Anatomy of a False Confession: Eugene Vent and the Fairbanks Four

The recent exoneration of the “Fairbanks Four” provides an excellent – and necessary – opportunity to talk about false confessions. Many are troubled by the concept, wondering, short of torture, why would anyone admit to a crime they did not commit?  This kind of thinking is perpetuated by the fact that most people have not been exposed to the psychologically coercive techniques used by interrogators.

So rather than discussing false confessions in the abstract, let’s take the false confession of seventeen year old Eugene Vent and dissect it to better understand how such a thing comes into being. Vent, of course, is one of the “Fairbanks Four” who, in a settlement with the State of Alaska, just had his murder conviction reversed and was released from prison after serving 18 years.

Most false confessions can be broken down into two parts. First, the interrogator wears the suspect down, using tactics like repeatedly calling the suspect a liar and citing false evidence as a reason to reject everything the suspect says as untrue. Second, after the suspect’s resistance is gone, the interrogator begins to feed the suspect facts about the crime to incorporate into his confession.

Some people are more vulnerable to these types of tactics than others, but teenagers in general are particularly susceptible. In 2013, for example, the National Registry of Exonerations reported that in the past 25 years, 38% of the exonerations of crimes allegedly committed by youth involved false confessions. This is because prefrontal cortex, the part of the brain that controls decision-making and judgment, is far less developed in the teenage brain, making it much less effective in regulating impulsive behavior by putting a break on reactions to fear and stress. In a high stress environment like an interrogation, a teen is far more likely to say anything – true or not – just to get it to stop, ignoring the long-term consequences of that decision.

The dangers of a false confession are particularly elevated if the teen is tired, under the influence of alcohol or other substances, isolated from a parent or other supportive figure. When Fairbanks Police Detective Ring began his interrogation of Eugene Vent, the teen was still drunk, hungry, alone and tired. The interrogation began at 5:30 am, after Vent had been up all night drinking.

Vent repeatedly told Detective Ring that he had nothing to do with the beating of young Eric Hartman – a beating so severe it led to Hartman’s death. But with every denial, Ring told Vent he was lying. As this portion of the transcript of the interrogation reveals, this tactic causes Vent to despair that the detective will never accept the truth:

Vent: You sweatin’ man, you guys gotta talk to somebody else, you’re sweatin’ me, man.

Ring: Well, here’s the problem.

Vent: It’s (inaudible) talk, talk to some of the others.

Ring: This kid needs some help.

Vent: Well (inaudible) to some of the others, (inaudible) you’re trying to put some guilty shit on my – I didn’t do, you’re trying to say I did something I didn’t do.

Ring: No.

Vent: You’re trying to put (inaudible)

Ring: I’m trying to say you were there and you probably saw it happen.

Vent: Well, I see what I see, (inaudible) accuse me…

Ring: So you…

Vent: accuse me.

Ring: So you’re not going to help this kid?

Vent: I’m trying but I don’t know who it is.

Ring: You don’t have to know who it is. I’m telling you that he needs help over there. And I need to go over there and help the doctors. Okay. I’ll tell ‘em how many times he was hit with what. Okay. If you don’t even wanta tell me which one of your friends it was that did it, that’s fine. Okay.

Vent: You aren’t hearing me, man.

Ring: Well, I’m hearing you, but you’re not hearing me.

Vent: You’re not hearing me at all.

Ring: And you’re not telling me the truth.

Vent: And you know why you’re not hearing me, cause you (inaudible) ain’t believe me, and I’m trying to tell you what I know.

Ring: Well, I’m not believing you, because you haven’t told me the truth, okay.

Vent: Believe me.

Ring: And I’ve been a policeman…

Vent: Cause you’re a cop, that’s what you think.

Ring: I’ve been a cop as long as you’ve been alive.

Vent: Go find, go find somebody else to talk to.

Ring: Okay. I’ve been a cop as long as you’ve been alive.

Vent: Go find, go find somebody else to talk to.

Ring: Oh, I hear ya. But you’re the one I need to talk to. Okay. That’s the problem we’ve been having here.

Vent: You might have been a cop as long as I’ve been alive.

Ring: Here’s the problem we’re having.

Vent: But it (inaudible).

