Background: iStock
Background: iStock

Strong Words: The Book That Went on Trial for Murder

Background: iStock
Background: iStock

On the evening of March 3, 1993, James Perry drove from his home in Detroit toward Silver Spring, Maryland, a suburb of Washington, D.C. Paying in cash, he checked into a hotel in nearby Rockville. After settling in, he took his rental car back out on the road before coming to a stop near a two-story Colonial home. Armed with a rifle, he forced his way in and shot the owner, Mildred Horn, while she stood near the foot of the stairs. Heading to the second floor, he stormed into a bedroom occupied by a nurse, Janice Saunders, who was sitting in a rocking chair. She didn’t have time to register Perry’s arrival before being shot three times in the head.

With both women dead, Perry approached a bed occupied by Mildred’s son, 8-year-old Trevor Horn. When he was 13 months old, a hospital error had left Trevor a quadriplegic with brain damage and the need for around-the-clock care. Perry removed the tube from his neck that was connected to a respirator, killing him.

Perry drove back to the hotel. It would be a year before investigators could prove he was a hired killer, and that Mildred’s estranged spouse, Lawrence Horn, had hired him.

Horn, however, was not Perry’s only accused accomplice. In a case that would test the limits of the First Amendment, the families of the victims claimed Perry received his morbid education in contract killing courtesy of a book from Boulder, Colorado-based publisher Paladin Press: Hit Man: A Technical Manual for Independent Contractors. All 130 pages, lawyers argued, aided and abetted Perry in his crimes.

Paladin was a boutique publisher founded in 1970 by Vietnam veteran Peder Lund. Originally known as Panther Publications, the company changed names to avoid confusion with the Black Panthers activist group. Lund’s imprint specialized in the kind of weekend-warrior reading bookmarked by Soldier of Fortune subscribers: Titles on how to obtain fake identification, make bombs, or mount guerrilla warfare were popular sellers. They were in business less than two years before the FBI began keeping a file on them.

Handling most of their transactions via mail order gave Lund few opportunities to see his customers face-to-face. While most would be what his legal team would later describe as “Walter Mitty types,” fetishizing the clichés of action heroes, some may have absorbed the material—like instructionals on how to make a firearm silencer—without irony.

Paladin originally published Hit Man in 1983. Written by an unknown author under the pseudonym “Rex Feral,” the book purported to be a guide to entering the business of contract killings, covering one’s tracks, and resisting the “ego” that comes with being a gun for hire. Over the next ten years, Paladin sold roughly 13,000 copies. At least one of them was delivered to James Perry.

Perry was known in Detroit as a hustler and ambitious street-level entrepreneur. He had done time in the 1970s for armed robbery. While in prison, he met up with a man named Thomas Turner. It was Turner who referred his cousin, Lawrence Horn, to Perry.

Horn was also from Detroit and had spent several years working as a sound engineer for Berry Gordy Jr.’s Motown recording studios. While in the booth, he had supervised tracks for the Supremes, Smokey Robinson, and other highly influential artists. But by the 1990s, the work had dried up.

His personal life also faltered. Horn had been married to Mildred, a flight attendant he met in 1972. In 1985 they had a son, Trevor, who suffered medical problems due to his underdeveloped lungs. Shortly after his birth, the Horns had drifted apart. Their last joint effort was winning a malpractice settlement worth $2 million—including upfront payments to Horn and Mildred of $120,000 and $250,000, respectively.

By 1992, Horn’s share was spent. He was in Hollywood, broke, with his ex-wife demanding past due child support. Horn, prosecutors later alleged, knew the nearly $2 million trust fund was being held for Trevor’s care. He also knew that if anything happened to both Mildred and his son, he would be in line to receive the full amount.

Through Turner, Horn connected with Perry. The two spoke to each other dozens of times over the course of a year, with Horn wiring between $3500 and $5000 to the budding hit man. In March 1993, with Horn in his California apartment, Perry drove to Silver Spring and murdered all three occupants. Within a few weeks, Horn was filing paperwork to claim the trust fund.

Authorities thought this was suspicious. They were also intrigued by several phone calls made by Perry to Horn where Perry insisted on getting more money. Records showed Horn had also received calls from pay phones near a hotel and a Denny’s the night of the murders. Further inquiry showed traces of a criminal who didn't think too quickly on his feet: While Perry paid cash, he willingly handed over his driver’s license when the hotel clerk asked for identification.

