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In this episode of Reveal, we investigate why minorities and kids with special needs face criminal charges for acting out in school; we trace how people are building assault weapons from parts they buy online and uncover how police are poisoned on the job; and we gain insight into an elusive character fighting the death penalty in the most high profile of ways.
Host: Al Letson
Executive Producer: Kevin Sullivan
Executive Editor: Susanne Reber
Editorial Director: Robert Salladay
Managing Director: Christa Scharfenberg
Lead Sound Designer and Engineer: Jim Briggs, with help from Zach McNees
Producers: Julia B. Chan, Jocelyn Frank, Delaney Hall, Elizabeth Jenkins, Michael Montgomery, Neena Satija, Ike Sriskandarajah and Amy Walters
Reporters: Susan Ferriss, The Center for Public Integrity; Matt Drange, Reveal; Christine Willmsen, The Seattle Times; Mark Bowden, Vanity Fair.
Editors: Deb George, Reveal; Amy Pyle, Reveal; Jim Neff, The Seattle Times; and Gordon Witkin, The Center for Public Integrity
Special Thanks: Jillian Weinberger and Alexis Bloch
Senior Management for CIR: Joaquin Alvarado and Robert J. Rosenthal
Senior Management for PRX: John Barth, Kerri Hoffman and Jake Shapiro
- Ezekiel Honig, “More Human Than Human (Soultek’s Morning Dub Remix)” from “More Human Than Human Remix EP” (Anticipate)
- Mark McGuire, “Radio Flyer” from “A Young Person’s Guide to Mark McGuire” (Editions Mego)
- ERAAS, “Splitting (Instrumental)” from “Initiation” (felte)
- Anenon, “Eighty-Four” from “Inner Hue” (Non Projects)
- Gold Panda, “Enoshima” from “Half Of Where You Live” (Ghostly International)
- J. Dilla, “Requiem (Instrumental)” from “Rebirth of Detroit Instrumentals” (Yancey Media Group LLC)
- Dabrye, “Prefuse 73 Megamix” from “Idol Tryouts: Ghostly International Vol. 1” (Ghostly International)
- KILN, “Star.field” from “meadow:watt” (Ghostly International)
- Aeroc, “I Ran” from “Four, Acoustic Guitar Grooves, Laid-Back Pop” (Ghostly International)
- Lusine, “Tin Hat” from “A Certain Distance” (Ghostly International)
- KILN, “Bluerain” from “Vaporbend EP” (Ghostly International)
- Ezekiel Honig, “Click and Sleep” from “People Places and Things” (Microcosm Music)
- Trans Am, “Insufficiently Breathless” from “Volume X” (Thrill Jockey)
- Gold Panda, “My Father in Hong Kong 1961” from “Half of Where You Live” (Ghostly International)
- Ezekiel Honig and Morgan Packard, “Balm” from “Early Morning Migration” (Microcosm Records)
- Gold Panda, “You” from “Lucky Shiner” (Ghostly International)
- Gold Panda, “S950” from “Half of Where You Live” (Ghostly International)
- Gold Panda, “Fifth Ave” from “Companion” (Ghostly International)
- Tycho, “The Disconnect” from “Past is Prologue” (Ghostly International)
- Anenon, “Acquiescence” from “Acquiescence EP” (Non Projects)
- Beacon, “Late November (Instrumental)” from “The Ways We Separate” (Ghostly International)
Support for Reveal is provided by the Reva and David Logan Foundation, the Ford Foundation, the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation and Mary and Steven Swig.
Reveal transcripts are produced by a third-party transcription service and may contain errors. Please be aware that the official record for Reveal’s radio stories is the audio.
Al: Coming up on Reveal from The Center for Investigative Reporting and PRX, this is how you put together a gun.
Male: Okay, let’s see.
Al: This is how you defend the indefensible.
Mark: Her goal is not to acquit them. Her goal is to prevent them from being executed.
Al: This is a hidden danger on the firing range.
Amy: This haze came across the range and I got really sick.
Sgt. Rich: I felt bad for the officers that I got them sick to potentially having impacts later on in their life.
Al: This is a family trying to cope.
Stacey: Kayleb is autistic. He doesn’t understand how to differentiate the roles of certain people.
Kayleb: I started pushing him away. He slammed me down and then he handcuffed me.
Al: This is Reveal. Coming up, Law and Disorder.
BC: Attach it to the upper receiver and then you got your magazine.
Al: From the Center for Investigative Reporting and PRX, this is Reveal. I’m Al Letson, and every episode, we do a deep dive into some pretty complicated issues. One topic that seems to keep popping up in the national zeitgeist is police and the way they interact with the communities they serve. There’s a lot to unpack with this subject, so over the next two episodes of Reveal, we’re going to bring you stories of police, guns, and courts from the perspective of law enforcement and defendants. It’s Law and Disorder.
Ever dropped your kid off at school and see the police officer there? They’re called school resource officers. This trend of placing officers inside schools got started in the ’80s when the war on drugs and zero tolerance first came up. It was meant to keep guns and gangs out of schools, but a lot of the time, cops are being brought in to deal with discipline issues and kids aren’t just being suspended, but they’re also being charged with felonies. We teamed up with the Center for Public Integrity to see just how often these police are getting involved in things that used to mean a trip to the principal’s office. The Center analyzed national numbers from the Department of Education. They ranked all 50 states for how often schools refer students to law enforcement. The state of Virginia jumped out. Children have been referred to cops in Virginia at almost three times the national rate, and many of those kids have special needs or they’re African-American.
