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5 Horrific Murders (and the TV Movies made from them)

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The enthusiastic response to last week's Movie of the Week column inspired me to plant myself in front of the Lifetime Movie Network for a few days armed with a bowl of popcorn and a pen poised over a notebook. (The never-ending rigors of this job boggle the mind.) My favorite made-for-TVers are those based on true stories, especially true stories involving jealous friends or spouses who go on sleazy killing rampages. Here are 5 classics, along with the real stories behind the films:

1. Death of a Cheerleader

Picture 32.pngTHE STORY: Tori Spelling stars as Stacey Lockwood, the "It" girl of Santa Mira high school. Stacey has everything: looks, personality, wealthy parents, and a pack of snooty, sycophantic friends at school. Kellie Martin is Angela, who just transferred To Santa Mira from a nearby Catholic school and longs to be part of Stacey's "in" crowd. However, although she is certainly intelligent and studious, Angela is awkward in all her attempts to befriend Stacey, who enjoys making scathing remarks about Angela's thrift shop wardrobe and rusted-out Pinto. One night while hanging out with Stacey, Angie makes an embarrassing plea for friendship. Stacey cuts her down viciously with the ultimate high school threat: "I'm going to tell everyone at school that you're weird!" Angie whips out a butcher knife in a panic and stabs Stacey to death.

Picture 43.pngTHE TRUTH: The movie remained pretty true to the details of the actual case, only the names were changed to protect"¦someone, I suppose. Kirsten Costas was the cheerleader in question; she was also a star on the varsity swim team at Miramonte High School in Orinda, California. Her attacker was Bernadette Protti; both girls were 15 years old when the murder took place in 1984. It took police six months to determine that Protti was the killer, and one of her first questions after confessing was "Do I have to go back to Miramonte? I can't live if it is known. I would rather die." Bernadette was convicted of second degree murder and sentenced as a juvenile. She was released from prison in 1992 at the age of 23, when she promptly changed her name and left California.

2. 83 Hours Till Dawn

Picture 9.pngTHE STORY: Robert Urich portrays wealthy land developer Bradley Burdock, whose idyllic life is turned upside down when his college coed daughter, Julie, is abducted and held for ransom. Not only has she been kidnapped; she is being held in an underground capsule with a limited amount of battery power to provide her air and light. Kidnapper Peter Strauss is very proud of his carefully constructed Fiberglas and plywood tomb, which is equipped with every conceivable necessity: food, water, bed pan and feminine hygiene products. His ransom demand of $500,000 is ultimately met after a series of mishaps, and he phones the FBI to alert them of Julie's location while he attempts to leave the U.S. via motorboat. When Julie is rescued, she is dehydrated and 10 pounds lighter after spending four days underground. Several days later, her kidnapper is arrested and brought to justice.

Picture 52.pngTHE TRUTH: This movie was based on a book of the same name which was written by the kidnapping victim herself, Barbara Jane Mackle. Her abductor was Gary Steven Krist, who was assisted by his girlfriend, Ruth Eisemann-Schier. Barbara passed the interminable hours underground by alternately singing aloud and praying. When she was finally rescued from her coffin-like prison by the FBI, her first words were "How are my parents?" Ruth Eisemann-Shier served five years in prison and then was deported to her native Honduras. Gary Steven Krist escaped the death penalty when Barbara testified on the stand that she was grateful to him for telling the FBI how to locate her. He was sentenced to life in prison, which at that time (1968) meant he would be eligible for parole after seven years. Krist served 10 years, then fled to Haiti, where he eventually earned a medical degree at a Caribbean university. He worked as a physician in rural Indiana until his license was revoked. In 2007 he was arrested and sentenced to five years in prison for trafficking cocaine. As for Barbara, she married her college sweetheart, had two children, and prefers not to dwell on the whole kidnapping "thing."

3. A Killer Among Friends

tiffany-300.jpgTHE STORY: Tiffani-Amber Thiessen portrayed Jenny Monroe, the beautiful, perky and perfect daughter of Jean, played by TV movie über-mom Patty Duke. Jenny went off with her best friend Ellen one afternoon and never came home. Her body was found three days later in a creek, face down with a 100 lb. log across her back. Ellen was as heartbroken and enraged as Jean over Jenny's death, and proceeded to not only personally try to track down the killer, but also move into Jenny's old bedroom and wear her clothes and try to take her place (only to make Jean feel better, of course). Three years later, another girl with a heavy conscience contacted the police; she'd been in the woods with Ellen and Jenny and another girl named Carla that day, and the two brutalized Jenny, slapped her, chopped off pieces of her hair and finally drowned her. Their justification was that Jenny had slept with their boyfriends, but it later came out at trial that the overweight and somewhat plain Ellen had long been jealous of Jenny's beauty and popularity and longed to "be" her. Ellen and Carla were convicted of second-degree murder and sentenced to 15 years to life in prison.

