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10 Life Lessons I Learned From Reading True Crime

Updated on February 13, 2017
Kim Bryan profile image

Tennessee-based freelance writer with a passion for true crime, a thirst for knowledge, and an obsession with lists.

Every now and again I have to take a break from reading and writing about true crime and insert a little humor for the sake of my own sanity. One of the ways I do this is to reflect back on the stories I’ve read and the things which gave me a little chuckle because of the stupidity or, at the very least, made me add it to my mental list of “Don’t ever…”

I have thousands of things on my list of don’ts, but no one has that much time on their hands. Instead I’ll start you off with the first ten things whichcome to mind. I hope you enjoy - and abide by, these ten life lessons learned from true crime:

1. Naming Your Child After A Famous Criminal Is Just Asking For Trouble

Be it Jesse James Cummings, Jr. or Jesse James Hollywood serving as two prime examples, people really need to stop naming their children after American criminals romanticized by Hollywood (the city, not the dude).

Jesse James Hollywood
Jesse James Hollywood | Source

It’s stupid and seldom works out well, so stop it! But if you wish to name your child after an Old West character (fictional or not), may I suggest Wyatt, Cody, Marshall, or even William/Billy (as in “Buffalo Bill” not “Billy the Kid”). Or, do us all a favor and stop acting surprised when your outlaw-named kid winds up on the six o’clock news in his first steps to death row.

2. Smart Men Become Really Dumb When Dating Hot Women

The entire time I was Gary Taylor’s memoir about psychotic ex-girlfriend Catherine Mehaffey who tried to kill him, all I could think was, “You’re not really that stupid, are you?”

He was, but Gary isn’t the first and he won’t be the last. Some way, somehow otherwise intelligent men become completely brain-dead globs when sleeping with a hot woman. If Gary isn’t enough of an example, then let me give you others: Jeff McCord, Gary Starr Adams, Will Busenberg, John Wayne Hearn, and David Duvall West– just to name a few.

3. Wicked Stepmothers Aren’t Just A Figment of Disney’s Imagination

The gut wrenching story of ten-year-old Andrew Joseph “A.J.” Schwarz, who died at the hands of his abusive stepmother has to be one of the saddest stories I’ve ever read. The poor child was truly a modern day Cinderella, being forced to do chores while his step-siblings were pampered. He was often in worn, tattered clothing while they were dressed in clean, tear-free articles. A.J. was often punished by his father and stepmother for their behaviors.

I have difficulty writing even a brief summary of his story without tears pooling in my eyes. Jessica Florence Schwarz is one of the most evil people taking up good oxygen; but at least she’s doing it while behind bars in Florida’s Lowell Correctional Institute.

4. Pioneer Justice Still Exists

We heard a lot of rumblings about pioneer justice following the acquittal of Casey Anthony, but in Skidmore, Missouri, those folks don’t just talk about it, they do it!

Ken Rex McElroy had been terrorizing northwest Missouri for the last twenty years and the people of Skidmore were sick and tired of it. The law seemed to have no control of McElroy, so they decided to take matters into their own hands.

On a hot July day in 1981, approximately 75 men gathered in a Skidmore bar McElroy was known to frequent. When he sauntered out with beer in hand, at least 50 of those men trailed out behind him and took up their positions. As McElroy lit a cigarette, shots rang out. When the smoke cleared, McElroy was slumped behind the wheel of his truck, deader than door nail.

5. Craigslist is Not the Ideal Place to Find A Date

What started out as a good idea for online classifieds has turned into a virtual whorehouse. Money for sex is traded at Craigslist faster than shares on the New York Stock Exchange.

In 2009, Philip Haynes Markoff put a new spin on the world’s oldest profession. Trolling the listings for the Boston area, Markoff made dates with prostitutes. When they arrived at a pre-arranged hotel, Markoff would surprise the girl then strangle her to death. Before leaving, he took any cash she carried with her. After doing this three times, Markoff earned himself the moniker The Craigslist Killer.

I’m not sure how many more people, usually young women, are going to have to die before people get the hint meeting strangers from online classifieds in private places is not a good idea.

6. High IQs Equate to Low on Common Sense

I can’t count the number of men and women who tested very high in the IQ department but exhibited a low tank when it came to common sense. I think this may have been what my mother was referring to when she said to me, “You’re too dang smart for your own good!” Mom, I think I get it now!

Jonathan Nyce
Jonathan Nyce | Source

One of the most memorable people in this category has to be pharmaceutical executive Dr. Jonathan Nyce of Hopewell Township, New Jersey. His surname became a misnomer when he murdered his Filipino mail-order bride Michele Rivera of almost fifteen years after he discovered she planned to leave him for their gardener Miguel DeJesus.

Dr. Nyce beat his wife to death then put her body in their SUV and sat atop her dead body as he drove it into a ditch. Returning home, the doctor who had made millions by discovering cures for certain types of asthma, cleaned up the crime scene and called police claiming he had just received a phone call from a man trying to extort money from him for sex tapes of his wife and her lover.