Susan Ferriss takes us to the City of Lynchburg, Virginia in the Blue Ridge Mountains to find out what’s going on.
Susan: I’m sitting with Kayleb Moon-Robinson in his living room watching Pokemon on TV.
Kayleb: Now, he actually goes to the champion.
Susan: Kayleb is in sixth grade. He’s good at Math and Science and he loves electronics.
Kayleb: I like W Xbox 360, my tablet.
Susan: Kayleb has also been diagnosed with autism. Last fall, Kayleb was a student at Linkhorne Middle School in Lynchburg. He got in trouble. He was sent to the office, when he got there, he got upset and kicked over a trash can. A school police officer saw it and filed a misdemeanor, disorderly conduct charge against it. Just a few weeks later, Kayleb’s teacher told him to stay behind while other kids left the room. He didn’t listen.
Susan: Why didn’t you want to stay in the classroom?
Kayleb: Because I wanted to go out in the hallway and talk with some other kids.
Susan: What happened?
Kayleb: I got in trouble.
Susan: Out in the hallway, Kayleb ran into the school police officer. He’d been sent to get him.
Kayleb: He grabbed me and tried to take me to the office. I started pushing him away. He slammed me down, and then he handcuffed me.
Susan: A teacher says Kayleb cussed at the cop after the officer grabbed him around the chest. Kayleb’s mother, Stacey Doss, remembers getting a call from school.
Stacey: When I got there, the school was very quiet. It seemed like the police were more in charge than the school. The officers were … It’s like they had taken over everything.
Susan: Stacey got upset when the officer told her he was charging Kayleb again with disorderly conduct, but that wasn’t all. He was also charging him with felony assault on an officer.
Stacey: I’m like, “Well, why is it a felony?” He stated to me it was because he was an officer and because Kayleb fought an office that escalated the charges. I thought in my mind, “Kayleb is 11. He is autistic. He doesn’t fully understand how to differentiate the roles of certain people.”
Susan: The police took Kayleb to the juvenile courthouse in handcuffs. We tried to talk to the police, the principal, the school board, and the district superintendent, but they wouldn’t agree to an interview. Instead they sent us a written statement. It said that police become involved in incidents that are criminal in nature or appear to place the safety of students and staff at risk. What kind of criminal incidents are we talking about?
Linda: There’s an 11 year old …
Susan: Linda McCausland has been a juvenile public defender in Virginia for nine years. She has a lot of clients charged at school, and to prove it, she pulls out a stack of her case files for the week.
Linda: A 13 year old who is charged with disorderly conduct at school, a 13 year old who breaks the school window and is charged with destruction of property, a 12 year old who made a fist at the officer at school and got obstruction of justice.
Susan: That 12 year old was at her cousin’s school when she saw a fight. She pulled her cousin out of it and a school cop grabbed her and charged her with trespassing, disorderly conduct, and resisting arrest.
Linda: Yeah, the girl was saying to get the F off me. You can’t touch me. She pulled her arm away and because she clenched her fist when she did that, they said, therefore, it was obstruction of justice because she was threatening the officer.
Susan: McCausland says cases like these should be handled outside court.
Linda: This one is a sexual battery at school. This girl is charged with pushing another girl and teasing her.
Susan: How old is the girl?
Linda: She is 15.
Susan: That’s pretty serious charge, I mean, sex abuse.
Linda: She’s in the age that she can’t give consent to sex but yet we can give her charges that she’s the perpetrator.
Susan: How do you think schools need to limit the involvement of police?
Linda: Everything before charge is filed, they should go through the principal to see if this is something we want to do because surely it can’t be for good for the schools to keep seeing these kids coming to the courts.
Susan: Julie McConnell teaches law at the University of Richmond and runs a children’s rights clinic. As a former prosecutor and public defender, she’s seen it from both sides.
Julie: Prosecutors are under a lot of pressure, sometimes from their own office to not compromise.
Susan: Are people really locked in? I mean why would a prosecutor go forward with some of these cases?
Julie: Some officers have a no plea agreement policy. We will not reduce charges. We will not take any plea agreements. You either go to trial or you plead guilty. I think that’s really unfortunate situation in a few jurisdictions.
Susan: McConnell says the problem starts with schools and police.
Julie: I do think that officers see their role and their real value in the school as being able to be the law enforcement voice, to come in and charge. Unfortunately, I don’t think they’re necessarily trained to be the mediator. They don’t necessarily even believe in that or know that it could be effective because that’s not what they’ve been trained to do. They’ve been trained to be police officers.
Susan: McConnell is for limiting the role of police and making sure they’re trained to work around kids. Police officer Don Bridges is with the National Association of School Resource Officers. He says his group does offer training.
Don: As I’m doing my training, one of the phrases I always say is when you’re in the building as a police officer, you have to learn to stay in your lane. You have to know specifically what it is that you should be doing. As long as there’s nothing where there’s a weapon, something that’s going to cause immediate public harm, charging off a student within a school setting should be the absolute last resort.
Susan: The reality is that school districts have a lot of autonomy over discipline and policing. The federal government can hold schools accountable. To find out more, we went to talk to Catherine Lhamon. She’s the Assistant U.S. Secretary of Education for Civil Rights.
Catherine: Our federal civil rights laws demand that our students are treated equally.
Susan: Two years ago, the Department of Education asked all schools in the country to report how many times they’d suspended students or referred them to law enforcement, whether the kids were arrested or not. Lhamon didn’t like what she found.
