Trust Your Alarm? You Shouldn’t

bcIn March 1993, residents of Silver Spring, MD, were shocked by a brutal crime: the cold-blooded murder of Mildred Horn, her quadriplegic 8-year-old son, and the boy’s nurse. Horn’s husband, Lawrence, convicted of hiring the killer, was sentenced to life in prison. In October 1995, the man he hired, James Edward Perry, was sentenced to death.

But there was, in a way, another accomplice, according to the prosecution: a book whose instructions Perry followed–to the letter–in carrying out 22 details of his crime, including the fact that his weapon of choice was an AR-7 rifle, that he drilled out the serial number so the gun couldn’t be traced, that he used what authorities believe was a homemade silencer, and that he fired from a distance of three feet, shooting two of his victims three times in the eyes.

That book, Hit Man: A Technical Manual for Independent Contractors, is published by Colorado-based Paladin Press. It specifically recommends an AR-7 (“it is both inexpensive and accurate”), advises ways to make sure “any weapon you use on the job cannot be traced beck to you,” and gives explicit instructions for drilling away the serial number and building a silencer. Other how-toe are more gruesome: “You will not want to be at point-blank range to avoid having the victim’s blood splatter you or your clothing. At least three shots should be fired to ensure quick and sure death…aim for the head–preferably the eye sockets.”

Paladin Press Attorney Thomas Kelley argues that the publisher’s typical reader is harmless–a collector, police groupie, sportsman, or former soldier, “a Walter Mitty type who likes to read of intrigue and form thoughts that never leave his armchair.” For them, the materials have the same appeal as true-crime books and adventure novels. What’s more, he argues, the book is written in such a way that “it’s difficult to take seriously as a how-to manual.”

Apparently not for James Edward Perry.

PALADIN IS NOT ALONE; IT IS JUST ONE OF SEVERAL PUBLISHERS and catalog companies that peddle ways to cheat, take revenge, rob, brutalize, and kill. Nor is the industry new; such materials have been around for more than 25 years. Paladin was founded in 1970, and The Anarchist Cookbook, published by New York City-based Barricade Books, with its recipes for pipe bombs, has sold more than two million copies since it was published in 1971.

But criminologists say that the growing availability of violence-themed information-made even more widely accessible thanks to the Internet–could lead to more crime; unsettling in light of recent events such as the Oklahoma City bombing’ bloody standoffs between the federal government and fringe militia movements, the Unabomber’s 18-year terrorist mail-bomb campaign, and last summer’s pipe-bomb explosion in Atlanta’s Centennial Park during the Olympics. Police bomb-squad units say suspects routinely have a library of these manuals, and the FBI has found them in the homes of serial killers. “Research has found that if you show people how to commit a crime, they are more likely to do it,” says Ronald Clarke, dean of the School of Criminal Justice at Rutgers University. “Spreading the knowledge is spreading the opportunity for crime.”

Mildred Horn’s relatives want Paladin Press to pay for that. They sued for monetary damages, charging that the publisher “aided and abetted” Perry in his triple murder. “Perry followed the book’s instructions like he was following a cookie recipe,” says John Marshall, one of the family’s lawyers. “It is our contention that the murderer followed the book’s teachings, so the selling of the book comprises part of the criminal act.”

Amazingly, Paladin didn’t see any reason to dispute the link. Contradicting what he says publicly, Kelley and other Paladin lawyers-in a court document obtained by Good Housekeeping–conceded that the company’s marketing strategy is “intended to attract and assist criminals and would-be criminals who desire information and instructions on how to commit crimes…. [Paladin] intended and had knowledge that their publications would be used, upon receipt, by criminals and would-be criminals to plan and execute the crime of murder for hire….”

Last September, a judge ruled that there was no evidence that Paladin “intended imminent lawless activity,” and that while the material was “morally repugnant, it does not constitute incitement or a call to action.” Citing free speech protection, he threw out the case; Horn’s family has appealed.

Peder Lund, who once served in the Army’s Special Forces and cofounded the 26-year-old company, was no doubt relieved. Though he declined to talk to Good Housekeeping, in the past he has said, “As a human, I feel very sorry for anyone who’s put through any physical suffering. As a publisher and as a pragmatist, I feel absolutely no responsibility for the misuse of information.”

Even so, Lund seems to acknowledge that his books can lead directly to acts of violence; he has said that he won’t publish any titles about altitude-sensitive explosives, because “we don’t want to be the scapegoats for an investigation of an airliner coming down…. We all have our boundaries.”

Meanwhile, Lund has done well. Paladin offers more than 650 books and videos, most in the $10 to $40 range, such as The Ancient Art of Strangulation; Fun, Games, and Big Bangs: The Home and Recreational Use of High Explosives; and Kill or Get Killed. Though Lund won’t reveal the company’s yearly earnings, he has cited-years of consecutive growth, drives a Range Rover, and has one home in Britain and another near the company’s headquarters in Boulder, with a panoramic view from its hillside site.

BOOKS ARE NOT THE ONLY THINGS SUCH MAIL-ORDER CATALOGS offer. Also for sale–as easily as ordering from your favorite sweater catalog–are mock sheriff badges, lock-picking and safe-cracking devices, pepper-spray grenades, and bulletproof vests. In reporting this story, Good Housekeeping was able to buy a $39 Steering Wheel Bar Unlocker, which, according to the Shomer-Tec, Inc., catalog, is “designed to bypass the most popular brand of car steering wheel locking bars.” Although the buyer is required by federal law to sign an enclosed form certifying that she is a locksmith, lock manufacturer or distributor, auto maker or dealer, or law enforcement officer, a Good Housekeeping staffer who did not qualify received the device simply by checking one of the categories and mailing in a check.