Perry and Horn were tried and convicted separately—Horn in 1995 and Perry in 2001 after an earlier mistrial due to an inadmissible phone recording. Prosecutors related that a search of Perry’s residence had uncovered a Paladin catalog as well as evidence of a check sent to the company for two books: Hit Man and a title on how to make an effective silencer. 

Before Horn had made his way through criminal court, the relatives of Mildred and Trevor Horn and Janice Saunders pursued civil action against Paladin. Their reasoning was that the publisher had incriminated itself by providing a manual that Perry hadn’t merely skimmed—he mimicked more than 20 specific instructions for getting away with murder.

The author's advice included soliciting business via a mutual friend and using an AR-7 rifle after drilling out the serial numbers. Victims, the book cautioned, should be attacked no closer than a distance of three feet to avoid stains on clothing and to be shot through their eyes to ensure success. After the act, the killer should disassemble the weapon and scatter the pieces in hopes that the authorities would consider the whole operation a bungled burglary. Perry followed each piece of advice to the letter.

In July 1996, U.S. District Judge Alex Williams heard arguments from the families’ lawyer, Howard Siegel, who attacked Paladin. “These manuals were published with the express intention to encourage and facilitate the commission of murder,” Siegel told the Baltimore Sun.

Though Hit Man was labeled “loathsome” by the judge, he declared that the publisher and the book were insulated from charges of aiding and abetting due to the First Amendment.

The resulting publicity was good for sales. Lund told The New York Times orders for the book and others in his catalog were growing. “I know of hundreds and hundreds of books and films that are just as explicit in their instructions,” he said. “I see this dead on as a free-speech issue."  (Lund refused to reveal the author's name, though court records obtained by media eventually disclosed the writer was a mother of two who had no apparent history as an assassin.)

In November 1997, a Federal appeals court remanded Williams' decision. In their written declaration, the court found that Hit Man was offered no such protection because any speech aiding and abetting murder was exempt from First Amendment discussion:

Paladin has stipulated that it provided its assistance to Perry with both the knowledge and the intent that the book would immediately be used by criminals and would-be criminals in the solicitation, planning, and commission of murder and murder for hire, and even absent the stipulations, a jury could reasonably find such specific intent… Were the First Amendment to offer protection even in these circumstances, one could publish, by traditional means or even on the internet, the necessary plans and instructions for assassinating the President, for poisoning a city's water supply, for blowing up a skyscraper or public building, or for similar acts of terror and mass destruction, with the specific, indeed even the admitted, purpose of assisting such crimes--all with impunity.

The ruling took free speech advocates by surprise. Several entities, including Disney, The New York Times, and The Washington Post, had signed a letter of support—not precisely backing Paladin, but cautioning that the First Amendment might undergo “serious and substantial” harm.

Lawyers for Paladin appealed to the Supreme Court, but the court refused to hear any further discussion. With the decision set in stone, the publisher was facing the possibility of a jury trial in 1999. Fearing a decision in the plaintiff’s favor would be costly, Paladin’s insurance company elected to settle for an undisclosed sum in the seven-figure range, along with a promise the book would go out of print. The entire case is believed to be the first time in history a publisher has ever been held liable in America—at least financially—for murder.

Paladin still operates out of Boulder, Colorado, selling a variety of titles on lock-picking, spying, and sniping. Lawrence Horn is, at last account, still alive and serving a life sentence. James Perry died in prison in 2009 at the age of 61.

Additional Sources:
Rice v. Paladin Enterprises”; “FBI Files on Paladin Press, 1972-1998” [PDF].

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FBI
Amateur Sleuths Claim to Have Uncovered D.B. Cooper's Real Identity
FBI
FBI

For decades, both the FBI and amateur investigators have been preoccupied with the identity of “Dan Cooper,” a mysterious passenger mistakenly reported by journalists as "D.B. Cooper" who boarded a flight from Portland to Seattle on November 24, 1971. Without appearing frantic or violent, Cooper informed the crew he had a bomb and demanded $200,000 in ransom. After making the pilots stop for fuel and then lift off again, the skyjacker collected his money and parachuted out of the plane, never to be seen or heard from again.

According to one Cooper devotee, that might not be exactly true. Tom Colbert has led a team of amateur investigators looking into the case and made headlines last year after acquiring some of the closed portions of the FBI’s file via a freedom of information lawsuit. According to Colbert, a letter purportedly written by Cooper and sent to the Oregonian shortly after the crime reveals a “confession” hidden in code. The man’s identity, Colbert claims, is that of Robert Rackstraw, a Vietnam veteran who is now 74 years old and living in San Diego.