Catherine: Black boys in particular are suspended and expelled from schools at rates that are … most recent data is at three times the rate of their White peers. Black girls are more likely to be suspended and expelled from school than most boys and other girls. Students with disabilities are subject to discipline at rates that well exceed their peers without disabilities.
Susan: We wanted to dig deeper. We crunched department’s numbers to see how states ranked when it came to their school’s referring kids to cops and courts. Here’s what we found. In the U.S., six kids out of a thousand were referred to law enforcement, but in Virginia, that number was much higher, sixteen out of a thousand. What was also striking, almost 30% of those kids had special needs. The Department of Education can withhold money from districts if found violate the civil rights of these students.
Catherine: A red flag for us consistently is catchall terms like disorderly conduct that leave too much discretion that is unfettered, and so that can leave the possibility for discrimination.
Susan: Before cutting off money, Lhamon’s office has been trying the friendly approach with some school districts including the one where Kayleb Moon-Robinson is a student.
Catherine: We entered into a resolution agreements with the Lynchburg school district to ensure that the district will bring in a consultant that will help the district to manage the ways that it metes out school discipline and ensure more equitable school discipline going forward.
Susan: The district promised in August to reduce the number of suspensions of African-American students. We told Lhamon what happened to Kayleb who’s African-American and has special needs.
Catherine: It certainly upsets me. I wouldn’t want that for my own daughters. I wouldn’t want that for any child I love in school. I very much hope that we can make sure that all of our kids are treated appropriately in school.
Susan: Back in Lynchburg, Kayleb had his juvenile court hearing. After it was over, his mother called us from outside the courthouse.
Stacey: I’m just stunned more than anything. I’m very shocked. I’m very stunned.
Susan: The judge found Kayleb guilty of all charges, two disorderly conducts and felony assault on a police officer. He had a deputy take Kayleb to look at a jail cell.
Stacey: He said that Kayleb had been handled with gloves and that he understood that Kayleb had special needs, but that he needed to man up and that he needed to behave better and that he needed to start controlling himself or else they would eventually control him.
Susan: How is Kayleb doing?
Stacey: He’s here with us. Would you like to speak to him?
Susan: Yes. Kayleb do you understand what happened in the courtroom?
Kayleb: No, I do not.
Susan: You don’t understand it.
Stacey: I guess that’s the hard part is that he doesn’t understand, and because he doesn’t understand.
Susan: Oh yes, I’m sorry.
Stacey: I don’t even know where to start to explain it to him. I don’t even know how to explain this to him.
Susan: The judge will decide what happens next. He could send Kayleb to a detention center. He could give him probation. In Virginia, Kayleb’s felony conviction won’t be open to all the public but it can stay on file and affect him when he’s an adult.
Al: That was reporter Susan Ferriss from the Center of Public Integrity and that piece was produced by Jocelyn Frank. To find out how many kids your state refers to police in courts, check out revealnews.org. Coming up, making an assault rifle off the books with no serial number from parts off eBay and other sites on the internet. Guns that can show up later in violent shootouts. That’s next on Reveal.
From the Center for Investigative Reporting and PRX, this is Reveal. I’m Al Letson. Now, a look at guns and how people are getting and building them in this age of technology when you can order just about anything you need with a touch of a button. Reveal producer Delaney Hall and reporter Matt Drange take us into that gray area of guns on the Internet.
Delaney: Matt recently got two packages in the mail from eBay, the online marketplace where you can buy and sell pretty much anything: shoes, electronics, dog food, watches.
Okay, so what’s inside?
Matt: This is a muzzle break, which goes on the end of the barrel in an AR-15.
Delaney: It turns out, gun parts. He bought a 16-inch rifle barrel and this muzzle break, which deflects sound away from the person shooting the gun.
Matt: You could actually put it together if you want.
Delaney: Matt screws the two pieces together and in just under two minutes, he’s assembled the barrel of an AR-15. It’s a semi-automatic rifle that’s been linked to high profile shootings like the one at the movie theater in Aurora, Colorado.
Matt: Still need a lot of other parts to finish it, but this is a start. These two parts, we’ve got the barrel and the muzzle break at about $150. If you wanted to build the rest of the gun, if you want to complete an AR-15 with parts on eBay, it would cost you about 500, $550 and then you’d have to get the lower receiver separately.
Delaney: The lower receiver contains the guts of the gun. It’s more tightly regulated and requires a background check. That makes it harder, but not impossible to find online. Matt discovered that these parts violate eBay’s own strict policy, as do hundreds of other assault weapon parts he found on the site. eBay’s rules also ban the sale of grenade launchers, silencers, and a handful of other parts and accessories.
Matt: Basically, eBay bans the sale of guns or any part you could use to make an assault weapon.
Delaney: Anything that California considers an assault weapon, eBay does too. This includes traditional AR-15 rifles that don’t have a so-called bullet button to reload the gun. There are a couple of ways that eBay tries to keep these weapon parts off the site. Their first line of defense, keyword filters. If a seller includes the phrase assault weapon or known brands like Magpul in the listing, the eBay algorithm will scoop it up.
Matt: Yeah, so at that point eBay’s automatic system will flag it, remove it and then the seller will get an automated email that says, “Hey, we’ve removed this item. Here’s why. Here’s a link to our firearms policy.”
Delaney: Those keyword filters are easy to get around. Sellers just avoid the most obvious forbidden phrases like AR-15. Instead, they find creative workarounds like referencing the size of ammunitions specific to AR-15’s. A seller could say …
Matt: It would fit .223 or 5.56, which effectively are capturing the entire AR-15 market. Those are the, far and away, the most common sizes of ammunition, but you didn’t actually say AR-15. The computer, when it sees this, it doesn’t see AR-15, so it will go ahead, go through.
