Wednesday, September 17, 2014

WPA with Kait Carson and me

Kait is one of the many writers who I met at the Writer's Police Academy in Greensboro NC this year that I've never seen face to face before. There were quite a few others, too. This, I think, is the most exciting part of a conference.

WPA, my first this year, was everything people had said about it: informative, non-stop, exhausting, and wonderful. I'll let Kait go first because she has pictures. I know some people took mine, but I didn't have my camera with me! This is getting to be my theme song and I know I have to change it. Here's Kait!

Hi Kait Carson here. This was my first WPA. I knew as soon as I saw the official program and schedule that it would not be my last.  There is too much to do. Even though the organizers tried to schedule everything at least twice, every time segment presented multiple options I didn't want to miss.  It was like trying to decide between dark rich chocolate fondant and dark, rich chocolate mousse. As we say in my native state, fugetaboutit. 

WPA is like being dipped in writer's yeast, covered with warm water, and left in a dark place to bubble. It's in the classes, and it's in the company. I've never been surrounded by so many writers. It felt like I found my tribe and I only hoped that no one would vote me off the island.

Our first day opened with a mass casualty simulation. The bloody scenario was playing out in full view of the road. I can only imagine what commuters thought seeing a destroyed car, scattered, bleeding victims, and two hundred fifty of my closest friends jockeying for position to get a better look. I grabbed a spot front, center, and as it turned out, next to the incomparable CJ Lyons. The woman was an ER physician. As the action started, CJ generously shared her insider knowledge with those around her. It doesn't get any better. Right then, I knew I was coming back.

Surprising the writers with the unexpected is expected at WPA. On Saturday as we were waiting for the buses, a sound like a shot rang out. Heads swiveled scanning the scene ready to drop and roll, after we got our detail. Turned out, some poor soul tripped over a 'caution wet floor' sign sending it to the floor with a bang. Immediately the lobby buzzed with the sound of writer's voices discussing what ifs. There may be thirty million stories in the Naked City, that morning there were at least thirty in the Marriott Lobby.  Lesson learned - use everything.

WPA is all about writers getting it right. Everyone gets involved. Waiting for a crime scene and evidence class to start one of the writers spoke up. In an accent as thick as Tupelo honey, she gave an impromptu primer on the proper use of 'y'all' and 'all y'all.' Rapid discussion ensued on the proper way to pronounce various words in the four regional accents of North Carolina. The learning never stopped. I’m definitely signing up again next year.

Kaye here, but I want to share a couple more of Kait's pictures. 
This is the door blasting demo--really loud!

Kaye George's WPA sessions 2014

My ride along

I did this Thursday night, as soon as I arrived. I was under the misconception that we would do just an hour. We were, however, scheduled for 6 pm to midnight. I missed the introduction to the academy and my first session with the Felony Murder team, but am so glad I did this. I’ve done these in Austin and Wichita Falls, TX, but this was my first in another state.

The cop I was with, the young Office Kilmer, has worked for Greensboro for 2 years doing the night shift. He was about to switch to days, although nights are his favorite. His consideration was that his daughter and wife needed him to have hours more similar to theirs. The ride was mostly uneventful. He said that in his whole experience at Greensboro, that was the first night he didn’t get a single 911 call! We answered a couple of minor traffic situations and one major. The details are all confidential, of course, but that last traffic accident kept me out until about 1 am. The morning bus ride at 7 am came early!

I’ll detail a few of the sessions I attended below.

Deep Undercover with William Queen

This ATF undercover agent got inside the notorious Mongols motorcycle gang and stayed with them for 26 months. After 24 months he was ready to go, but took 2 more to make sure he had enough to make the subsequent convictions stick to get prosecution for 54 of the men for murder, drugs, and gun running.

He readily admitted that the personal cost to him was enormous and he would never have done it if he had known.

A TV special was aired in September of 2000, narrated by John Miller, of his life as Billy St. John. The Mongol motto is “respect few, fear none” and Billy confirmed that they lived like that.

They had been in a 17 year war with the Hell’s Angels when he joined. He had to fill out a detailed application and succumb to a background check. These deep undercover operations don’t occur much, he said, but he did undercover work for 17 years. Previous to his work with the Mongols, he’d been with the Hell’s Angels. There was a little fear that he would be recognized, but he had changed his appearance drastically and never was. Facial hair is a great disguise. (That last comment is mine.)

Ninety percent of the Mongols are Hispanic. They have an organized national hierarchy with chapters, which have presidents, vice presidents, sergeants at arms, secretaries, and treasurers. He was his chapter’s treasurer, where he could keep track of all the dealings.

One of his books, UNDER AND ALONE, is about this harrowing experience. He’s not afraid any Mongols will read it. That got a chuckle out of all of us. He did not, however, allow any pictures and doesn’t want any info about him online. He knows that, if a Mongol met up with him today, they would try to kill him.

Felony Murder Investigation

It’s hard to put down just what I learned doing these sessions. An arson and robbery of a jewelry store was staged in a building used for Emergency Responders training. An actual fire was set the day before we got there. The stench was incredible and we all issued masks to enter the building and look for clues. We were told that the owner of the store had been sleeping in the back room and had died in the fire. We were given some suspects (actors) to question and were given lists of evidence found, plus the ME’s report (eventually). These sessions took place throughout the conference.