Ring: I need to talk to you and you (inaudible).

Vent: (inaudible)

Ring: Here’s the problem.

Vent: You don’t want to hear me.

Ring: You have the, you need to talk to me, you don’t want to talk to me, that’s the problem we’re having.

Vent: What have, what have I been doing for the last two hours? I been talking to you and you, you ain’t believing me, so that the hell you (inaudible).

Ring: You’ve been that close to the truth, okay.

Vent: I’m telling you the truth.

Ring: Oh, I understand that, I know, I would be surprised if I sat down with you and you told me the truth right away. I would be surprised. Okay. Cause that’s not what kids do. That’s not what they do.

Vent: (inaudible) Man, even if I stay right (inaudible).

Ring: I would be blown out.

Vent: I can tell you a big lie and you wouldn’t believe me, I could tell you the truth and you still wouldn’t believe me, man.

Occurring well over an hour in to the interrogation, it’s evident from this excerpt that Vent’s resistance is at its end.  Ring also used deception to wear down Vent’s confidence that his denials of guilty would ever be accepted. The detective told Vent that his shoeprint had been found at the scene in the victim’s blood.

In a publication titled Reducing Risks: an Executive’s Guide to Effective Juvenile Interview and Interrogation, the International Association of Chief of Police recommends against the use of deception in the interrogation of teenagers for several reasons. First of all, “[t]he presentation of false evidence may cause a young person to think that the interrogator is so firmly convinced of his guilt that he will never be able to persuade him otherwise.” In this situation, “the teen may think that he has no choice but to confess – whether guilty or innocent – in an effort to cut his losses.” Also, the use of false evidence “may cause an innocent juvenile – even one who initially had a clear recollection of not committing a crime – to mistrust his memory, accept that the evidence’ proves his guilt, and eventually confess to a crime that he did not commit.”

In Vent’s case, both of these consequences were realized. As Detective Ring convinced Vent to doubt his own memory, the teen began to believe Detective Ring’s lie:

Ring: Let me show you a photo of the guy [Hartman] and you tell me who it is. Okay.

Vent: I haven’t met him, man.

Ring: Well that’s the person whose blood you stepped in, so I think probably (inaudible) who it is. Unless you were just down there taking his stuff, I don’t know.

Vent: I don’t know who that is, man. I might’ve been there, but I don’t know who that is.

Ring: What do you mean you might’ve been there, but you don’t know who that is?

Vent: If I stepped in his blood, I was there, but I don’t know who that is right there.

Ring: Oh.

Vent: He, he doesn’t look familiar and I certainly…

Ring: Oh, this is a stranger to you?

Vent: Stranger, yeah.

Having broken Vent down, Ring was ready to begin feeding him the facts about the crime that he wanted Vent to incorporate into his confession.

Here are those “facts”: (1) there had been an assault; (2) the attack occurred in downtown Fairbanks on 9th and Burnette; (3) the assault including kicking; (3) the victim was kicked in the head; (4) an object was inserted into the victim’s rectum; (5) there was more than one attacker; (6)  the attackers arrived and fled in a car; (7) Kevin Pease, Marvin Roberts and George Frease were also involved in the attack.

In a telltale sign of a false confession, Vent supplied none of these facts on his own.  Using the transcript of the three parts of the interrogation, here are the specific portions where Ring introduces each of these facts to Vent:

 

(1) There had been an assault:

Ring: What has the problem with the dude uh, on Barnette earlier that was wearing camos, the camo shirt?

Vent: Well I, I didn’t have any problems on Cowles.

Ring: No, this was Barnette.

Vent: Barnette?

Ring: Yeah, the guy wearing the shirt right there. [Ring is showing Vent a photo of the victim.] Cause we had a little problem with him too and, uh, wondering what kind of problem you had with him.

Vent: I didn’t have any problem with some…

Ring: You’ve already been identified as having a scuffle with him too, so I, I don’t like, I’m not here to mess around with ya.

Vent: No, no, no.

[Note: this was a lie. No one had identified Vent.]

 

(2) The attack occurred in downtown Fairbanks on 9th and Barnette:

Ring: Okay. You were over there at Ninth and Barnette.

Vent: I was, I was out, yes, I was on Barnette Street.

Ring: Yeah.