Delaney: Now, clearly Matt is not the only person ordering this stuff. The internet has made it easier than ever for people to buy gun parts and assemble assault weapons. If you search AR-15 in eBay and YouTube, for example, you’ll turn up hundreds of instructional videos. People shooting AR-15’s, building AR-15’s and encouraging bargain shoppers to search eBay and other sites for deals.
Male: As many of you know, my dream gun is to have an AR-15.
Male: I know a guard here and what I’m going to do is this is a muzzle break I got off at eBay. It was like $39, free shipping. It’s not really a …
BC: Now, the tools you’re going to need. You’re going to need a vise. You’re also going to need a vise lock for your upper receiver, hold it steady, hold it still so you can torque the barrel down correctly.
Matt: The last guy we just heard is named BC, short for Barry Collins. He trains insurance agents for his 9 to 5 job, but he’s also got a YouTube channel called Deuce and Guns where he covers everything from gun safety to different kinds of ammunition. He agreed to talk with us and show us some of his guns.
BC: Then you put on the lower receiver, attach it to the upper receiver and then you got your magazine.
Matt: BC put together his own AR-15 last summer with parts that he got online. He got one of the parts on eBay, which he says he didn’t know violated the company’s policy. BC told us that putting together his AR-15 was easy. He actually said it was like putting a water pump in his car.
BC: You’re going to need a couple of hundred dollars worth of tools. You’re going to need a little bit of know how in how machines work, how the tools work, but other than that you can pretty much build one.
Matt: The AR-15 used to be banned. There’s an assault weapons ban that ended in 2004 which prohibited people from buying the gun. Since the ban ended, the gun has gotten more and more popular. It’s highly customizable and it’s easy to build so there’s a whole do-it-yourself gun culture that’s cropped up around the gun.
BC: The majority of people want to make them just look cool. Sometimes they want to have them like just crazy colors. I’ve seen like the Star Spangled Banner emblazoned across it. Google AR-15 Hello Kitty. There is one dedicated to Hello Kitty.
Matt: The Internet has fueled this culture. The gun has become a gadget. People share tips on forums, they document their builds on YouTube and shop for specialized parts online.
Delaney: When there’s a high profile shooting involving an AR-15 like the one at Sandy Hook Elementary School in December 2012, you can actually increase the demand for these parts.
Matt: After Sandy Hook happened, lawmakers debated bringing back a new assault weapons ban and there’s one on AR-15 parts. BC had trouble finding them from his regular online dealers. It’s actually the reason he turned to eBay.
Delaney: Which brings us back to eBay’s attempts to keep these gun parts off the sites because not all gun builders are hobbyists like BC, but we’ll get back to that in a little bit. First, let’s talk about eBay’s second line of defense in keeping the site free of gun parts. Sale listing slips past eBay’s automated keyword filters and makes it on the site. It can be flagged for removal by a concerned customer.
Female: Thanks so much for taking the time to report an item that’s in violation of eBay’s listing policies.
Delaney: Matt is trying that out. He’s found an AR-15 barrel on the site and he’s calling the customer service department.
Matt: I’m calling about a part that I think violates eBay’s firearms policy. I was hoping to talk to somebody in the Listing and Policy Department about it.
Delaney: The eBay rep tells Matt that, yeah, the listing violates their rules. They marked it as high priority and assure him it will be taken down within 24 hours.
Matt: Thanks, you too. It’s on its way to the investigation team.
Delaney: That’s how it’s supposed to work, but Matt actually called up an eBay spokeswoman to find out a little bit more.
Matt: We asked her to talk about all these cases in which that system doesn’t work and she refused. She called their keyword filter system their secret sauce and she wouldn’t talk about how easy it is to get around.
Delaney: To be clear, these gun parts are legal to own. In fact, buying and selling them is legal, but depending on the laws where you live, they can be assembled into guns that are definitely not.
Matt: That’s really the flipside of this online market, not just on eBay but on other sides like Craigslist and Amazon and specialized sites like Armslist and GunBroker. These sites have let people like BC build customized guns and bling them out with parts and accessories. These kinds of sites have also let criminals build guns without serial numbers that can’t be tracked: ghost guns.
Delaney: That takes us to Stockton, California.
Eric: My name is Eric Jones, chief of police for the Stockton Police Department.
Matt: Last summer on July 16th, Chief Jones was in a meeting.
Eric: The meeting was interrupted with the information that there was a very serious incident going on where our officers were involved in a shootout. It was at that time that I turned on the police radio just to begin listening to it.
Male: It sounded like he’s [inaudible 00:21:34] at one point. You all right?
Eric: I have to tell you, it was one of the most memorable points of my law enforcement career because I was listening to the officers talk about taking gun fire and you could actually hear the bullets impacting their patrol vehicles.
Male: [WC30 00:21:52], we have enough officers upfront. Everybody stay down.
Eric: Then I just began to learn from my commanders what was going on.
Matt: Three men had just robbed the Bank of the West. They took three hostages. When they left the bank, they jumped in a car and then they led police on an hour-long chase through the streets of Stockton.
Eric: One of the primary assailants used an assault rifle, AK-47 type assault rifle, fired well over 100 rounds at law enforcement and put our entire community at risk.
Matt: One of the hostages was a 41-year-old mother who the bank robbers used as a human shield. She was killed by a police along with two of the men who held her captive. The third bank robber is now facing trial. When the police recovered the gun the robbers used, it didn’t have any markings on it. It’s not that the serial number had been scratched off. There was never one to begin with, which means that police couldn’t investigate where the gun came from.
