scenes and off pieces of evidence. These unknowns are compared to knowns—prints rolled (these days, usually with a scanner instead of ink) when a person is arrested. These are called 10-prints, though they also include the palms. My database has over two hundred thousand sets of 10-prints. A separate database is full of the unknowns, and I’m constantly searching items from one category against the other. I spend about 85% of an average day doing this, which is exactly as glamorous and thrilling as it sounds.

Lisa and powderI identify about 11% of all the latent prints I get that are suitable for comparison, which is about 40-50% of all latent prints received. This is a pretty good rate as I believe the national average is more like 6%. Of course not every identification means that the case is closed—sometimes prints belong to the victim, other family members, house guests, or customers. [Note from Leslie: That’s Lisa, covered with black print powder. At least I got that part write — er, right — in the WIP!] 

Side note: We do not do ‘elimination prints’, except on homicides. We enter the prints, and if they match someone who has no good excuse to be in the home, great. We don’t fingerprint every family member to eliminate them as having left the print—it is not an efficient use of resources to put in that kind of time and effort just to find out that the print on the window was made by the daughter.    [Note from Leslie: “except on homicides,” she says. Whew. I just wrote this scene….]

Another side note—just because I don’t have access to local job applicants and our own personnel doesn’t mean other examiners at other agencies don’t. Apparently it depends on the personal preferences of the higher-ups.

Any prints I can’t identify eventually go to the state, but it isn’t a digital process and it certainly isn’t instantaneous. Because the state software is slightly different from mine, I have to make a copy of the print cards for our files, repackage the originals, seal, submit to our Property Department, wait for them to assign a number and then fill out a (mercifully online) form to submit them to the state lab. Then some poor sucker at the state lab, who probably feels that they have enough of their own work to do, has to scan them, evaluate them and search them—all the work that I have already done, they do over. This is one of those ‘get to it when I have time’ projects, and the state lab limits me to five submissions per week, so right now I’m sending prints from 14 months ago. Okay, it’s clunky—but it works. We’ve made a number of ‘hits’ this way. Some we had already made by the time we get the state paperwork back, because the person had been arrested by us in the meantime, but some are a happy little surprise.

If this sounds dismally haphazard, remember that despite our best efforts to reach the shining ideals of TV shows with its spotless rooms, obedient children, and omnipotent computer databases, most of life is still haphazard. The perpetrator may not have been arrested. He may have been arrested but in a different state or a different county. He may work as a roofer or bricklayer and have worn-down ridges. He may have left a palm print at the scene and the person who rolled his palms cut off the interdigital section (something the county used to have a bad habit of doing). The latent print might be smeared right where his 10-print is clear, and his 10-print is smeared right where the latent is clear. He may have come up in the search results, but an examiner, clicking through search after search, got a little too cavalier and said ‘nah’ a little too quickly. (We have all done this, which is why a second examiner double checks everything.) And he may have had half a brain cell and actually pulled on a pair of freakin’ gloves.

However—all that said, the myth is becoming reality. Slowly and haphazardly, but becoming. As I’ve said I’ve been receiving prints from the county, a different software system, for the past 5 or so years. (I can’t search their database, which goes back decades, but their recent arrests are in mine.) The software I’m on now has the ability to remotely search the same software-based databases at other police departments, some in neighboring counties, some in other states, and vice versa (with their permission, of course). Unfortunately that caused such bugs in the system that we shut it down completely for over a year and only recently opened it back up again. Then, after an update, I noticed a checkbox in my search engine that said ‘federal databases.’ You mean I could actually search the FBI?  I filled out the paperwork, got the signatures of the higher-ups, sent it in. Eventually it came back but in the meantime our chief had retired so new paperwork had to be completed. Almost a year later (another of those ‘when I have time’ projects) I picked up the ball and tried again. Nothing. I have to go through the state, a very nice man from the state eventually tells me. The prints have to be sent there first. Our software doesn’t mesh with this, but if the software company can figure out a patch then the state has no problem with it. I call the software company. They are stunned to find out that the state will allow this. No one had actually asked them before.

So since the beginning of summer, the software company is working on a patch or conversion system or whatever it is, which they assure me is not difficult, and then they will work on interfacing with the state, and eventually, perhaps even by Christmas, after twenty years of seeing it on TV every day, I may actually be able to do a little bit of that omnipresent Batcomputer stuff.


close to the bone 1About Lisa’s newest, Close to the Bone:

Close to the Bone hits forensic scientist Theresa MacLean where it hurts, bringing death and destruction to the one place where she should feel the most safe—the medical examiner’s office in Cleveland, Ohio, where she has worked for the past fifteen years of her life. Theresa returns in the wee hours after working a routine crime scene, only to find the body of one of her deskmen slowly cooling with the word “Confess” written in his blood. His partner is missing and presumed guilty, but Theresa isn’t so sure. The body count begins to rise but for once these victims aren’t strangers—they are Theresa’s friends and colleagues, and everyone in the building, herself included, has a place on the hit list.

