Monday, October 18, 2010

"In the Still of the Night" is a murder in disguise

In life, as in death, things are not always what they seem. That was certainly true in the death of Ronda Reynolds. On the morning of December 16, 1998, Ron Reynolds called 911 and reported that sometime during the night his wife had shot and killed herself. Although her body lay just a few feet from the bed where Ron had slept, he claimed that he had not heard the single gunshot that took his wife’s life. The beautiful 33 year-old former Washington State Trooper lay in a pool of blood, wrapped in an electric blanket, a single gunshot wound to her temple. The cause of Ronda’s death was initially reported as undetermined, months later as suicide, back again as undetermined, and finally as suicide.

Within just a few months of Ronda and Ron Reynolds’ marriage, Ronda realized that she had made a serious mistake in her choice of a husband. The unmistakable signs that Ron was engaged in an extra-marital affair with his ex-wife and his preoccupation with money led Ronda to her decision to end the marriage. Ann Rule examines the facts and circumstances surrounding the death of Ronda Reynolds in her new true crime drama, In the Still of the Night.

“A death investigation is such a delicate procedure,” says Rule. “The best detectives must always view it first as a homicide, second as suicide, third as accidental, and finally as a natural death.”

Based largely upon statements made by Ron Reynolds, Lewis County Sheriff’s investigators assumed that Ronda’s death was a suicide. Only one detective, Jerry Berry, ascertained that the young woman’s death was homicide. Ann Rule deftly ferrets out truth from fiction in this mystery and puts the facts together as a cohesive whole that leads to the unmistakable conclusion that Ronda Reynolds was murdered.

Rule and Ronda’s mother, Barbara Thompson, worked together for over a decade to unravel the truth about Ronda’s death. Acclaimed forensic law enforcement consultant Vernon Geberth believed that the crime scene was staged and called the investigation a “major police malfeasance.” According to Geberth, “there are very few cases of which I can state with such strength and conviction that this was a homicide.” New York forensic and behavioral evidence expert, Ray Pierce, called the ruling of suicide “ridiculous.” Would a judge and jury agree? This reviewer will not disclose the results of the trial which sought to discredit the coroner who made the suicide ruling in Ronda’s death.

Ann Rule has often been called the “queen” of true crime. In the Still of the Night reinforces her well-earned title. As usual, her character development is strong and thorough and brings the reader into the story. Rule’s former police experience and her involvement with high-profile criminal cases have helped her hone and perfect her detective skills which she brings to bear in Ronda’s case. Together, Ann Rule and Barbara Thompson are undefeatable.
“To let a politically corrupt law enforcement agency lie, cover up, and disregard a human life to benefit their self-image is unacceptable,” says Barbara Thompson on her web site “The Lewis County Sheriff's Department and all other law enforcement agencies in our country need to be held accountable for their actions, so that no other parent, ever, will have to experience this type of indescribable nightmare.”

Thursday, July 29, 2010

‘Following the Flag’: A chronicle of an Air Force career

I’m no student of military history so I have to admit that I had mixed feelings about reviewing Lieutenant General (ret) Lloyd R. Leavitt’s memoir, Following the Flag. Leavitt chronicles his military career beginning with his four years as a West Point cadet through 31 years in the Air Force.

Leavitt’s class of 1950 was the first to enter West Point after World War II. Of the 1,008 who enrolled in that prestigious university four years earlier, only 670 graduated. Leavitt, among the graduates, chose to attend U. S. Air Force flight training.

“It was 2 August 1950.” Leavitt writes, “I closed the car door and walked toward the operations (“ops”) building at Goodfellow AFB.” . . . “My exciting new life included not only switching from Army fatigues to Air Force flight suits and sporting the gold bars of a second lieutenant but marrying Anne Sullivan during graduation leave.” Unfortunately, many of Leavitt’s graduating class of 1950 were quickly deployed to Korea where 13 were lost before year’s end. After flight training at Goodfellow, in February, 1951, Leavitt was jubilant when he was sent to Williams AFB, Arizona for F-80 jet fighter training.

In March 1951, President Truman attempted to end the Korean War with a cease-fire proposal and, in his belief, avoid World War III. General Douglas MacArthur voiced his opposition with his outspoken eagerness to escalate the war. He was promptly fired. Just five months later, Leavitt graduated from jet fighter pilot training and became fully engaged in the Korean War and in the U.S. Air Force.