Picture 61.pngTHE TRUTH: The movie is based on the 1985 murder of Michele "Missy" Avila of Arleta, California, who drove off with her best friend, Karen Severson, and another friend, Laura Doyle, and never returned. Karen had always been overweight, shy and awkward, whereas Missy was petite and outgoing; when the two first met at age eight, they clicked because Karen was lonely and Missy was the only girl in her family and longed for a sister. Over the years, it became obvious to many observers that Karen was deeply jealous of Missy's looks and popularity. No one knew exactly how deep her envy festered, though, until her arrest in 1989. Both Karen and Laura are still in prison as of this writing; Karen Severson was recently diagnosed with Multiple Sclerosis and is hoping to get a compassionate release in the near future.

4. When He Didn't Come Home

Picture 111.pngTHE STORY: Patty Duke is once again a concerned mother ("Faye Dolan") who hasn't heard from her 20-something son, Timmy, for several weeks. He worked as an independent contractor and was on the road a lot, but he usually called his mom once a week. She was particularly worried because Tim had recently become engaged to an up-and-coming Yuppie real estate developer ("Carolyn," played by The O.C.'s Kelly Rowan) who had a violent temper. Faye had seen Carolyn punch and slap Timmy during a visit to their apartment. Of course, since Tim was an adult, it took forever for the police to consider him a missing person. Eventually, via a sting operation, Carolyn confessed to a friend that she'd stabbed Tim during an argument. She then hysterically ran to her parents' home and cried for help. Her dad and brother returned to her apartment and found Timmy still breathing. They smothered him, then rolled him in a carpet and carted his body out onto Lake Michigan and threw it overboard.

Picture 71.pngTHE TRUTH: David Richmond of Oviedo, Florida, was the real body rolled in that carpet back in 1992. The TV movie was correct on some facts, and way off base on others. Michele Roger was the object of David's affection, and while the pair lived together, they were never formally engaged. Michele was not a Yuppie entrepreneur; she worked as a topless dancer, which was a bone of contention between her and David. There is no question that Michele used to slap David around (many of his co-workers testified about his black eyes and broken ribs), but Michele's attorney stated that she only struck out in self-defense. Her family did assist in disposing of David's body (in a far more gruesome way than alluded to in the film), and Michele was ultimately found guilty of second degree murder and was sentenced to 17 years in prison. She was granted clemency in 1999 by an outgoing governor on the grounds that she had been a battered woman.

5. Love's Deadly Triangle: The Texas Cadet Murder

Picture 121.pngTHE STORY: Diane Zamora and David Graham (played by Holly Marie Combs and David Lipper) started dating as high school seniors in 1995 and became engaged to get married shortly afterward. The pair were unusually serious and focused for their age; both were in the National Honor Society as well as the Civil Air Patrol, and had military careers mapped out for themselves. Zamora had been accepted into the Naval Academy, while Graham was headed for the Air Force Academy at Colorado Springs after graduation. One evening, after a track meet, David gave his teammate Adrianne Jones a ride home. The two allegedly stopped along the way for a "quickie," and Graham, wracked with guilt afterward, confessed his transgression to Zamora. She insisted that the only way to keep their love "pure" was to kill Adrianne. They made a pact, lured Jones out of her house late at night, and first bludgeoned her then shot her twice in the head. The crime may well have remained unsolved had Zamora not gotten chatty during a dorm room bull session at Annapolis. She bragged to her roommates that her boyfriend had killed for her to prove his love. The roommates, bound by the school's Honor Code, later reported the conversation to the Navy Chaplain, and Zamora and Graham were ultimately arrested.

