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True Crime: Murder on an Arctic Ice Floe

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Hypothetical situation: seven castaways have been living on an uncharted island in the Pacific for 15 years after a shipwreck. One member of the group is an eternal screw-up, the constant thorn in everyone's side, and one day the Skipper finally snaps. And the very next day a Coast Guard cutter shows up out of the blue and rescues the rest of the gang. What is the Skipper's fate? Can a person be tried for a murder committed in an unclaimed land where there technically is no law? Such was the dilemma faced by the U.S. Justice Department when a technician shot and killed a meteorologist on a remote Arctic ice floe in 1970.

The Real World: Ice Island T-3

The ice island known as T-3 was approximately seven-miles long and three-miles wide when a 20-man group of researchers arrived there in May 1970. The kidney-shaped ice floe floated rather aimlessly in a clockwise direction around the Canadian/Alaskan sector of the Polar Basin. Despite its extremely remote and frigid location (the average temperature hovered around -40°F), the men had trailer homes and research huts that they made as cozy as possible—some would later describe it as a "frat house" atmosphere—for the duration of their five-month assignment. Bennie Lightsy, an Air Force veteran and employee of the United States Weather Bureau, had been designated the station manager by the Arctic Research Laboratory. Also stationed there were Donald "Porky" Leavitt, another Arctic Research Lab employee, and Mario Escamilla, an employee of General Motors Defense Research Laboratory.

Had extensive background checks been commonplace in 1970, Porky Leavitt probably would not have been assigned to such an isolated post.

Unbeknownst to his co-workers, he had a serious drinking problem. Booze was not unheard of on the island, but it was available in limited quantities depending upon how much the supply planes brought in. The researchers paid for luxury items like liquor out of their own pockets, so they were naturally protective of their individual stashes. Porky apparently drained his own supply (small cargo planes can only carry so much) so quickly between deliveries that he threatened fellow researchers with a meat cleaver on three separate occasions in order to gain access to their alcohol stash.

An Arctic Bender

On the afternoon of July 16, 1970, Mario Escamilla was working at the GM hut when he received a phone call from his roommate, Charles Parodi. Parodi warned him that Porky was on a bender and had stolen Escamilla's jug of homemade raisin wine. Escamilla went first to the station's common "store" and grabbed a rifle and loaded it, mindful of Leavitt's previous violent outbursts. He burst into Leavitt's trailer where he found Porky and Bennie Lightsy drinking a combination of 190 proof ethyl alcohol cut with grape juice and Escamilla's raisin wine. Escamilla retrieved what remained of his wine, warned the two to stay out of his belongings and returned to his trailer.

Shortly after Escamilla returned to his trailer he heard footsteps approaching, and assuming it was Porky (and being well-acquainted with Porky's violent streak), picked up the loaded rifle. The person approaching was not Porky Leavitt but Bennie Lightsy (pictured), who allegedly began to argue about the "selfishness" of Escamilla regarding his raisin wine. No one but Mario Escamilla knows for sure what happened next, but according to him, while he was arguing with Lightsy, he also gesticulated with the rifle. He accidentally bumped the rifle during the discussion and it fired. Lightsy was hit and died shortly afterward, despite efforts by Escamilla to stem the bleeding (there were no medical personnel on the island).

After U.S. government personnel were advised of the crime, Escamilla airlifted by helicopter—a meticulous maneuver that involved in-air refueling over the Arctic Ocean—to Thule, Greenland, where he was then transferred to an airplane and flown to Dulles Airport. That disjointed return home was just one of many factors that made Escamilla's resulting trial so difficult from a legal standpoint.

Bennie Lightsy's death occurred on a floating island that didn't technically belong to any nation. At the time of the crime, T-3 drifted mainly in the Canadian sector of the Arctic Ocean, but the personnel involved were all Americans. And then there was that clause in International Law that stated an offender should be tried in the district into which he is first brought (in Escamilla's case, that meant Greenland). Many months of legal wrangling ensued. Canada eventually decided not to get involved and left the decision to the United States. It was ultimately decided that the floating ice island would be considered a "vessel" and that the case would be heard in Federal Court in Alexandria, Virginia, under the auspices of standard U.S. maritime law.

