Every now and then a curious criminal case emerges that gathers front-page interest like a snowball rolling downhill gathers snow and grit. You can tell when this is happening when some journalist awards the case a sobriquet, especially an alliterative one like The Railway Rapist, or the Moors Murderers. That is a sure sign that the multi-headed beast that is the media has got its teeth into the case and will shake as much life out of it as possible.
Typically I become aware of these cases when I get a phone call or email asking me to comment on them, explaining what ‘motivates’ the criminal and why he, or rarely she, has got away with it for so long. I seem to be on many journalists’ lists of contacts. I suppose this is because of my contributions to a lot of police investigation and court cases, but I like to think mainly because of my many publications on crime and criminals over the past quarter of a century.
I refuse to comment on the characteristics of unknown offenders in the throes of a police enquiry unless the Senior Investigating Officers authorises it, which they never do. Also in the UK sub judice rules limit what can be said if a person has been charged with the crime. But if there seems to be some value in using this press interest as a way of alerting the public at large to the research background that will elucidate the criminal activity then I agree to give interviews or to write something about the case.
This happened yesterday when I was contacted by the Canadian Broadcast Corporation and asked to comment on ‘The Internet Black Widow’ whose misdeeds were all over the Canadian newspapers and news programmes, although not mentioned at all as far as I could see in the UK media. Having never heard of this case I had to find out all I could about the perpetrator and the circumstances her crimes and see how that related to the research we have done on analogous crimes and criminals. This was remarkably easy to do because Canada does not seem to have the same sub judice laws as the UK so the news outlets there are full of details of the criminal background of the 77 year old woman now known as Millie Weeks, including quite open claims that there are doubts about the circumstances of the death of one of her husbands, even though these doubts had never resulted in a conviction.
Millie Weeks has just been charged with the attempted murder of her current husband, whom she married a few days ago. He suddenly became ill after the marriage, raising suspicions at the hospital where he was taken that he had been poisoned. The press quickly discovered that Mrs Weeks had been convicted in 1991 of manslaughter of her then husband Gordon Stewart who she had driven over twice whilst he was heavily drugged, when they were in Halifax Nova Scotia.
After serving two years in prison for manslaughter she travelled to Florida and befriended Robert Friedrich whom she met at a Christian retreat, convincing him that ‘God wants us to be married’. He died in 2002 under apparently suspicious circumstances. Money had drained out of his bank account. She is reported to have then targeted a 73 year-old, Alex Strategos, whom she met through AmericanSinglesDating.com, which is how the ‘internet’ became part of the journalists’ nickname for her. He also became ill soon after they moved in together, with a ‘strange drug’ being found in his system and his bank account emptied. It was this death/illness of her male partners that was likened to the ‘black widow’ spider that kills its mate after mating.
The newspapers also reported that she had been convicted of fraud and forgery in the past and what in the USA is called ‘grand theft’. Given all this background information about Mille Weeks it seemed appropriate to comment at least on her criminal background, which I did in a dozen interviews with different CBC stations.
In these brief interviews I mentioned two aspects of her activities that are of particular interest. One of course is that it is extremely unusual for women to be involved in violent, premeditated crime unless they are partnered with a male offender. However it is not unknown. In his classic 1926 book Murder for Profit William Bolitho considers Victorian examples of predatory women who inveigled men into their houses in order to kill them and steal their money. Poisoning, of course, tends to be the weapon of choice for murderesses who lack the physical prowess for direct violence. But it also accords with the planned, fraud oriented nature of these crimes.
This fraudulent aspect also provides the basis the second aspect of Mrs Weeks’ criminal development that accords with processes we find in many people who end up committing serious crimes. Fraud is the origin of a process by which a woman can drift into killing over and over again. She starts off with forgery and minor frauds but is emboldened by her successes and possibly begins to justify her crimes to herself because she has been so successful. She thinks she deserves the rewards of her crimes and the victims have no right to them because they cannot see what is happening. Our research showing how some criminals see themselves as heroes in their own adventures fits this developing pattern. They gain excitement from getting away with their crimes. The planning and execution of the crimes becomes an end in itself.
In North America serial criminals who move around are especially difficult to monitor. There are no central records that are complete. Millie Weeks also ensured that local communities were not aware of her past by putting such a great distance between her activities in Florida and subsequent relationships in Nova Scotia. This combined with her plausible presence as an unthreatening, white haired lady in her 70’s would not raise suspicions until a careful search of criminal records was carried out.
In the UK her defence barristers would surely claim that she could not get a fair trial for her current charges given the public account of her past crimes. I have done studies of how people form judgments in criminal cases and the results show very clearly that any indication of earlier crimes greatly prejudices subsequent judgements, which is why the UK sub judice rules are so important. I did mention this when I was interviewed by the CBC and refused to comment on her current charges, rather to the consternation of the interviewer, restricting my comments to what was publicly reported about her previous offences.
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