Eric: It could have come from absolutely anywhere. The fact that there was no serial number on the assault rifle essentially gave us a dead end. That’s difficult for us because we want to know where those come from.
Matt: The gun could have been built in a garage with parts ordered online. It could have been built from scratch using a hunk of aluminum and a computer-controlled mill that works like a 3D printer. There’s just no way to know.
Graham: Before the Internet, it was all either word of mouth or brick and mortar stores which caused the number of buyers to really be the people that were in the immediate area of the seller.
Matt: Graham Barlow is an agent with the Bureau of Alcohol and Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives. He tried to trace the gun used in the Stockton shootings.
Graham: The Internet’s made it easier for every type of commerce and you don’t necessarily need a business license, you don’t necessarily need an address. You don’t necessarily even need to have a recognized company name to sell on the Internet and it’s very difficult for anyone to track that if you don’t want to be tracked.
Matt: That’s one of the reasons why eBay wants to keep assault weapon parts off the site. It’s hard to predict where those parts will end up. They could end up with guys like BC, building legal guns to show off the range. On the other hand, it could end up with guys like the Stockton bank robber who survived the shooting and could spend the rest of his life in prison.
Delaney: As for the AR-15 barrel that Matt reported to eBay, the one that they said will be taken down within 24 hours, that didn’t happen. A week later, the listing was still up and 20 of the barrels had already sold.
Al: That was Reveal producer Delaney Hall and reporter Matt Drange. To see how eBay has flip-flopped on its gun parts policy over the years, visit our website at revealnews.org. Coming up, a story about a lawyer who’s fighting about the death penalty by defending notorious criminals. That’s later this hour on Reveal.
From the Center for Investigative Reporting and PRX, this is Reveal. I’m Al Letson. Today, we’ve been talking about law and disorder. With this next story, we look at a different kind of danger connected to guns. Police departments have routine practice sessions like the one you’re listening to here.
Male: You have to go down the ground and slide back. Try [inaudible 00:25:33] come back.
Already: They teach gun safety and how to accurately hit a mark. It turns out these training sessions have put police at risk from a hidden danger that most people never even think about. Investigative reporter Christine Willmsen of the Seattle Times spent a year looking in to this issue. She and producer Elizabeth Jenkins bring us this story.
Elizabeth: It’s a Sunday morning at an indoor gun club in Everett, Washington just outside Seattle. The lanes are already packed. Christine and I are here to meet Amy Crawford. Amy first started coming to shooting ranges when she worked as a correctional officer for the Kirkland Police Department, about a half hour south of where we are. She pops off rounds at a paper silhouette. She’s clearly a good shot.
Amy: Basically, it is a shredded hole right through the heart is what you’re looking at.
Elizabeth: Now, there’s a fine layer of gray dust on her hands. She washes it off because this dust contains a toxin. It could be absorbed into her skin and make her sick. That’s something she didn’t know when she first got her firearms training.
Amy: We have probably some of the best firearms instructors in this state working for our department and they let us train 40 hour a week.
Elizabeth: That was back in 2007. Kirkland Police didn’t have its own facility, so officers trained at the Issaquah Police Department’s indoor range. Amy had to pass a series of drills to prove she could carry a weapon. The officers shot rounds with a .45 caliber and she could smell the gunpowder in the air.
Amy: As we progressed, this haze came across the range and I got really sick. We were coughing and you get a dry throat feeling but it’s a really sweet kind of metallic taste.
Elizabeth: Amy’s supervisor, Sgt. Nathan Rich, noticed that the ventilation system wasn’t working. He tried to turn it on but nothing happened. He wasn’t able to reach the range master on the phone so he decided to continue with the training. Amy passed her qualification. Christine talked to her about what happened the next day.
Christine: Tell me a little bit about how you were feeling that day. What were some of the symptoms maybe you were experiencing that maybe you didn’t realize was connected?
Amy: I was really sluggish and I had no appetite. It’s like having the flu, like a sudden onset of the flu. I knew something wasn’t right. Right when I was making that realization, I had gotten a call from my captain and he was wanting to know how are you feeling, what’s going on, is everything okay with you. I said, “Actually, I don’t feel well at all.” He goes, “Yeah, that’s kind of why I’m calling. We think you guys may have had some lead exposure.”
Elizabeth: Lead from the ammunition they fired. All five people on the shooting range that day, the officers and instructors had been exposed. The average person has 1.2 micrograms per deciliter in their blood, but they had more than 20 times that amount. Amy’s was the highest.
Amy: I was very concerned because I didn’t know anything about lead exposure. It had never been anything that was presented to us nor did it ever cross my mind that that was an issue on a gun range.
Elizabeth: Lead exposure is a big issue. Christine spent the last year researching how lead exposure on gun ranges is making people sick.
Christine: Lead is literally floating in the air at gun ranges. When lead’s not being removed from the air, you’re breathing it in. It’ll go through your mouth, it’ll go through your nostrils, it’ll go and seep into your lungs and eventually into your blood.
Elizabeth: Christine called up Sgt. Rich at the Kirkland Police Department to find out more about what happened during Amy’s training session, since he was one of the people in charge that day.
Christine: How did you feel when you realized your orders of continuing the qualifications put all of you guys at risk?
Sgt. Rich: I felt bad for the officers that I got them sick, that it was my decision making that would lead for them to be feeling nauseous and then potentially having impacts later on in their life. I chose to keep pressing on and try to accomplish the goal I was given but I didn’t understand what extent it could possibly be harmful.