Vent: I was going home there, I got busted on Barnette Street.

Ring: But you got busted on Fifth, okay.

……………………..

Ring: Yeah, that’s, that’s you, you got in a fight over at the Eagles Hall, you and your friends, okay, and you go in a fight with another one of your friends over at Ninth and Barnette. Okay. You see what I’m saying.

Vent: At Ninth and Barnette, that’s like (inaudible) is that like the Alaska Motor Inn?

Ring: No, you know where it is. It’s down by the court house.

 

(3) The victim was found laying on the sidewalk:

Vent: I didn’t see him.

Ring: But you, you were there, but you didn’t see him?

Vent: Aw man.

Ring: He the one laying on the sidewalk, okay. Did you see a guy laying on the sidewalk?

Vent: I didn’t see nobody laying on the…

Ring: You stepped, stepped in his blood.

Vent: Why the only person I see laying on the sidewalk was me, me, getting my fucking face smashed into the (inaudible).

Ring: Okay. Okay. Well here’s the problem.

Vent: Yeah.

Ring: This, this guy was laying on the sidewalk, you stepped in his blood, cause you were there when he was beat up, okay, if it was not by you, fine.

 

(3) The assault included kicking:

Ring: Okay. Let’s start with the, with the easy things. Were you on foot or did you show up in a car?

Vent: I was talking, I was walking downtown , and through, through downtown.

Ring: Okay. Now why, if you know, if you know this guy, then you’ve had, if he’s crossed you, and he owes you money or something like that, let me know that, cause that’s, that’s something he’s done to you. Okay. You see what I’m saying?

Vent: Well, (inaudible).

Ring: That’s something he’s done to you. He call you any ethnic names, any slurs?

Vent: I don’t think so.

Ring: Okay. Well, this seems to be just, unless you guys took something from him, it seems to be just an anger thing. Ya know, unless you guys took money from him or something like that. Which, which makes sense.

Vent: I didn’t take anything from him.

Ring: Any of that money that you had, does that belong to this guy?

Vent: No.

Ring: You’re sure?

Vent: (inaudible)

Ring: Does it, I mean, we will fingerprint that stuff.

Vent: It’s mine.

Ring: Okay. All right. Why did you feel it necessary to hit this guy when you saw him?

Vent: Um, cause I was drunk, I guess.

Ring: That’s, that’s…

Vent: (inaudible)

Ring: That’s a, that a partial reason.

Vent: (inaudible) drunk.

Ring: Why’d this guy make you angry?

Vent: I’m not really sure about that. I don’t know.

Ring: He made you angry enough that you kicked him. That was seen. Okay.

[Note: This was a lie. No witness saw Vent kick the victim.]

 

(4) The victim was kicked in the head:

Ring: How many times did you hit this person while he was, while he was standing? Again, we’re talking about detail. 

Vent: Probably just once and then I probably, yeah, I kicked him a couple times.

Ring: You kicked him a couple times?

Vent: Yeah.

Ring: Where?

Vent: On his arms.

Ring: If it’s in the head, that’s okay, I mean you need to say that.

 

(5) That there was more than one attacker:

Vent: I can’t believe what you’re saying.

Ring: Okay. I can’t believe…

Vent: Can’t believe you’re trying to say I beat somebody up.

Ring: Yeah. That’s the problem. You, you and your friends.

Vent: He, did he identify me?

Ring: Uh-huh. (affirmative)

Vent: Oh, (inaudible)

Ring: So that’s the problem you have.

[Note: This was a lie. The victim was never able to identify anyone.]

 

(6) An object had been inserted in the victim’s rectum:

Ring: And you’re responsible for putting something up this guy’s rectum? 

Vent: No.

Ring: Well then you’re not responsible for all of this.

Vent: I tell you, I wouldn’t even think of doing that.

Ring: Uh-huh. (affirmative) One of your so-called friends did. Okay. I understand, I understand, and that’s and embarrassing thing to talk about and maybe that’s why you ran off. That makes sense, right?

Vent: I don’t know anything about that.

Ring: Well that makes sense you wouldn’t go in the car with ‘em after seeing that. Right?

Vent: Yeah.

 

(7)  That the attackers arrived and fled in a car:

Ring: Were you guys in a car driving on 9th?