Picture 131.pngTHE TRUTH: This movie was based on David Graham's typed confession and was filmed before the couple went to trial. Not surprisingly, in the months leading up to their trial, the love bond between them vanished and each blamed the other for both the planning and the execution of the crime. Adrianne Jones' mother asked the prosecution not to pursue the death penalty, as she didn't want two other mothers to lose their children. It was revealed during the trial that David had never had sex with Adrianne; he'd made up the story to make Diane jealous. The two were sentenced to life in prison and each will be eligible for parole in 2036. In 2003 Zamora married (by proxy) a fellow Texas inmate named Steven Mora, whom she'd never met but knew via correspondence. They have since divorced.

So, while I'm in an investigative mood, are there any TV movies you've wondered about in terms of the real-life outcome? Suggestions are welcome "“ you may get your questions answered in a future column!
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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva
Man Buys Two Metric Tons of LEGO Bricks; Sorts Them Via Machine Learning
May 21, 2017
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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva

Jacques Mattheij made a small, but awesome, mistake. He went on eBay one evening and bid on a bunch of bulk LEGO brick auctions, then went to sleep. Upon waking, he discovered that he was the high bidder on many, and was now the proud owner of two tons of LEGO bricks. (This is about 4400 pounds.) He wrote, "[L]esson 1: if you win almost all bids you are bidding too high."

Mattheij had noticed that bulk, unsorted bricks sell for something like €10/kilogram, whereas sets are roughly €40/kg and rare parts go for up to €100/kg. Much of the value of the bricks is in their sorting. If he could reduce the entropy of these bins of unsorted bricks, he could make a tidy profit. While many people do this work by hand, the problem is enormous—just the kind of challenge for a computer. Mattheij writes:

There are 38000+ shapes and there are 100+ possible shades of color (you can roughly tell how old someone is by asking them what lego colors they remember from their youth).

In the following months, Mattheij built a proof-of-concept sorting system using, of course, LEGO. He broke the problem down into a series of sub-problems (including "feeding LEGO reliably from a hopper is surprisingly hard," one of those facts of nature that will stymie even the best system design). After tinkering with the prototype at length, he expanded the system to a surprisingly complex system of conveyer belts (powered by a home treadmill), various pieces of cabinetry, and "copious quantities of crazy glue."

Here's a video showing the current system running at low speed:

The key part of the system was running the bricks past a camera paired with a computer running a neural net-based image classifier. That allows the computer (when sufficiently trained on brick images) to recognize bricks and thus categorize them by color, shape, or other parameters. Remember that as bricks pass by, they can be in any orientation, can be dirty, can even be stuck to other pieces. So having a flexible software system is key to recognizing—in a fraction of a second—what a given brick is, in order to sort it out. When a match is found, a jet of compressed air pops the piece off the conveyer belt and into a waiting bin.

After much experimentation, Mattheij rewrote the software (several times in fact) to accomplish a variety of basic tasks. At its core, the system takes images from a webcam and feeds them to a neural network to do the classification. Of course, the neural net needs to be "trained" by showing it lots of images, and telling it what those images represent. Mattheij's breakthrough was allowing the machine to effectively train itself, with guidance: Running pieces through allows the system to take its own photos, make a guess, and build on that guess. As long as Mattheij corrects the incorrect guesses, he ends up with a decent (and self-reinforcing) corpus of training data. As the machine continues running, it can rack up more training, allowing it to recognize a broad variety of pieces on the fly.

Here's another video, focusing on how the pieces move on conveyer belts (running at slow speed so puny humans can follow). You can also see the air jets in action:

In an email interview, Mattheij told Mental Floss that the system currently sorts LEGO bricks into more than 50 categories. It can also be run in a color-sorting mode to bin the parts across 12 color groups. (Thus at present you'd likely do a two-pass sort on the bricks: once for shape, then a separate pass for color.) He continues to refine the system, with a focus on making its recognition abilities faster. At some point down the line, he plans to make the software portion open source. You're on your own as far as building conveyer belts, bins, and so forth.

Check out Mattheij's writeup in two parts for more information. It starts with an overview of the story, followed up with a deep dive on the software. He's also tweeting about the project (among other things). And if you look around a bit, you'll find bulk LEGO brick auctions online—it's definitely a thing!

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Sponsor Content: BarkBox
8 Common Dog Behaviors, Decoded
May 25, 2017
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Dogs are a lot more complicated than we give them credit for. As a result, sometimes things get lost in translation. We’ve yet to invent a dog-to-English translator, but there are certain behaviors you can learn to read in order to better understand what your dog is trying to tell you. The more tuned-in you are to your dog’s emotions, the better you’ll be able to respond—whether that means giving her some space or welcoming a wet, slobbery kiss. 