It Depends on What the Meaning of 'Vessel' Is

One of the most influential pieces of evidence entered on Escamilla's behalf was the rifle that fired the fatal shot. It was run through standard ballistic tests and was found to be defective—the gun discharged when bumped against a solid object, with no finger near the trigger. This finding gave credence to Escamilla's claim that the gun had just "gone off" while he was arguing with Lightsy. Along with the literal smoking gun evidence, the defense also presented a parade of character witnesses who swore that Escamilla was an easy-going, non-violent man. The jury found him guilty of involuntary manslaughter and the judge sentenced him to three years in prison with parole possible after three months. Judge Oren R. Lewis added a provision to the sentence: Escamilla could be released any time after 60 days and his sentence would be stayed depending upon the outcome of his appeal.

Escamilla's attorneys did eventually successfully appeal his sentence by questioning the legality of the definitions of many key terms used during the trial, such as "vessel" (can an ice floe really be considered in the same category as a ship?) and "ice floe" (what's the difference between an ice island and an occupiable ice floe?). Mario Escamilla never went back to jail after those initial 60 days and now lives in California. Ice island T-3 ultimately exited the Arctic Ocean via the Fram Strait and broke up off the coast of Greenland in 1984.

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12 Surprising Facts About Bela Lugosi
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On October 20, 1882—135 years ago today—one of the world's most gifted performers was born. In his heyday, Bela Lugosi was hailed as the undisputed king of horror. Eighty-five years after he first donned a vampire’s cape, Lugosi's take on Count Dracula is still widely hailed as the definitive portrayal of the legendary fiend. But who was the man behind the monster?

1. HE WORKED WITH THE NATIONAL THEATER OF HUNGARY.

To the chagrin of his biographers, the details concerning Bela Lugosi’s youth have been clouded in mystery. (In a 1929 interview, he straight-up admitted “for purposes of simplification, I have always thought it better to tell [lies] about the early years of my life.”) That said, we do know that he was born as Béla Ferenc Dezső Blaskó on October 20, 1882 in Lugoj, Hungary (now part of Romania). We also know that his professional stage debut came at some point in either 1901 or 1902. By 1903, Lugosi had begun to find steady work with traveling theater companies, through which he took part in operas, operettas, and stage plays. In 1913, Lugosi caught a major break when the most prestigious performing arts venue in his native country—the Budapest-based National Theater of Hungary—cast him in no less than 34 shows. Most of the characters that he played there were small Shakespearean roles such as Rosencrantz in Hamlet and Sir Walter Herbert in Richard III.

2. HE FOUGHT IN WORLD WAR I.

The so-called war to end all wars put Lugosi’s dramatic aspirations on hold. Although being a member of the National Theater exempted him from military service, he voluntarily enlisted in the Austro-Hungarian Army in 1914. Over the next year and a half, he fought against Russian forces as a lieutenant with the 43rd Royal Hungarian Infantry. While serving in the Carpathian mountains, Lugosi was wounded on three separate occasions. Upon healing from his injuries, he left the armed forces in 1916 and gratefully resumed his work with the National Theater.

3. WHEN HE MADE HIS BROADWAY DEBUT, LUGOSI BARELY KNEW ANY ENGLISH.

In December 1920, Lugosi boarded a cargo boat and emigrated to the United States. Two years later, audiences on the Great White Way got their first look at this charismatic stage veteran. Lugosi was cast as Fernando—a suave, Latin lover—in the 1922 Broadway stage play The Red Poppy. At the time, his grasp of the English language was practically nonexistent. Undaunted, Lugosi went over all of his lines with a tutor. Although he couldn’t comprehend their meaning, the actor managed to memorize and phonetically reproduce every single syllable that he was supposed to deliver on stage.

4. UNIVERSAL DIDN’T WANT TO CAST HIM AS COUNT DRACULA.

The year 1927 saw Bela Lugosi sink his teeth into the role of a lifetime. A play based on the novel Dracula by Bram Stoker had opened in London in 1924. Sensing its potential, Horace Liveright, an American producer, decided to create an U.S. version of the show. Over the summer of 1927, Lugosi was cast as the blood-sucking Count Dracula. For him, the part represented a real challenge. In Lugosi’s own words, “It was a complete change from the usual romantic characters I was playing, but it was a success.” It certainly was. Enhanced by his presence, the American Dracula remained on Broadway for a full year, then spent two years touring the country.