“The afternoon I graduated and received my silver wings changed my emotions,” Leavitt writes. “Exhilaration was still there, but trepidation was gone. It had been replaced by confidence. A better Air Force lay ahead, and I would be part of it. I realized the Air Force was truly my home.”

Thus commenced the colorful, amazing 31 year military career of Lloyd R. “Dick” Leavitt—a lifework that spanned the Cold War, 100 missions in F-84’s during the Korean War, flying in the Strategic Air Command, and four years in the top-secret U2 project. He simultaneously flew a mission over the Soviet Union when Gary Powers was shot down over Siberia. He performed 152 combat missions in Viet Nam, was an eye-witness to the Cuban missile crisis, and later worked as a systems analyst for the Pentagon.

While much of Leavitt’s material is technical, his approach is informal and conversational. I found myself totally intrigued with his writing style and his easy manner of presenting scholarly information. While he writes from a tactical viewpoint, he peppers his material with anecdotes, letters to his wife and children, and, from time-to-time, confessions of personal flaws. I was on the edge of my seat when Leavitt recounted his “longest day,” when in flight from Buenos Aires, Argentina, to a destination in Brazil his U-2 had a complete electrical failure at 68,000 feet over the jungle.

“A strange emotion came over me,” Leavitt writes, “one that I had never experienced before. I knew there was no way out of this emergency. I would soon die.”

Flying by his wits, Leavitt managed to spot the Uruguay River and from that landmark he caught sight of Buenos Aires and managed to land safely. He had flown the disabled aircraft more than eight hours. When he finally landed, the U-2 had almost exhausted its fuel.

Leavitt retired from the Air Force on August 31, 1981. He continued to work as a consultant in private business for several more years. Following the Flag is published by the Air University Press.

This review was published July 29 in the Boerne Star and on November 27, San Antonio Express News

Monday, May 10, 2010

Always be nice to the fat kid

The imminent birth of his first-born child was not a good time for brand new parent, Brad Meltzer, to get stuck at a red light. As he waited for traffic to resume, he considered the universal question—who and what will my child grow up to be?

“It’s a moment where there are no limits or detours or any of the restrictions that reality eventually brings,” writes New York Times best-selling author, Brad Meltzer, in his new work of non-fiction, Heroes for my Son. “And it was in that moment of unbridled love and pure naïveté that this book was born.”

Meltzer started working on his book that very night and listed two fundamental requirements for his son to become a “good man.” They were: love God, and be nice to the fat kid in school.

One of the author’s favorite stories is about the perseverance of the Wright brothers, Orville and Wilbur. In anticipation of their plane crashing, every day they brought with them materials to patch it up. Over and over the duo would crash and rebuild, crash and rebuild until, finally, their little plane conquered gravity and flew, unassisted, above the earth. They refused to give up until they realized success.

Meltzer hand-picked a collection of 52 heroes—men and women—who best exemplify the qualities of “character and honesty, leadership and humility, tenacity and dignity.” He included black and white photographs and brief vignettes of lesser-known moments in the lives of extraordinary individuals that illustrate their exceptional accomplishments.

So who are Brad Meltzer’s heroes? You are, no doubt, familiar with many of them: Amelia Earhart, Martin Luther King, Jr., Mother Theresa, Abraham Lincoln, and Eleanor Roosevelt. Others are more obscure: Frank Shankwitz, Jiep Gies, Aung San Suu Kyi, and Dan West. All of them are fascinating.

There is no universal agreement as to the qualities requisite for designation as a hero. Dr. Scott LaBarge, Assistant Professor of Philosophy at Santa Clara University, believes that all of us need heroes “first and foremost because our heroes help define the limits of our aspirations. We largely define our ideals by the heroes we choose, and our ideals—things like courage, honor, and justice—largely define us.”

The state of Texas can learn a valuable lesson from Brad Meltzer’s collection of heroes. The Board of Education in this state has ousted Thomas Jefferson, Ted Kennedy, Albert Einstein, Isaac Newton, Marie Curie, and Copernicus, among others, from its social studies text books. Who will replace these time-honored, respected champions of history?

Heroes for My Son is a treasure. Meltzer writes in his introduction, “There are thousands of heroes. And I think that’s what I like best. This isn’t about how to be remembered—it’s a book about how to live our lives, and what we are capable of on our very best days.”