L Black author photoAbout Lisa: Lisa Black spent the five happiest years of her life in a morgue. As a forensic scientist in the Cleveland coroner’s office she analyzed gunshot residue on hands and clothing, hairs, fibers, paint, glass, DNA, blood and many other forms of trace evidence, as well as crime scenes. Now she’s a certified latent print examiner and CSI for the Cape Coral Police Department in Florida. Her books have been translated into six languages and one reached the NYT mass market bestseller’s list.

Fact vs. Fiction in police work — a sergeant speaks

Today, we welcome Adam Plantinga to the blog to share a few tips about the reality of police work. A sergeant with the San Francisco Police Department, Adam is the author of 400 Things Cops Know: Street-Smart Lessons from a Veteran Patrolman, published today by Quill Driver Books. He’ll make you laugh, but he’ll also make you smarter. Read on.

400 Things Cops Know CoverPlaywright Arthur Miller once said drama is a compressing of time. You need to make a lot of things happen in a short span. That’s why you skip the slow stuff to keep the audience engaged. So if cop shows, books, and movies aren’t very realistic, it’s okay, because that’s just how narrative best functions. But you still want to craft a work that rings true when it counts. It’s a bit of a balancing act. To aid in this endeavor, I have listed examples below to keep in mind if you are writing a police-related novel or screenplay and wish to sound reasonably authentic.

1.  Fiction: Even the most willowy of cops kicks down the suspect’s door in a single blow.

Reality: Doors, especially exterior ones, can be onerous to take down. Once it took me twenty-seven tries. I know this because there was a sergeant next to me counting out loud encouragingly. And the most effective means of entry isn’t the manly snap kick where you face the door with your shoulders squared, but rather the ungainly mule kick, where your back is to the door and you lash out with your foot like Eeyore.

2.  Fiction: The male cops are ruggedly handsome and frequently shirtless, with toned, tan physiques. The female officers have shimmering hair with a lot of bounce to it and commendable skin.

Reality: We are not as gorgeous or dynamic as our fictional counterparts. Some cops look like they’ve been hit in the face with a crowbar. (Some, have, in fact, been hit in the face with a crowbar. It’s that kind of job.) If cops looked like models, believe me, we’d be models. That gig would beat sprinting down some dirty alley after a knife-wielding meth addict any day.

3.  Fiction: Local law enforcement has just started investigating the big case when the feds swoop in with their trench coats and sunglasses. One of the feds says, “We’re taking over.” A bitter argument about jurisdiction ensues.

Reality: If the feds show, you probably have a massive migraine of a crime scene on your hands that involves something you don’t deal with much (a train derailment, a nasty hazardous materials situation, a multi-state crime spree). So if some three letter agency offers to be on point, your reaction is likely going to be Thank the Lord. The FBI really wants this mess? It’s all theirs. Maybe you can still make your daughter’s piano recital after all.

4.  Fiction: The hero cop shoots a few bank robbers in the afternoon, and returns to work the next morning full duty as some police colleague comments, “Nice work yesterday.”

Reality: If you are in an officer-involved shooting, you are immediately placed on administrative duty pending the completion of the investigation. There’s also mandatory counseling involved. Police shootings are relatively rare and a very big deal. They are treated as such.

5. Fiction: Plainclothes cops or detectives in suits walk around in public with their guns out but no visible form of police identification.

Reality: You are required to have your badge/ID out if your firearm is showing. How are civilians supposed to know you’re a cop as opposed to just some nutjob walking around with a firearm? Even other police officers may not know who you are, especially on larger departments. Is everyone just supposed to intuit you’re the police because you have that shimmering hair with a lot of bounce to it?

6.  Fiction: The two detectives interrogate the suspect and cut right to the chase. After a few minutes, the suspect breaks down and gives a full confession.

Reality: Interrogations start with rapport-building. You want to find out something about the suspect first. Where he grew up, which school he went to, if he has siblings. You usually don’t even touch on the crime at hand until you’ve gotten him comfortable talking to you. Then there’s bathroom breaks.  Maybe even a proffered fast food meal. The whole process can take hours. Usually the only people who confess within a few minutes are juveniles.

7.  Fiction: The police protagonist knowingly enters an incredibly dangerous situation alone, often muttering, “There’s no time for backup.” He also is equipped with a flashlight that only seems capable of illuminating the first three feet in front of him.