Vent: No.

Ring: Are you sure?

Vent: I could be, I just (inaudible) walking.

Ring: Well think about that a little bit. You guys drove up there in a car and hopped out.

Vent: (inaudible)

Ring: Cause I’ve got some skid marks and (inaudible) actual skid (inaudible) Okay, figure it out that way, But I’d rather hear it from you if you guys were in a car.

 

(8) Kevin Pease, Marvin Roberts and George Frease were also involved in the attack.

Unidentified male voice: Excuse me, the station just called and uh, Kevin Pease and Harley Semaken (inaudible) were both arrested and uh, they thing that they’re involved in this. Kevin Pease had some problems tonight. That’s what they wanted you to know.

Ring: Uh-huh (affirmative). Okay, well thanks.

(sound of door closing)

Ring: Did you leave out Kevin’s name?

Vent: This is getting worse and worse by the minute.

Ring: Uh, it sounds like it.

……………………..

Ring: Okay. You mind if I talk to you about…

Vent: Um.

Ring: Your friends here.

Vent: Yeah, they’re good friends but I don’t think any of ‘em would do that.

Ring: Okay. You mind if I talk to you, uh, maybe get it sorted out in my own mind of who might be responsible?

Vent: Um, yeah.

Ring: Okay. I’d, like I say, we talk to uh, to these two guys.

Vent: Uh-huh (affirmative).

Ring: Uh, George and Marvin, I’ll put ‘em in front of you so you can see them, and uh, I guess Marvin was the driver of this little car, little blue car. [Ring shows Vent photos of Marvin Roberts and George Frease.]

Vent: Uh-huh (affirmative).

Ring: It’s not red, it’s a blue car.

Vent: Right.

Ring: Okay. And uh, George uh, Nollner, uh, he said he was in the car too. That Kevin, uh, we’ll figure out Kevin here (inaudible). So, am I right in saying, saying, these two guys are telling the truth when they say they were in the car?

Vent: Yeah.

Ring: Okay. Did you not wanta tall me before because they’re friends of yours?

Vent: Uh-huh (affirmative).

Ring: Is that right?

Vent: Yeah.

 

Unfortunately, when police decide to solve a case through coercive interrogations rather than going out and investigating, they risk identifying the wrong people as suspects. The Fairbanks Four joins other high-profile cases across the nation – the Central Park Five in New York, the Englewood Four in Chicago, for example – where teenagers have been wrongfully convicted and spent the rest of their childhood in prison.

Another example of coercive interview tactics used on a low-functioning teen can be seen in the third episode of the Netflix series Making of a Murderer.


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Let’s talk about confirmation bias!

Let’s talk about one of the biggest causes of error in an investigation: confirmation bias.  Confirmation bias is a natural tendency we all have that involves favoring information that confirms previously existing beliefs or biases, and disregarding information that conflicts with those beliefs.

Here’s a general example:

People who believe in extrasensory perception (ESP) will keep close track of instances when they were thinking about Mom, and then the phone rang and it was her!’ But they ignore the far more numerous times when (a) they were thinking about Mom and she didn’t call and (b) they weren’t thinking about Mom and she did call. They also fail to recognize that if they talk to Mom about every two weeks, their frequency of “thinking about Mom” will increase near the end of the two-week-interval, thereby increasing the frequency of a ‘hit.

This something everyone does — one of the ways we order our worlds and affirm what we believe in — but it becomes a problem when we are supposed to act as neutral observers. In an ideal investigation, police will let the facts will drive conclusions but you’d be surprised how many times it happens the other way around.

Here’s a real-life case example of confirmation bias at work in a murder investigation. In the picture below, the detective holding the pink string has already formed a theory that a gunshot originated outside the car, the bullet penetrating into the interior through an open window. She is trying to demonstrate that trajectory with a pink string that’s attached to a yellow trajectory rod. If you look closely, she’s bending the string in order to make her theory work, pulling it off of the line of the trajectory rod. (This is possibly with string, which is why it’s not an ideal indicator of bullet trajectories.)

Picture1

Now here’s an accurate picture of the bullet trajectory of the same shot captured with a laser, which unlike a string, can’t be bent to accommodate the detective’s preconceived theory about the origin of the shot. As this picture proves, the shot originated from inside the car.