In a scenario fit for a spoof episode of CSI, the police quickly discounted Dr. Nyce’s story through telephone records - or the lack thereof. When they discovered his wife car, it was set to accommodate a person of a six feet plus stature; Michele was more than a foot shorter than that and would have been unable to reach the steering wheel.

Ladies, especially mail-order brides, beware! Jonathan Nyce was released from prison on December 5, 2010.

7. Never Trust A Woman with Big Hair and Big Boobs

Meet Rebecca Salcedo, a big haired and big breasted woman who used her “bigness” to obtain the finer things in life. She hit the jackpot when she met and married Bruce Cleland, a software engineer in South Pasadena, California. After he bought her a home and she ran up massive debt, this femme fatale faked a carjacking with her male-stripper cousin and his gang-banger cousin.

Women like Rebecca are as fake on the inside as they are on the outside and the words that flow from their lips are more transparent than a midnight spirit. Police can see right through their kind, and so they did with Rebecca and the evidence against her snowballed, resulting in a conviction for first degree murder in 2000.

The big girls story isn’t over, however. In 2003, a judge overturned her and her cousin's convictions on a technicality. Lady justice, however, sent them both back to prison after a retrial in 2006.

8. Fool Me Once, Shame On You; Fool Me Twice – No Way!

Barbara Ford Stager knew how best to look out for number one. When her first husband and father of her two sons tried to control her excessive spending, she shot him as he lay sleeping. Police believed the grieving widow when she told them it was purely an accident.

Russ and Barbara Stager with her sons
Russ and Barbara Stager with her sons | Source

Having gotten away with murder once, Barbara thought, “Why not do it again?” And she did. This time her victim was her second husband, beloved high school coach Russell Stager. Just as husband number one had done, Russ had tried to curtail Barbara’s spending and he would die the same “accidental” death.

Durham County, North Carolina, investigators didn’t believe in coincidences and Barbara soon found herself in a whole heap of trouble. As icing on the cake, Russ’ first wife, with whom he was still on good terms, had heard insane spending habits as well as the story of how she became a widow the first time.

The jury took only 44 minutes to find Barbara guilty of murdering Russ Stager and she was sentenced to death but in an automatic review of death penalty cases, Barbara’s sentence was commuted to 20 years to life in prison. She has been eligible for parole since 2009 but every application, thus far, has been denied. Barbara Stager is presently incarcerated at the Correctional Center for Women in Raleigh, North Carolina.

9. Even A Psychologist Can Use A Good Psychiatrist

Michelle Theer was a lonely military wife who decided to fill her void with Yahoo! chat sessions. While in one of those sessions, she met Army Staff Sergeant John Mikael Diamond. When they finally decided to meet in person, it was love at first sight for both and a steamy affair was born.

Michelle moved out of the home she shared with husband Air Force Captain Marty Theer and in with her lover; only to return home to her husband once again, despite the protestations of Diamond.

Michelle found herself at the tip of a love triangle and she had to make a choice. Unfortunately, she didn’t decide to choose divorce. Michelle instead plotted with Diamond to kill her husband, in what was supposed to appear as a random act of violence but when police began investigating, Marty’s murder appeared anything but random.

After her boyfriend was Court Martialed, Michelle knew charges weren’t long in coming her way. Bleaching her hair and printing herself a new birth certificate, Michelle went on the run but she was never without a man, and her new boyfriend would lead investigators to her Florida hideaway.

10. You Should Fear Family More Than Strangers

There is a reason why homicide detectives first look at family members as suspects, because sadly, too often they are the responsible party. Just a few examples: Craig Rabinowitz, wife killer; Dana Ewell, parent and sister murderer; Jerry Mark, killed his brother, sister-in-law, niece, and nephew; Russell Winstead murdered his elderly aunt; Marie Noe killed 9 of her 10 children; Teresa Lewis of Virginia, was recently executed for the murder of her husband and stepson; Stephen Barbee murdered his girlfriend who was near her due date with his unborn child and her 7-year-old son; Fred West and Rose West of Gloucester, England, killed two of their own daughters;Audrey Marie Hilley, killed her husband, attempted to murder her daughter, and suspected of accelerating the deaths of her mother and mother-in-law, and of poisoning her daughter-in-law; Robert Peernock murdered his wife and attempted to kill his daughter; Bart Whitaker killed his mother, brother, and attempted to murder his father; Erin Caffey plotted with her boyfriend to murder her parents and two younger brothers; Garrett Wilson killed his infants for insurance money; Eddie Lee Sexton, Sr. ordered his son to kill his son-in-law while his daughter, Pixie Sexton smothered her infant son; and Sueanne Hobson convinced her biological son to kill her stepson.

This is just a minuscule sampling of death by family. Need I say more?

Which Is Your Favorite Life Lesson?

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© 2016 Kim Bryan

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