Christine: Do you have a fear of that there might be some long-term effects later down the road?
Sgt. Rich: I don’t dwell on it, but I definitely think that there could be.
Elizabeth: We’ve known about the dangers of lead exposure for a long time. Back in the 1970’s, the U.S. decided to phase out leaded gasoline and leaded paint. Research linked lead to learning and behavioral problems in kids. It also affects memory. It can cause nausea, fatigue, loss of feeling in hands and feet. It can even cause organ damage and miscarriages. In fact, that’s what Amy still thinks about.
Amy: The biggest thing I was worried about was if it was going to affect my ability to have kids. It was totally preventable. That’s the worst part of all.
Elizabeth: Police aren’t the only people at risk. Anyone who sets foot in a shooting range can be exposed to lead. The Seattle Times researched 6,000 shooting ranges across the country and made a startling discovery.
Christine: Only 201 have been inspected. Once we gathered that information and did analysis, what we found was of those that had been inspected, 86% had at least one lead violation.
Elizabeth: Eighty-six percent, so almost all of them. Most of us can choose whether we go to a range or not, but police officers don’t have a choice. They have to train in a shooting range. The Seattle Times did interviews, combed through federal data, public records, and this is what they found.
Christine: All over the county we found cases of police that had been overexposed to lead primarily because the range was dirty, didn’t have proper ventilation, it wasn’t being cleaned.
Elizabeth: No single agency oversees these ranges and inspections hardly ever happened unless someone complains or gets sick. Police wind up suffering the consequences across the country.
Pat: This is his gun belt and this is where obviously where his gun would be and this is where he kept his ammo.
Elizabeth: We flew to New Hampshire to meet with Pat Kelly. She’s showing us some of the mementoes she has of her husband, Tom. He was a sergeant with the police department in Derry.
Pat: When I heard all these snaps and velcros and everything, this is the last sound I’d hear before he went to work. As soon as he came home, that would come off first, so I’d hear the sound of it and the feel of it, but I think the sound is what I remember most.
Elizabeth: Let me tell you a little bit about Pat and Tom. They met in college, they moved around the U.S. before settling down in Derry. Tom got his dream job at the police department and was in charge of training. They had a son named David and they were expecting another child.
Pat: I figured life would be on a certain path. We got it all going on.
Christine: Then what happened?
Pat: Well, he died. The bubble burst.
Elizabeth: To explain what happened, we have to go back to 1989. Tom was really excited to start a training program to teach officers how to use semi-automatic weapons. Derry didn’t have its own shooting range so Tom scheduled a week at the Chester Rod and Gun Club. They said they had proper ventilation. Tom spent hours on the range that week, training the other officers and cleaning up.
Dan: Tommy Kelly would be out there with a broom and sweeping up all of the brass and everything. While he was doing that, he put on a paper mask, a paper filtered mask.
Elizabeth: Dan Pelletier is a former detective for the Derry Police Department. He helped with the training that week and said the range was hazy and the air tasted like metal.
Dan: At the end of the day I’d have a pretty good headache too, every single day.
Elizabeth: Pat remembers Tom going to bed early on Saturday night. He seemed exhausted from the long week.
Pat: Sometime in the night I just remember him just shaking. Everything shaking and I’m saying, “Okay, he’s having a really bad dream,” and so I shook him and he didn’t wake up. But then I thought, “All right, he’s going back to sleep. I’m going to ask him in the morning what the heck he was dreaming about,” and I just went back to sleep.
Elizabeth: When morning came around, their toddler, David, came running in to play.
Pat: He said something like daddy and I said, “David, daddy’s sleeping.” Just something flashed before me and I just said I don’t think he’s moved. I touched him and he’s cold and I just remember thinking, “Oh my god, I think he’s dead.”
Elizabeth: Several weeks would go by before Pat would learn from the medical examiner what killed her husband.
Pat: That’s when they said, “Okay, this is edema lead poisoning because of the indoor firing range.”
Elizabeth: Pat was shocked. The doctors told her that pulmonary edema can cause the lungs to fill with fluid.
Pat: I talked to the medical examiner about that because I said, “What’s wrong with me that I wouldn’t have known?” He said, “Because lead poisoning is usually a slower killer and for some reason with Tom, everything shut down at once.”
Elizabeth: The level of lead in his blood was incredibly high, 48 micrograms per deciliter. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says like health problems like organ damage can happen when levels reach just 10 and the normal person has a level of 1.2. Since Chester Rod and Gun Club is private and run by volunteers, it’s not subject to federal standards. We tried to reach out to the club but they didn’t return our calls. Pat Kelly ended up settling a lawsuit against the club but isn’t allowed to say how much she got for her family.
Tom: This is how we assemble it. Hi, everybody.
Elizabeth: Pat showed us home videos of Tom playing with his son.
Tom: Oh, yeah.
Elizabeth: He never had the chance to meet his daughter. She was born eight months after he died.
Pat: Giving birth to Laura is going through the darkest tunnel I can imagine and lightest flash bulb comes out. It’s the only way I can describe it. It was the worst time of my life with such darkness and such beauty when I saw her.
Elizabeth: Pat says she’s speaking out now because she wants to make sure other police don’t die.
Pat: I think when it happened to Tom it was pushed aside and maybe it was said, “Okay, this is one man that this has happened to,” but it’s not. It’s not. I think it would be an embarrassment if some other police officer died because of this situation.
Elizabeth: The Seattle Times didn’t find any other police officers who had died as a result of lead exposure but there’s no way to know for sure. Now, a few police departments are taking steps to make sure their police aren’t overexposed to lead.