“I want out of the system and saw a way through good ole Unk,” the letter read. “Now it is Uncle’s turn to weep and pay one of it’s [sic] own some cash for a change. (And please tell the lackey cops D.B. Cooper is not my real name).”

Colbert showed the letter to Rick Sherwood, a former codebreaker for the now-defunct Army Security Agency. Sherwood maintains the repetitive phrasing of Unk and other words corresponds with a simple letter-to-number code that, when broken, reveals the sentence “I am 1st LT Robert Rackstraw.”

Another letter uncovered in the FBI’s files earlier this year contains a numerical sequence that Colbert's team says they have matched to codes used by Rackstraw’s Army unit in Vietnam. That letter’s writer—who Colbert believes to be Rackstraw—claimed he used a toupee and a putty nose to disguise his appearance on the plane.

Rackstraw was at one time considered a suspect by the FBI but was later cleared in 1979. After initially teasing that he might be the culprit, Rackstraw backed off those claims and insisted the accusation was without merit. The bureau officially closed the case in 2016, citing a lack of strong leads. In February 2018, Colbert claimed the FBI wasn’t acknowledging his work out of embarrassment.

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Photo Illustration by Mental Floss. Images: iStock
Lies, Blackmail, and Murder: The Mysterious Life—and Death—of ‘Madame X’
Photo Illustration by Mental Floss. Images: iStock
Photo Illustration by Mental Floss. Images: iStock

Three screams pierced the night air—loud enough to be heard over the waves crashing on the rocky beach below—and Olive Dimick froze.

It was February 4, 1929, and she had just said goodnight to her next-door-neighbor Kate Jackson, after spending a night out at the movies with her. The two women lived in a cluster of cliffside bungalows overlooking Limeslade Bay in Wales, on a headland known as Mumbles. The area is said to derive its name from two shapely rock formations just offshore; according to town lore, they once looked to French sailors like les mamelles, or a pair of breasts rising from the water.

It took just a few seconds for Olive to realize the screams sounded like her neighbor, and that they were coming from the direction of her backyard. She rushed over, where she found her friend crouched on her hands and knees, bleeding from her head and moaning. Kate's husband, a fishmonger named Thomas, stood over her, half-dressed.

The pair carried Kate into the kitchen, where Olive attended to her. At about 11:45, Thomas called a doctor, who arrived around midnight and said that Kate should be taken to the hospital. Once there—Thomas, Kate, and Olive travelled in a taxi, the doctor in his own car—Thomas made a very curious remark. When the doctor asked through the taxicab window how Kate was doing, Thomas replied that she was sleeping peacefully, and then added: "I have been married to her for ten years, and I still don't know who she really is. She has never been open with me."

This was not just a simple issue of marital miscommunication. Kate Jackson's identity—her background, her source of income, even her name—was ever-shifting. To her husband, she was an aristocrat born in a foreign land. To neighbors, she was a best-selling novelist and journalist. But to the local police, and soon a jury, she would become a murder case that has yet to be solved.

STRANGER THAN FICTION

The woman who would become Kate Jackson was born Kate Atkinson in the late 1880s to John Atkinson, a laborer in Lancaster, and his wife, Agnes. Sometime in her teens, she left Lancaster with a dream of becoming an actress on the London stage. She lived for a while with an artist named Leopold Le Grys, who later described her as uneducated, but "clever, and a good talker."

Never one to pass up an opportunity for the dramatic, she caught the attention of union official George Harrison in 1914 by fainting after witnessing a minor car accident on Charing Cross Road. She told him she hadn't eaten in three days, and so he took her to lunch. They became involved, and the next year she asked him for £40 for an abortion. Then she said there were complications from the procedure, so she needed more. For one reason or another—perhaps there were more procedures, perhaps she threatened to expose the affair, perhaps he was paying for her sexual services—Harrison sent her as much as £30 (over $4000 in 2018 dollars) a week over the course of a decade. All of it was embezzled through his position as the secretary of a cooper's union.