Brad Meltzer, the school children of Texas need your heroes.

Sunday, April 11, 2010

Holiday spirit summons ghosts of past deeds

China Bayles is a gutsy woman. She walked away from a lucrative, high-profile career as a big ticket criminal defense lawyer in Houston, traded her high heels for sensible shoes, and used the contents of her 401K to buy an old stable in the heart of the little Texas Hill Country town of Pecan Springs. She opened an herb shop, Thyme and Seasons, on one side of the dwelling and rented the other side to Ruby Wilcox, a new age maven who China describes as “a hoot, that’s all anybody can say—and we certainly say it often enough.” Ruby’s shop, the Crystal Cave, offers books on astrology, tools for divination, and classes on getting in touch with your inner self.

China and Ruby are more than just business neighbors. They are best friends and co-owners of a catering company and they have an affinity for insinuating themselves into the middle of murder investigations, much to the chagrin of China’s new husband, Mike McQuaid, a private investigator and faculty member in the Criminal Justice Department at Central Texas State University. McQuaid has custody of his teenage son, Brian, and the couple is also raising China’s eleven year old niece, Caitlin.

Holly Blues, Susan Wittig Albert’s 18th China Bayles mystery, is set in Pecan Springs during the Christmas holidays. Sally Strahorn, McQuaid’s mentally ill ex-wife and Brian’s biological mother, appears out of the blue claiming to be penniless and homeless. Sally has been diagnosed with multiple personality disorder and her alter ego, Juanita, is a trouble maker.

Despite the fact that Sally has caused serious problems for the McQuaids in the past, in a burst of holiday generosity China impulsively encourages her to spend time with Brian and invites her stay with the family over the Christmas holidays. China soon realizes that her beneficence is sorely misplaced when Sally begins receiving menacing telephone calls from a stalker who is tied to the murders of her parents nearly a decade ago. When Sally’s sister, Leslie, is found dead in her home town of Lake City, Texas, Sally is named a person of interest.

Holly Blues, is a fast-paced whodunit packed with murder and mayhem, spiked with humor, and laced with uncommon sensibility. Albert’s characters are often quirky, but they are believable, warts and all. Her prose is tight and flows easily with details that give her characters depth and authenticity. For instance, the description of the Pecan Springs Chief of Police, dubbed “Smart Cookie’ by the author, is classic Albert:

“Sheila was uniformed in her usual natty blue and gray jacket, shirt, pants, and cap, her blonde hair scooped into a bun at the back of her head. Even so, and with a radio on one hip and a holstered weapon on the other, she’s beautiful. Somehow, it doesn’t seem fair that there’s so much firepower—intelligence, competence, confidence, and damned good looks—loaded into one woman. But while Smart Cookie might look like Miss Dallas costumed for the cover of Law Enforcement Magazine, I wouldn’t mess with her, if I were you. She can outshoot any of her officers, any day. And she don’t take no sass, as the locals say.”

While Holly Blues is part of a series of herbal mysteries, it can stand alone. The author inconspicuously weaves background information about her recurring characters into the first chapters of each book.

Albert earned her PhD in English from the University of California at Berkeley. She served as an Associate Professor of English at the University of Texas, Austin, and later became the first woman dean of Newcomb College in New Orleans. After a few years she returned to Texas as Vice President of Academic Affairs at Texas State University in San Marcos. She did not feel fulfilled as a college administrator and professor and one day walked out and never looked back.

Says Albert in her memoir, Together, Alone: A Memoir of Marriage and Place, “And on that day I walked out of the university, I felt astonishingly, astoundingly free—as free as those wild birds—and I could sing my own glorious hurrah. It was only a step, but it was the first, and it was necessary.”

In addition to the China Bayles mysteries, Albert is the author of  The Cottage Tales of Beatrix Potter, a mystery series featuring author Beatrix Potter. Albert and her husband, Bill, collaborated on the The Robin Paige Victorian Mysteries from 1994 – 2006. Albert is currently working on a new mystery series, The Darling Dahlias, the first of which is due out in July. She has also authored several non-fiction books.

Like I said, Susan Wittig Albert is a gutsy woman.

You can read the first chapter of Holly Blues at

China Bayles fans can subscribe to Albert’s weekly newsletter, “All About Thyme” at

This review was originally published in the San Antonio Express News on April 11, 2010 and in the Boerne Star on April 15, 2010.