Fred: You have to close the gate behind us. The owner gets upset if his cows start wandering out.
Elizabeth: Chief Fred Thompson is in charge of the Valley City Police Department in North Dakota. This is where his officers shoot now, an outdoor gun range by a cow pasture.
Fred: Try being out here in this wind when it’s already 20 degrees below zero and you’re talking about cold.
Elizabeth: It wasn’t always like this. Back in 2012, Chief Thompson was interviewing for his job in Valley City. He says they proudly showed off their gun range in the basement.
Fred: They gave me the tour of the building and displayed to me the range downstairs where I said, “Will you hire me or not? You’ve got yourselves an issue here.” They had the electrical lines and plumbing lines hanging loose from the ceiling. The air filtration system that they had down there was not properly designed.
Elizabeth: After the town hired him, he had the range tested. It was heavily contaminated. The allowable level of lead is 200 micrograms per square foot. The range had levels of 53,000. He decided he had to shut it down. The mayor and city commissioners agreed and spent a $100,000 to dismantle the range and remove 18,000 pounds of lead from the bullet pad but a local group, the Valley City Rifle Pistol Club also shot there. It was the only indoor range around and they wanted to keep it open.
Fred: Valley City Rifle Pistol Club was not happy when they came out that day and saw the big sign at the door that said “Keep Out.” Let me walk over here and turn on this other [lamp 00:39:01].
Elizabeth: What was the indoor gun range is now just a big empty room in the basement of the Valley City Police Department.
Fred: We’re all surrounded by cement here every which way you look. It’s a nice space. It’s just wasn’t properly set up to be used as a firing range.
Elizabeth: Chief Thompson says even if the community opposition to closing down the range had ended up costing him his job, it would have been worth it.
Al: That’s producer Elizabeth Jenkins along with Christine Willmsen, an investigative reporter with Seattle Times. By the way, they checked in on the Kirkland Police Department where Amy Crawford worked. She switched careers and doesn’t work there anymore but the department just got a brand new $1.3 million shooting range and all the officers shoot lead-free ammunition. Now, that’s progress, but it’s also really unusual. As the Seattle Times found, the majority of police departments aren’t testing their ventilation, cleaning their ranges, or educating officers about the risks of lead. You can read more of the Seattle Times series “Loaded with Lead” by going to revealnews.org. While you’re there, you can watch a video that shows how lead can get into your system when you’re firing a gun.
Finally today, a story about someone you’re not going to hear from at all. In this age of celebrity lawyers and litigants, Attorney Judy Clarke stands apart.
Female: She’s been called a one-woman dream team saving some of the most notorious criminals from death.
Al: Clarke’s latest client, Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, was convicted in the Boston Marathon bombing trial on April 8th. Clarke surprised many in her opening statements when she told the court that her client did it. Now the trial enters the penalty phase. To determine whether or not he’ll be put to death, Clarke’s approach inside and outside the court one is unusual. She doesn’t hold press conferences. She hasn’t given an interview in decades. She cultivates invisibility right down to the muted way she dresses for court. She shuns the media and lets her work speak for itself.
Mark: In one sense, it makes her defense of her clients something more pure. In other words, that the case is not about her at all; it’s only about the person who she is representing.
Al: That’s investigative reporter Mark Bowden. He spent months trying to understand what drives this very private person and he wrote about her for Vanity Fair magazine.
Mark: Judy Clarke is really not taking cases where guilt or innocence are at issue. Her clients are notorious; the point of evidence against them is overwhelming. Her goal is not to acquit them. Her goal is to prevent them from being executed.
Al: In helping these notorious criminals escape execution, Judy Clarke raises provocative questions about the death penalty.
Mark: If you put can’t put Ted Kaczynski to death, if you can’t put Eric Rudolph to death, this is the Unabomber and the Atlanta Olympic bomber, both men who have been convicted of multiple murders and who are, in fact, proud of what they’ve done, if the state can’t put them to death, then what justification would it have for putting someone guilty of a horrible but lesser crime to death?
Al: Clarke’s devotion to civil liberties is rooted in her conservative upbringing and what she’s called her absolute support of the Constitution. She began her career as a public defender in San Diego, then in 1994, she got her first high profile capital murder case.
Male: Susan Smith has been arrested and will be charged I think two counts of murder in connection with the deaths of her children.
Mark: Susan Smith was the young woman from South Carolina who strapped her two little boys into their car seats and drove the car into a lake and then watched them drown. She was notorious for having appeared with search committees and coming on television claiming that her children had been abducted by a Black man which set off a huge manhunt in South Carolina until ultimately the police determined that she had done this herself.
We spoke to the man who prosecuted Susan Smith, Tommy Pope. He’s a now a South Carolina lawmaker and private attorney. During his time as a county prosecutor, Pope says he didn’t really relish in executions, but he felt that this case cried out for the ultimate punish.
Tommy: Had the Black man done it as Susan Smith claimed, whatever punishment was appropriate there I thought should be appropriate for her too. That’s why I sought the death penalty when many people told, “Well, this is a White middleclass female. You shouldn’t seek the death penalty,” but I just felt strongly that the nature of the crime was such that she deserved the same penalty that anybody else would receive.
Mark: The community and the nation were horrified by the crime and what Judy Clarke did was reconstruct for the jurors essentially the story of Susan Smith’s life showing her to have been abused as a child, to have been sexually abused by members of her family, to have had a tortured series of relationships that basically drove her to a state of complete breakdown and despair.