Another popular catalog item is the bulletproof vest. Who’s buying them? The publishers say individual cops order their own, but police are concerned because criminals are increasingly turning up outfitted in body armor. In Baltimore, police confiscated vests in 30 arrests in the first five months of 1996, mostly from drug dealers. In the past two years, there have been shooting sprees in Dallas; Detroit; Columbus, OH; and Putnam County, NY, in which the killers were wearing bulletproof vests. In April, a Denver man walked into a suburban supermarket and shot to death his wife, the store manager, and a sheriff’s sergeant. When he was finally subdued and taken into custody, he was found to be protected by a bulletproof jacket. In 1994, James Guelff, a San Francisco policeman, was killed in a shoot-out by an assault-rifle-toting gunman wearing a bulletproof vest and helmet.

There are no laws or regulations governing the purchase of body armor, though some vendors, such as Sam’s Club, have established their own procedures that require buyers to show proof that they are law enforcement officers. Similarly, Ed Bachner, a group vice president of Second Chance Body Armor in Central Lake, Ml, says his company has “reasonable and prudent policies to avoid body armor getting into the wrong hands.” But he concedes that someone could fool a bulletproof vest vendor, and that some are not as strict as they could be about getting proper documentation from their customers.

Last May, Maryland’s state legislature passed a bill making it illegal to wear armor in the commission of a crime; doing so could add up to five years to a prison sentence; some 14 other states have similar laws. Last year, U.S. Congressman Bart Stupak (D-MI) introduced a federal bill named for Officer James Guelff. It failed to pass Congress, but Stupak plans to reintroduce it this year.

BOMB-MAKING MANUALS ARE PERHAPS THE BIGGEST THREAT to the greatest number of people. Senator Dianne Feinstein (D-CA) was disturbed by the fact that Internet information may have been connected to a series of pipe bombings in her state, as well as the fact that one of the World Trade Center bombers was carrying a number of terrorist manuals when he was arrested. She has twice introduced amendments to bills that would make it illegal to teach or distribute information on how to make a bomb–if a person intends or knows that that bomb will be used for a criminal purpose.

“I do not believe the First Amendment gives anyone the right to teach someone how to kill other people or provide certain information that will be used to commit a crime,” said Feinstein. “Even our most precious rights must pass the test of common sense.” Neither time did the amendment become law, but she plans to reintroduce it this year.

Publishers traditionally cite freedom of speech in debates about banning or restricting access to so-called crime manuals. Paladin Attorney Kelley maintains that if the Horn family prevails in the Hit Man case, a wide range of mainstream material would be “put at great risk”–since fiction, autobiographies of gangsters, and even PBS documentaries of bombings could all contain descriptions that would-be criminals might find useful.

But critics counter that such freedoms don’t absolve publishers of responsibility. Douglas Kmiec, professor of constitutional law at Notre Dame Law School points out that the First Amendment is not “an absolute doctrine,’? and that over the years, limits have been placed on certain kinds of speech–perjury, libel, hate speech–and materials, such as child pornography.

Best-selling novelist John Grisham goes as far as to suggest that filmmakers ought to be held liable for violence that can be proven to be directly inspired by a movie. He cites as an example two shootings allegedly perpetrated by a young Oklahoma couple who, one of them confessed, watched Oliver Stone’s Natural Born Killers before committing the crimes. Grisham argues that First Amendment rights to make such movies would not be jeopardized, even as filmmakers have to assume responsibility for damages.

“A society has a right to defend itself from the people who but for the availability of descriptions in the marketplace might have a tougher time committing crimes,” says Jack Thompson, a Miami lawyer who helped convince Time Warner to pull “Cop Killer,” the song by gansta rapper Ice-T’s band, Body Count, out of stores. “The whole food chain is morally and legally culpable. Ideas do have consequences, and disseminating information that is senseless and corrosive is the purveying of mayhem.

“All you would need,” Thompson says, “is a prosecutor who would go to a grand jury and say that this is not First Amendment speech–it poses a clear and present danger to the public. The average person understands there’s something wrong with this picture-they have a gut feeling that you shouldn’t explain to people how to kill other people.”

So what can the average person do? “Organize, go to your local prosecutors and ask them to find the pertinent statutes in their jurisdictions,” urges Thompson. “Contact your congressperson about holding local hearings. Demonstrate outside Paladin’s corporate headquarters.”

Nathaniel Pallone, professor of psychology and criminal justice at Rutgers University, agrees: “As a society, we are far more concerned about protecting the rights of people to publish information, and the price we pay for that is that we are going to have some victims.” Until we make changes, Pallone says, publishers will continue to have the “freedom to make a buck out of human misery.”

One Response to “Trust Your Alarm? You Shouldn’t”

  1. Tracey Wins says on December 2nd, 2017 at 3:28 pm:

    Wow. Thanks for telling me about this. Now I’m more frightened than ever of a home invasion.

    I swear, sometimes I just want to pack it all up and move to a cabin somewhere in Montana. Sheesh!

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