Reality: There’s almost always time for backup. If there’s one suspect, at least two to three cops will respond. Two suspects? No fewer than four. Three or more bad guys? The whole shift is showing up. Police aren’t superheroes. You succeed because you use training, tactics, and superior numbers.

Also, our flashlights work just fine.

Adam PlantingaAdam Plantinga is a sergeant on the San Francisco Police Department and the author of the just-released book 400 Things Cops Know: Street-Smart Lessons from a Veteran Patrolman, available from Amazon, Barnes and Noble, local booksellers, and from the publisher, Quill Driver Books

Conflict in the Courtroom: Cops & Counselors — a guest post

Today we welcome to the blog Micki Browning, a veteran police officer, now retired and spinning tales of murder and mayhem in Colorado and the Florida Keys, sharing her perspective of the critical relationships between police officers, prosecutors, and defense counsel. Welcome, Micki! 

Conflict in the Courtroom: Cops & Counselors

Cops and counselors work together on a regular basis. How well they get along is often determined by which table the attorney sits at in the courtroom. Sometimes only inches separate the tables, but the span is often insurmountable. While I’m fairly certain there are at least a few amiable defense lawyers in this world, you’d be hard pressed to find an officer who will admit to meeting one. So why the disparity? After all, attorneys practicing criminal law all use the same playbook. To be fair, everyone is striving for justice, yet from a cop’s perspective, defense attorneys have a huge PR problem. They’re batting for the wrong team.

You see, police officers form strong relationships with prosecutors based on mutual respect. This camaraderie is forged through the shared goal of ridding the streets of ne’er-do-wells. Sometimes, the lead investigator will share the prosecutor’s table and act as an advisor throughout the trial. Heck, sometimes they’ll even discuss the case over drinks, or a pickup game of basketball, or at the Fourth of July picnic.

They become friends.

An Adversarial System

The United States judicial system is adversarial. Defense attorneys make their living defending the same person the cop went to a great deal of trouble to arrest. This creates a philosophical difference of opinion about the character of the accused and the merits of the case. Officers don’t arrest innocent people. Or so they’d like to think. Does it happen? Absolutely. Does it change how we think of the defense team? Not a whit. If a cop and a defense attorney drink together, someone’s about to sip arsenic, their pickup game will end in sudden death, and the only reason to show up to the Fourth of July picnic is because there was a noise complaint and the officer is on-duty.

While most officers believe that defense attorneys inhabit a tenth ring not envisioned by Dante, occasionally, even a prosecutor fans the flames. Law enforcement investigators present their cases to the prosecutor’s office when they feel it is a complete package— a conclusion not always shared by the prosecutor. This disparate perspective often arises from standards that are triggered at various phases of an investigation. For example, an officer only needs probable cause to believe a person committed a crime in order to make an arrest or pursue a warrant. But to secure a conviction, the prosecutor must present a case that demonstrates beyond a reasonable doubt that the person did the dirty deed. Big difference—and one that can foster animosity between an officer who knows said knucklehead did wrong, and a prosecutor who may agree, but can’t prove it.

Evidence Is Not Truth

Despite what cops, attorneys and expert witnesses claim, evidence, on its own, is not truth. Evidence supports or undermines an argument. There is rarely a smoking gun and instead, evidence is pieced together until a reasonable conclusion can be drawn. Police officers testify to what they observed, the actions they took, and the items they gathered. I’ve presented evidence that has helped both the prosecution and the defense in the same trial. My job is to present the facts without embellishment or bias. It is the prosecutor’s job to build it up, and the defense attorney’s task to tear it down. One way the defense team attacks the validity of evidence is to attack the credibility of the officer presenting it. It’s hard to leave a courtroom feeling warm fuzzies for an attorney who just tried to convince the jury that you are an unprofessional nincompoop.

Crime and Punishment

Call it petty, but when the defense prevails, a cop’s first thought is that a miscarriage of justice took place, not that his or her own lack of preparation or investigation played a part. Truth is, it’s difficult to obtain a conviction. A key piece of evidence at trial may be been overlooked at the initial investigation, witnesses recant, juries are fickle and media coverage can sway perception.

What’s this mean for your writing? Everyone in a courtroom can feel righteous, but not everyone can be right. Opportunities for conflict abound. After all, it’s an adversarial system.

Micki Browning


MICKI BROWNING, an FBI National Academy graduate, worked in law enforcement for over two decades. She retired as a division commander leading the investigations, internal affairs, and training bureaus. She’s a member of Sisters in Crime and active in the Guppies chapter.