1. What you’ll see: Your dog is standing with his legs and body relaxed and tail low. His ears are up, but not pointed forward. His mouth is slightly open, he’s panting lightly, and his tongue is loose. His eyes? Soft or maybe slightly squinty from getting his smile on.

What it means: “Hey there, friend!” Your pup is in a calm, relaxed state. He’s open to mingling, which means you can feel comfortable letting friends say hi.

2. What you’ll see: Your dog is standing with her body leaning forward. Her ears are erect and angled forward—or have at least perked up if they’re floppy—and her mouth is closed. Her tail might be sticking out horizontally or sticking straight up and wagging slightly.

What it means: “Hark! Who goes there?!” Something caught your pup’s attention and now she’s on high alert, trying to discern whether or not the person, animal, or situation is a threat. She’ll likely stay on guard until she feels safe or becomes distracted.

3. What you’ll see: Your dog is standing, leaning slightly forward. His body and legs are tense, and his hackles—those hairs along his back and neck—are raised. His tail is stiff and twitching, not swooping playfully. His mouth is open, teeth are exposed, and he may be snarling, snapping, or barking excessively.

What it means: “Don’t mess with me!” This dog is asserting his social dominance and letting others know that he might attack if they don’t defer accordingly. A dog in this stance could be either offensively aggressive or defensively aggressive. If you encounter a dog in this state, play it safe and back away slowly without making eye contact.

4. What you’ll see: As another dog approaches, your dog lies down on his back with his tail tucked in between his legs. His paws are tucked in too, his ears are flat, and he isn’t making direct eye contact with the other dog standing over him.

What it means: “I come in peace!” Your pooch is displaying signs of submission to a more dominant dog, conveying total surrender to avoid physical confrontation. Other, less obvious, signs of submission include ears that are flattened back against the head, an avoidance of eye contact, a tongue flick, and bared teeth. Yup—a dog might bare his teeth while still being submissive, but they’ll likely be clenched together, the lips opened horizontally rather than curled up to show the front canines. A submissive dog will also slink backward or inward rather than forward, which would indicate more aggressive behavior.

5. What you’ll see: Your dog is crouching with her back hunched, tail tucked, and the corner of her mouth pulled back with lips slightly curled. Her shoulders, or hackles, are raised and her ears are flattened. She’s avoiding eye contact.

What it means: “I’m scared, but will fight you if I have to.” This dog’s fight or flight instincts have been activated. It’s best to keep your distance from a dog in this emotional state because she could attack if she feels cornered.

6. What you’ll see: You’re staring at your dog, holding eye contact. Your dog looks away from you, tentatively looks back, then looks away again. After some time, he licks his chops and yawns.

What it means: “I don’t know what’s going on and it’s weirding me out.” Your dog doesn’t know what to make of the situation, but rather than nipping or barking, he’ll stick to behaviors he knows are OK, like yawning, licking his chops, or shaking as if he’s wet. You’ll want to intervene by removing whatever it is causing him discomfort—such as an overly grabby child—and giving him some space to relax.

7. What you’ll see: Your dog has her front paws bent and lowered onto the ground with her rear in the air. Her body is relaxed, loose, and wiggly, and her tail is up and wagging from side to side. She might also let out a high-pitched or impatient bark.

What it means: “What’s the hold up? Let’s play!” This classic stance, known to dog trainers and behaviorists as “the play bow,” is a sign she’s ready to let the good times roll. Get ready for a round of fetch or tug of war, or for a good long outing at the dog park.

8. What you’ll see: You’ve just gotten home from work and your dog rushes over. He can’t stop wiggling his backside, and he may even lower himself into a giant stretch, like he’s doing yoga.

What it means: “OhmygoshImsohappytoseeyou I love you so much you’re my best friend foreverandeverandever!!!!” This one’s easy: Your pup is overjoyed his BFF is back. That big stretch is something dogs don’t pull out for just anyone; they save that for the people they truly love. Show him you feel the same way with a good belly rub and a handful of his favorite treats.

The best way to say “I love you” in dog? A monthly subscription to BarkBox. Your favorite pup will get a package filled with treats, toys, and other good stuff (and in return, you’ll probably get lots of sloppy kisses). Visit BarkBox to learn more.