Picture3

This is just one example of confirmation bias at work. We’ll discuss others in future posts!


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Let’s talk bullet wipe!

Bullet wipe is residue from bullet transferred to the area around the periphery of bullet hole. It has multiple uses, any of which can produce an “ah-ha!” moment in an investigation.
First of all, not perforations caused by a bullet are immediately apparent as being caused by a bullet. For example, look at the sleeve of this sweatshirt:

Bullet wipe

Is this just a ratty old sweat shirt or did the wearer escape a near miss from a gunshot? Bullet wipe provides the answer. The residue around the hole circled in red was left on this sweatshirt when the bullet penetrated the fabric.

Bullet Wipe 2 with arrow

You might be wondering if it’s possible to confuse bullet wipe with dirt or some other substance, particularly on a dirty t-shirt. The answer, of course, is yes – and this can be used to create plot twists and complications in an investigation. But bullet wipe is found only around the margins of a perforation, and it can be lifted and its components analyzed for traces of lead or copper (in the case of a copper jacketed bullet) for a more definitive answer

In general, bullet wipe also reveals which hole is the entrance and which is the exit, allowing us to gather some information about the direction the bullet traveled.  On the sweatshirt pictured above, the direction of travel is indicated by the red arrow.
So bullet wipe can provide three pieces of information:
1. Is it a bullet hole?

2. What side of an object did the bullet penetrate? Bullet wipe will only appear on the side the bullet entered.

3. Did the bullet hit an intermediate object? Bullet wipe will only be left on the first object a bullet strikes.


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Let’s talk about murders that fall into gray areas…

Scott has a question to Ask Ms. Murder:

While I’m interested in the nuts and bolts of crime scene investigation, I am also interested in the moral thought process of investigators. What I mean by that is, a woman murders the man she lives with because he was abusive and while the investigator knows he was abusive, the evidence against him isn’t strong enough for a sure conviction based on her own background and behavior. There are kids involved as well. What goes through the mind of the investigator as he or she investigates? He knows or believes the victim is deserving (if there ever is such an idea). He wants the woman to get away with it. Have you run across this or thought about it? I think it would be hard for a detective or lawyer to admit to these thoughts outside their own inner circle, but I can’t believe it doesn’t happen.

Dear Scott:

In Ms. Murder’s experience, investigators and lawyers, whether they are working for the prosecution or defense, are frequently presented with morally ambiguous cases. In fact, this is probably one of the biggest differences between fact and fiction. A lot of crime fiction involves “senseless crimes” – murders where the victims are either unconnected to their assailant or uninvolved in creating the situation that led to their own demise. This, of course, heightens the drama and the emotional impact of the killing so the reader is motivated to see the heinous crime solved, the killer brought to justice.

But in real life, many homicides don’t fall into the convenient black-and-white category of good versus evil.  Rather, they arise in those gray areas of human behavior where the allocation of blame isn’t always simple: a shooting over a drug deal gone bad, a drunken brawl, teenagers flashing guns at each other to prove their bravado, and yes, woman killing their abusive husbands.

Police officers and prosecutors often have to pursue cases where the victim isn’t particularly sympathetic – or even remotely likeable. When Ms. Murder was a prosecutor, these cases were often dubbed “public service killings.” The discomfort surrounding the victim was channeled into dark humor or inter-office griping, but it did not leave the office.  Because we were professionals dedicated to doing our jobs, all cases still received the same level of investigation and preparation.

Now that Ms. Murder is on the other side, she deals directly with criminal defendants, some of whom she wouldn’t want to invite home to dinner. It can indeed be difficult to defend a client whose pet name for you is “motherfucker.” In fact, providing a vigorous defense for a particularly disagreeable client is often one of the biggest challenges for the criminal defense attorney. But it’s also essential. As Ms. Murder likes to remind herself, our criminal justice system would be nothing more than a lynch mob if defense attorney spent their time judging their clients instead of defending them.

Fondly,

Ms. Murder Pic

Ms. Murder

Would you like to learn much more from Ms. Murder in person? Take her 49 Writer’s class on October 3rd! Here is the link to sign up: http://49writingcenter.org/Instruction/classes.php

And, as always, you can email your questions to askms.murder@gmail.com


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Let’s talk 49 Writer’s Class!