Impressed by its box office prowess, Universal decided to adapt the show into a major motion picture in 1930. Horror fans might be surprised to learn that when the studio began the process of casting this movie’s vampiric villain, Lugosi was not their first choice. At the time, Lugosi was still a relative unknown, which made director Tod Browning more than a little hesitant to offer him the job. A number of established actors were all considered before the man who’d played Dracula on Broadway was tapped to immortalize his biting performance on film.

5. MOST OF HIS DRACULA-RELATED FAN MAIL CAME FROM WOMEN.

The recent Twilight phenomenon is not without historical precedent. Lugosi estimated that, while he was playing the Count on Broadway, more than 97 percent of the fan letters he received were penned by female admirers. A 1932 Universal press book quotes him as saying, “When I was on the stage in Dracula, my audiences were composed mostly of women.” Moreover, Lugosi contended that most of the men who’d attended his show had merely been dragged there by female companions.   

6. HE TURNED DOWN THE ROLE OF FRANKENSTEIN’S MONSTER.

Released in 1931, Dracula quickly became one of the year's biggest hits for Universal (some film historians even argue that the movie single-handedly rescued the ailing studio from bankruptcy). Furthermore, its astronomical success transformed Lugosi into a household name for the first time in his career. Regrettably for him, though, he’d soon miss the chance to star in another smash. Pleased by Dracula’s box office showing, Universal green-lit a new cinematic adaptation of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein. Lugosi seemed like the natural choice to play the monster, but because the poor brute had few lines and would be caked in layers of thick makeup, the actor rejected the job offer. As far as Lugosi was concerned, the character was better suited for some “half-wit extra” than a serious actor. Once the superstar tossed Frankenstein aside, the part was given to a little-known actor named Boris Karloff.

Moviegoers eventually did get to see Lugosi play the bolt-necked corpse in the 1943 cult classic Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man. According to some sources, he strongly detested the guttural scream that the script forced him to emit at regular intervals. “That yell is the worst thing about the part. You feel like a big jerk every time you do it!” Lugosi allegedly complained.

7. LUGOSI’S RELATIONSHIP WITH BORIS KARLOFF WAS MORE CORDIAL THAN IT’S USUALLY MADE OUT TO BE.

It’s often reported that the two horror icons were embittered rivals. In reality, however, Karloff and Lugosi seemed to have harbored some mutual respect—and perhaps even affection for one another. The dynamic duo co-starred in five films together, the first of which was 1934’s The Black Cat; Karloff claimed that, on set, Lugosi was “Suspicious of tricks, fearful of what he regarded as scene stealing. Later on, when he realized I didn’t go in for such nonsense, we became friends.” During one of their later collaborations, Lugosi told the press “we laughed over my sad mistake and his good fortune as Frankenstein is concerned.”

That being said, Lugosi probably didn’t appreciate the fact that in every single film which featured both actors, Karloff got top billing. Also, he once privately remarked, “If it hadn’t been for Boris Karloff, I could have had a corner on the horror market.”

8. HE LOVED SOCCER.

In 1935, Lugosi was named Honorary President of the Los Angeles Soccer League. An avid fan, he was regularly seen at Loyola Stadium, where he’d occasionally kick off the first ball during games held there. Also, on top of donating funds to certain Hungarian teams, Lugosi helped finance the Los Angeles Magyar soccer club. When the team won a state championship in 1935, one newspaper wrote that the players were “headed back to Dracula’s castle with the state cup.” [PDF]

9. HE WAS A HARDCORE STAMP COLLECTOR.

Lugosi's fourth wife, Lillian Arch, claimed that Lugosi maintained a collection of more than 150,000 stamps. Once, on a 1944 trip to Boston, he told the press that he intended to visit all 18 of the city's resident philately dealers. “Stamp collecting,” Lugosi declared, “is a hobby which may cost you as much as 10 percent of your investment. You can always sell your stamps with not more than a 10 percent loss. Sometimes, you can even make money.” Fittingly enough, the image of Lugosi’s iconic Dracula appeared on a commemorative stamp issued by the post office in 1997.