Tommy: They changed the opinion from Susan the monster to Susan the victim.
Al: Clarke’s strategy, seeking to humanize someone who’s seen as a monster, it’s something she uses again and again.
Mark: All you really have to do is not try to spark forgiveness, you really have to just get a spark of understanding.
Al: For Susan Smith, it worked. The jurors found her guilty but instead of a death sentence, they recommended life imprison. You’d think Judy Clarke’s clients would be grateful, but over the years, they’ve clashed with her. There was a White supremacist who reportedly threatened to kill Clarke, then there’s Ted Kaczynski, the Unabomber. From a remote cabin in Montana, Kaczynski built and mailed bombs that killed three people and injured 23 others.
Mark: He was someone who had formulated an intricate philosophical theory which justified in his mind killing his victims. He believed that the point of the crimes that he had committed was to popularize and spread this gospel of anti-technology that he had very painstakingly developed and had since written book length treatises on.
Al: Without a doubt, the case against Kaczynski was just overwhelming. I mean the evidence he left behind seem to lead directly to the execution chamber, and he made it clear that he was prepared to die for his cause. To save her client’s life, Judy Clarke wanted him to plead insanity, but there was an obstacle, Ted Kaczynski himself.
Mark: For him to plead insanity would essentially be to flush his life works down the toilet. If he’s crazy, then obviously his theories are worthless. And so he was adamant that he not be presented as mentally ill.
Al: Ted Kaczynski wanted to fire Judy Clarke. We talked to his brother David who was sitting in the courtroom as tensions came to a head. David had helped the FBI capture Ted but he didn’t want to see his brother die.
David: When the courtroom was gaveled in and Ted actually stood up abruptly and said, “Your Honor, I have some very, very important to say.” Ted did not want to be described in open court as mentally ill. For Ted, that was a fate worse than death.
Al: Kaczynski wanted to represent himself. The judge offered a compromise. Judy Clarke would remain at his side but only act as an adviser. Clarke didn’t go for it and the judge denied Kaczynski’s request.
David It was quite a bit of suspense. I remember a bailiff yelling at my brother, “Sit down.” Judy at that point stood beside Ted, she put her hand on his upper part of his back near his shoulder. She took this very conflictual situation with very high stakes of life and death and she reduced it to a sense of relationship, this little gesture that said, “Ted, I’m here to support you. I care about you as a human being.”
Al: Now, before going to trial, Kaczynski was diagnosed a paranoid schizophrenic. Clarke had her opening. She negotiated with prosecutors an unconditional guilty plea that ruled out any possibility of appeals. Kaczynski agreed reluctantly and was sentenced to life imprison. Mark Bowden says Clarke used compassion and guile to outmaneuver the Unabomber.
Mark: He preferred to admit his guilt and take his punishment to being defended as someone insane.
Al: She puts her hand on his shoulder like after the judge just basically told him that you’re stuck with this lawyer. That seems like such a gentle act of humanity, like she knows that he’s sick. She knows that everything that he’s trying to do is basically get rid of her and yet she still has enough compassion for this man who most of us are disgusted with. I think that says a lot about her.
Mark: Yeah, and I think it also demonstrates her complexity, because at the same time that she’s demonstrating this tremendous empathy and compassion for Ted Kaczynski, she’s defying him. She is forcing him essentially to go down a path that he does not want to go down. Just because Judy Clarke is a very kind and compassionate person by all appearances, there is real steal there.
Al: Of course, that’s not the way Ted Kaczynski sees it. The Unabomber has never forgiven Judy Clarke for helping save his life.
Mark: He wrote me a letter essentially to say that he refuse to comment about Judy Clarke at any length but he did call her a bitch on wheels and a sicko, which I found amusing in a black humor way, to be called a sicko by Ted Kaczynski.
Al: Judy Clarke wouldn’t talk to us or any other reporters for that matter, so we couldn’t ask her why she represents clients like Ted Kaczynski and Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, but here’s something she told the magazine at the law school where she teaches. She said no person should be defined by the worst moment or the worst day of his life, and she’s having a huge impact. Capital punishment is in decline in the U.S. Last year, 35 people were executed, a few since 1994. One reason for this is the drugs used for lethal injection are getting scarce. Mark Bowden says there’s another factor. Defense attorneys like Judy Clarke are making prosecutors think twice about going for the death penalty. It’s become too expensive, too complex, and too time consuming.
Mark: To the extent that you believe that the death penalty is a just punishment and an appropriate punishment for someone like Susan Smith or Ted Kaczynski, I think Judy Clarke is your nemesis. She is one of the most effective anti-death penalty activists in history.
Al: Mark Bowden is the author of many books including Black Hawk Down. We have a link to his story about Judy Clarke for Vanity Fair magazine. It’s on our website, revealnews.org.
Today’s episode of Reveal was produced by Julia B. Chan, Jocelyn Frank, Delaney Hall, Pat Loeb and Michael Montgomery. Thanks to editors Deb George, Amy Pyle, Jim Neff, and Gordon Witkin. Our editorial director is Robert Salladay and our managing director is Christa Scharfenberg. Our lead sound designer and engineer is J Breezy, Mr. Jim Briggs, with help from Zach McNees. Susanne Reber is our executive editor and our executive producer is Kevin Sullivan. Our theme music by Ezekiel Honig. You can listen to his music at ezekielhonig.com. Support for Reveal is provided by The Reva and David Logan Foundation and the Ford Foundation. Reveal is a corporation-production of the Center for Investigative Reporting and PRX.
I’m Al Letson, and remember, there is always more to the story.