This is probably the most useful information. A mistake our group made was in questioning the suspects. We learned to mostly listen when doing either an interrogation or a questioning. We also learned the fine points of when to read the Miranda warnings and when not to. If a suspect has been apprehended and is being taken in, no warnings are necessary, as long as the police officer doesn’t ask any questions. Anything the suspect says at this point is admissible and is called a “spontaneous utterance.”

Some good questions to ask a suspect (after his rights have been read—and signed):
You know why we’re here?
You’re a smart guy (or gal). You know what’s going on here, don’t you?
What’s going on with you?

These usually get the person talking and you can slip in a cogent question later. Andy says there’s no course in how to do questioning. He learned by watching the masters he’s worked with.

Andy Russell, the policeman in charge of this, stressed many times that our job was to follow the evidence and not to make speculations on who might or might not be guilty. Evidence, he said, is for the investigation; motive is only for the DA.

Me in jail by team member Mike Riegel

Katherine Ramsland

I’ve read her books and taken online classes from her, but this is the first time I’d met her in person. Her lecture was not for anyone with a weak stomach. She went into (with pictures) some of the aberrant behavior she has studied. Her list of exotic crimes: necrophilia, sadism, dismemberment, cannibalism, bizarre rituals, strange motives, and clowns.

She said she gleans information from the news and from historical sources. In the case of the BTK Killer, she has been corresponding with him for 2 years to write a book about his twisted mind. Ms. Ramsland loves her work! She giggles when she’s talking about some of the more ridiculous behavior she’s encountered. She also laughed when she told about playing chess with the BTK Killer. He told her she couldn’t cheat. Her answer was, “You’re a serial killer and you’re telling me not to cheat?” She hired a Grand Master for her moves.

Lisa Gardner

She gave a lecture at the end of day one that everyone attended.

Ms. Gardner informs her writing in three major ways: books (secondary sources), doctors and cops (primary sources), and hands on experience such as WPA and fire arms training. She even told of doing research at the Body Farm.

Her formula for getting information from police workers is to ask questions about what is their funniest, scariest, and favorite cases. Also, what was the biggest surprise on the job, the best and worst part of the job, what do books and TV shows get wrong, and how would they commit the perfect crime.

She gave a Hemingway quote that I liked: Learn the iceberg to write the tip.

Alafair Burke

She gave a lecture at the end of the second day on Lessons From a Prosecutor. We learned that 90 percent of trial cases are settled, or resolved with a plea. She stressed that DAs and cops are not friends. They have separate duties and cultures. The judges are yet another separate kinds of beings.

She talked about the 4th Amendment, search warrants and seizures. The amendment gives protection against unreasonable search and seizure, but leaves lot of leeway. 90 percent of searches are warrantless. That is, if asked, most people permit the search without the warrant. I may not have followed this correctly, but I think she said that if a person exposes information to a third party and the government gets that information, it’s not technically a search.

She also went into many “exceptions” that allow seizure of material without a warrant.

Ms. Burke touched upon the amendments she’s most concerned with in her work. Those are the 4th, 5th, 6th, 8th, and 14th. No, I haven’t looked them all up yet.


  1. Great wrap up. Yes, Kaye - you understood that correctly. If I give you something that implicates me in a crime, and then you give it to the police, that's not a search and is completely admissible.

  2. Then please don't tell me, Mary! It was SO great to meet you finally!!

  3. My lips are sealed! LOL Good meeting you, too!

  4. And Kait, I wonder if the woman you heard was the same woman who gave that explanation to us when we were at the multi-victim accident scene. Of course, she had no idea about "yinz" (the Pittsburgh version of "y'all" AND "all y'all," which she said was just weird).

  5. That sounds so cool! I wish you'd post this on our Prehistoric page too, Kaye, with the suggestion that archeologists should host such a camp for writers too.

    I love your sentence about the yeast and bubbles. Great writing!

  6. I loved seeing you, Kaye, behind bars. You look so pitiful.
    Sounds like you learned a lot. Makes me want to go.

    Caroline McGee

  7. Mary Black, I can't take credit for the yeast and the bubbles--that goes to Kait, who shared this post with me. I'll post it on the prehistory page. There's a lot that could be done in that area!

  8. @Mary Sutton, I missed the discussion at the mass casualty, but it could have been the same woman. Someone had gotten on her last nerve with southern errors. Yinz - OMG, I have a cousin who says that and yes, she grew up in PA. I never made the connection. @Mary Black, thank you!

  9. I know Kaye, met her a few times, but meeting Kait was a first. We've corresponded, but it was great to meet her in person, along with her delightful husband. This was my first WPA. It was exhausting but exhilarating at the same time. I attended a few of the classes you mentioned. Loved all of them, and the instructors were stellar. If you have a chance, writers, go next year.

  10. It was great to meet you Polly! WPA was a total blast - and sometimes a literal one :) I was surprised at the number of romance writers I met there. The conference has quite the reputation.