10. LUGOSI ALMOST DIDN’T APPEAR IN ABBOTT AND COSTELLO MEET FRANKENSTEIN—BECAUSE THE STUDIO THOUGHT HE WAS DEAD.

The role of Count Dracula in this 1948 blockbuster was nearly given to Ian Keith—who was considered for the same role in the 1931 Dracula movie. Being a good sport, Lugosi helped promote the horror-comedy by making a special guest appearance on The Abbott and Costello Show. While playing himself in one memorable sketch, the famed actor claimed to eat rattlesnake burgers for dinner and “shrouded wheat” for breakfast.

11. A CHIROPRACTOR FILLED IN FOR HIM IN PLAN 9 FROM OUTER SPACE.

Toward the end of his life, Lugosi worked on three ultra-low-budget science fiction pictures with Ed Wood, a man who’s been posthumously embraced as the worst director of all time. In the 1953 transvestite picture Glen or Glenda?, Lugosi plays a cryptic narrator who offers such random and unsolicited bits of advice as “Beware of the big, green dragon who sits on your doorstep.” Then came 1955’s Bride of the Monster, in which Lugosi played a mad scientist who ends up doing battle with a (suspiciously limp) giant octopus.

Before long, Wood had cooked up around half a dozen concepts for new films, all starring Lugosi. At some point in the spring of 1956, the director shot some quick footage of the actor wandering around a suburban neighborhood, clad in a baggy cloak. This proved to be the last time that the star would ever appear on film. Lugosi died of a heart attack on August 16, 1956;  he was 73 years old.

Three years after Lugosi's passing, this footage was spliced into a cult classic that Wood came to regard as his “pride and joy.” Plan 9 From Outer Space tells the twisted tale of extraterrestrial environmentalists who turn newly-deceased human beings into murderous zombies. Since Lugosi could obviously no longer play his character, Wood hired a stand-in for some additional scenes. Unfortunately, the man who was given this job—California chiropractor Tom Mason—was several inches taller than Lugosi. In an attempt to hide the height difference, Wood instructed Mason to constantly hunch over. Also, Mason always kept his face hidden behind a cloak.

12. HE WAS BURIED IN HIS DRACULA CAPE.

Although Lugosi resented the years of typecasting that followed his breakout performance in Dracula, he asked to be laid to rest wearing the Count’s signature garment. Lugosi was buried under a simple tombstone at California's Holy Cross Cemetery.

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How to Carve a Pumpkin—And Not Injure Yourself in the Process
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Wielding a sharp knife with slippery hands around open flames and nearby children doesn't sound like the best idea—but that's exactly what millions of Halloween celebrations entail. While pumpkin carving is a fun tradition, it can also bring the risk of serious hand injuries. According to the American Society for Surgery of the Hand (ASSH), some wounds sustained from pumpkin misadventure can result in surgery and months of rehabilitation.

Fortunately, there are easy ways to minimize trauma. Both ASSH and CTV News have compiled safety tips for pumpkin carvers intended to reduce the chances of a trip to the emergency room.

First, it's recommended that carvers tackle their design with knives made specifically for carving. Kitchen knives are sharp and provide a poor grip when trying to puncture tough pumpkin skin: Pumpkin carving knives have slip-resistant handles and aren't quite as sharp, while kitchen knives can get wedged in, requiring force to pull them out.

Carvers should also keep the pumpkin intact while carving, cleaning out the insides later. Why? Once a pumpkin has been gutted, you’re likely to stick your free hand inside to brace it, opening yourself up to an inadvertent stab from your knife hand. When you do open it up, it's better to cut from the bottom: That way, the pumpkin can be lowered over a light source rather than risk a burn dropping one in from the top.

Most importantly, parents would be wise to never let their kids assist in carving without supervision, and should always work in a brightly-lit area. Adults should handle the knife, while children can draw patterns and scoop out innards. According to Consumer Reports, kids ages 10 to 14 tend to suffer the most Halloween-related accidents, so keeping carving duties to ages 14 and above is a safe bet.

If all else fails and your carving has gone awry, have a first aid kit handy and apply pressure to any wound to staunch bleeding. With some common sense, however, it's unlikely your Halloween celebration will turn into a blood sacrifice.

[h/t CTV News]

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