Want personal instruction from Ms. Murder? Take her 49 Writer’s class on October 3rd!  Here is the link to sign up: http://49writingcenter.org/Instruction/classes.php


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Let’s talk bullet defects!

Ms. Murder is a firm believer that physical evidence is the most telling, persuasive type of evidence that can be gathered in a murder case. Being able to interpret that evidence is a critical skill of any police officer, detective, prosecutor or defense attorney – so much so that Ms. Murder recently spent a week with 30 all-male law enforcement officers to take a course in crime scene reconstruction taught by international experts Bevel, Gardner & Associates. Needless to say, the 30 all-male law enforcement officers weren’t exactly thrilled to see Ms. Murder show up in their class, but she persevered through the cold stares and snide comments to be able to share this valuable information with you.

So let’s get to it! What can we learn from a crime scene? In most real-life cases, quite a bit — so much so that we’ll have to break that question down into much smaller categories. In fiction, of course, you can pick and choose want type of evidence you want to leave at a scene to further your plot, but you still need to know what you’re talking about.

So let’s start with bullets holes, or if you want to be technically accurate, “bullet defects” since not every bullet strike leaves a hole. Here’s an example of a bullet strike that did not create a hole:

Bullet Defect

You can see the indentation in the wood where the bullet struck, but did not penetrate, the window sill. In fact, the bullet itself (from a .357 pistol) was found on the floor beneath the sill. It had already lost considerable velocity when it penetrated several intermediate objects (including a body) before striking the sill.

You can gather a lot of information from a bullet defect, including the position of the shooter in relation to the defect. For example, if the defect is perfectly round, the shooter was standing orthogonal (at a 90 degree angle) to the surface material of the defect, so that the shot was straight-on. Here’s a picture of a nearly orthogonal shot:

Orthogonal Shot

 

A more elongated or oval defect shows a decreased angle to the plane of the surface material, meaning that the shot was not straight-on:

Bullet Wipe

But here’s where you need to be careful — or where you can build in an investigative error as a plot twist: irregularly shaped defects, as opposed to simply elongated ovals, can mean something entirely different.  Here’s a shot of an irregular bullet defect from a murder scene:

Tumbling Bullet

See how one side of the oval is flat rather than rounded? That’s because this shape was caused by a tumbling bullet, rather than a shooter standing at less than a 90 degree angle to the surface. What you’re seeing is basically the outline of the bullet as it hit the drywall broadside rather than nose-first. This particular bullet struck another object before it hit the drywall, which set it tumbling in flight. You can also tell that the bullet hit an intermediate object by the absence of bullet wipe around the defect.  What’s bullet wipe? Find out in Ms. Murder’s next post!

OR would you like to learn much more from Ms. Murder in person? Take her 49 Writer’s class on October 3rd!  Here is the link to sign up: http://49writingcenter.org/Instruction/classes.php

And, as always, you can email your questions to askms.murder@gmail.com


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Let’s talk murder!

ASK MS. MURDER

As a young girl in the 1980s, Ms. Murder sat captivated in front of the family television as network shows finally portrayed skilled women lawyers standing before juries to argue their cases. She dreamed of the day when she too could address a jury when the stakes were at their highest – when the charge was murder.

Decades later, Ms. Murder has realized that dream. She has both successfully prosecuted and defended those charged with murder in courts throughout Alaska. But her experience is not limited to arguing cases to juries. She has been called out to remote crime scenes in the middle of the night, scaled down steep mountainsides with investigators looking for murder victims, and traveled by boat, single-engine plane and snowmachine to interview witnesses. Along the way, Ms. Murder has developed an extensive knowledge of police procedures, investigations and the forensic sciences. She has also been trained by national experts in shooting incident analysis and crime scene reconstruction.

But even after all of this real-life experience, Ms. Murder still remembers that it was the thrill of fiction, not the starkness of reality, which first inspired her. She now endeavors to use her skills to help others create new crime fiction, or fact-check and evaluate existing work, particularly if it involves that most heinous of crimes.

Post a comment or email your questions to askms.murder@gmail.com

Let’s talk murder!

 


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