Obit watch: special crime and law edition, November 1, 2017.

June Robles Birt, better known under her maiden name, passed away September 2nd. Her death was not widely reported until a few days ago, after a writer working on a book contacted the NYT.

In the afternoon on April 25, 1934, Ms. Robles, who was six years old, was returning from her school in Tuscon, Arizona.

A man approached her. He said her father had asked him to give her a lift to his store. After some cajoling, she got into his car, a black Ford sedan.
Later that day, a local boy handed her father a ransom note. The boy said an unidentified man had given him 25 cents to deliver it. The note demanded $15,000 (about $300,000 in today’s money). Mr. Robles scribbled a reply — its text was not reported — and gave it to the boy to carry back to the kidnapper. According to the testimony, however, when the boy looked for the man, he was gone.

To make a longish story somewhat shorter, the Robles family went around with the kidnappers for 19 days. Finally, the kidnappers sent a map and directions to the governor, prompting a search. Clarence Houston, the county attorney, found “…a mound of dirt covered with sagebrush, mesquite and cholla cactus. Beneath it, he discovered a perforated sheet of metal, which proved to be the top of a narrow, coffinlike underground cage.”

June Robles was still alive.

The girl was filthy, blistered by prickly heat and bitten by ants, her ankles chafed by chains attached to an iron stake. She said she had subsisted on fruit, bread and jam, potato chips and graham crackers that the kidnappers had left. She had made do with a ceramic pot for a toilet.
Immediately after her rescue, as she was escorted away, all she seemed concerned about was her report card, which she had left behind in her underground cell. “I went back and got it,” she told The Tucson Daily Citizen. “I wanted my mama to see it.”

Nobody was ever convicted of the kidnapping. One person was suspected, but the authorities were unable to make a case against him. There are hints in the NYT that some people (possibly including Hoover’s FBI) thought the whole thing was some sort of setup.

Ms. Robles lived the rest of her life quietly.

The last time Little June was interviewed, in 1936, she said that all she had wanted was “to be a mother like my mother.” And that was what she became.
Her marriage in 1950 was to Dancey Birt, an aircraft factory supervisor at the time. He survives her. Besides her son James, she is also survived by three other children, Thomas, Bruce and Barbara; five grandchildren; and three great-grandchildren.

Jon Lester passed away in England on August 14th. According to his family, he committed suicide. He was 48 years old.

Mr. Lester was 17 years old and living with family in the Howard Beach section of Queens on December 20, 1986. Early that morning, he ran into three men whose car had broken down in the neighborhood. Mr. Lester went back to a birthday party nearby.

“There’s niggers on the boulevard,”…[Lester] was quoted as telling the beered-up partygoers, adding (and inserting an expletive), “Let’s go kill them.”
According to later courtroom testimony, the 5-foot-4 Mr. Lester was a ringleader of a dozen white teenagers who jumped into three cars and ambushed the black men at a nearby pizza parlor.

The gang beat the crap out of Cedric Sandiford “with a baseball bat, a tire iron and a tree limb”. Another man, Timothy Grimes, escaped. A third man, Michael Griffith, fled onto a “busy highway”, where he was struck by a car and killed.

Mr. Lester was convicted of second-degree manslaughter and first-degree assault in 1988 and received a prison term of 10 to 30 years. He was paroled in 2001 and immediately deported back to England.

“He suffered from depression due to the fact that he was wrongly convicted,” his sister Jayne Lester said in a telephone interview from Florida, where she lives. “He was just tormented. He was never the same person.” Her brother was haunted by “guilt dreams,” she said, but was not a coldblooded killer.
“He really wasn’t a bad person the way they made him out to be,” she said. “He wouldn’t tell on anybody, and they had to blame someone.”

“In my heart I’m sorry to hear of his death,” Mr. Griffith’s mother, now Jean Griffith Sandiford, said of Mr. Lester in a telephone interview on Monday. “Regardless of what happened, I always forgave them.”

He added, however: “I accept responsibility for Michael Griffith’s death. If we hadn’t chased him, he wouldn’t have died.”
Charles J. Hynes, the special prosecutor in the case, rejected Mr. Lester’s version of events and expressed dismay at his release from prison after he had been rejected four times for parole.
“Jon Lester can try and rewrite history all he wants,” Mr. Hynes wrote in an email on Monday. “Some would say 15 years’ imprisonment is significant punishment, but after 15 years he was alive, and Michael Griffith is dead.”

“I was just a typical cocky teenager who got involved in a situation which I couldn’t control,” he told the British newspaper The Sunday Mirror in 2001.
“I’m not that baby-faced thug anymore,” he told The Daily News.
“I’m responsible for someone being dead,” he said in an interview with The Times Herald-Record of Middletown, N.Y. “I can never undo that, and I will live with it every day forever.”

“In his last days he was a successful and caring businessman with a high degree of integrity who tried to live his life and give back to society,” his sister Jayne Lester said. “He always regarded the Howard Beach case as a huge tragedy to everyone involved.”
She added, “The fact that he couldn’t come back to America is basically what killed him, because he couldn’t be with his family.”

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