Harrison was far from the only man in Kate's life. When she met the man who would become her husband in 1919, Kate told him she was Madame Molly Le Grys, the Indian-born youngest daughter of the Duke of Abercorn. That wasn't all: She also said she was a writer under contract with publisher Alfred Harmsworth, an early-day Rupert Murdoch-type who pioneered tabloid-style journalism. It was a mutual deception, as he gave her a fake name of his own: Captain Harry-Gordon Ingram. Really, he was Thomas Jackson, a World War I veteran surviving on a pension.

The pair married later that year, and Thomas moved into Kate's palatial farmhouse in Surrey. Kate always seemed to have money—even after Harrison was put on trial in 1927 for embezzling £19,000 (over a million British pounds in today's dollars) from his union, £8000 of which reportedly went to Kate. She was called to give evidence at the trial, but was not identified; the police called her "Madame X," in hopes that she would return at least some of the money Harrison had stolen and given to her. (It's not clear what her husband thought about all this.)

Kate indeed signed over her beautiful house as restitution and moved with Thomas to a humble bungalow named Kenilworth. They adopted a daughter, Betty, whose origin was another of Kate's mysteries: She told Thomas that Betty was the illegitimate daughter of a lord, and he apparently asked no follow-up questions.

Though her setting was less rarefied, Kate was still behaving like a belle in a Gothic melodrama. She dressed in silk, her homes were luxuriously decorated, she tipped generously, and she spent more than her husband made in a week on her fresh flowers. The source of her income at this point is unclear: Harrison was serving a five-year prison stint, so he likely wasn't sending her cash any longer. But she was still receiving regular bundles of banknotes every Wednesday—money she may have earned through sex work, or possibly blackmail of other lovers/clients. Thomas later said that they mostly lived happily, except one time when she threw a flower pot at his head and threatened him with a knife for getting too friendly with Olive Dimick.

To Olive and her other neighbors, Kate explained the money by saying that she was a writer and the daughter of nobility. She let drop that she was secretly Ethel M. Dell, a well-known but critically reviled romance writer mocked by the likes of Orwell and Wodehouse. The real Dell was famously secretive; she was never interviewed and rarely photographed. So how were her neighbors supposed to fact-check their new friend? Besides, Dell's stories were quite racy, filled with passion and throbbing and exoticized visions of India, befitting Kate's made-up aristocratic origins.

"A PLEASANT SURPRISE"

Back at the hospital, Thomas Jackson left quickly, saying he had to return to his daughter. Kate spent six days there without ever fully regaining consciousness. When questioned about the identity of her attacker, she repeated the word Gorse, although it's not clear what—or who—she meant. She died on February 10, 1929, at the age of 43.

Police who arrived early in the morning after the attack found a tire iron under a cushion in the house, which Thomas later suggested Kate had hidden as a "pleasant surprise" (it's not clear if he was being ironic, or if he considered it a potential gift for his tool box). They also found a number of threatening letters. One read:

"Lest you forget. This is to tell you that we are watching you and we will get you. You husband-stealer. You robber of miner's money that would have fed starving children; you and that man of yours, I suppose he is somebody's husband, too. When we get you we will tar-and-feather you, and for every quid you have taken from us you will get another lump of tar and one more feather. We will show people you are as black outside as you are in. We don't mind doing quod [prison time] for you, you Picadilly Lily. We will get you yet."

It went on like that. Though he had been cooperative and there was no indication the letters were written by him, police arrested Thomas promptly. The next month he was charged with murder.

When the trial commenced in June 1929, the prosecution's theory was that Jackson, tired of his wife now that she was bringing in less money, had argued with and then attacked her as she was removing her coat. The prosecution pointed out that his story was weird—who hides a tire iron in a couch as a surprise?—and his behavior after her attack, including not summoning police immediately and not staying long at the hospital, was sketchy. They pointed to triangular cuts in her coat that looked like they could have been made with the tire iron. It was also alleged that all of the mystery in her life was entirely his creation, and that Kate never claimed to be anyone other than she was. The letters were ignored.

In his defense, Jackson produced expert witnesses who said it might not have been the tire iron that killed his wife. He spoke of her fear of attack after the threatening letters, saying that she was nervous to be left alone at night. Another neighbor, Rose Gammon, testified that Kate had been jumpy; Gammon recalled seeing Kate jump out of a bath, put on a robe, grab her gun, and walk out onto her dark veranda to investigate a noise (it's not clear if Gammon was spying on her neighbor, or how else she might have witnessed a bath).

The judge was firmly against Jackson, but during the trial, the fishmonger became a folk hero of sorts. He was charming and witty, playing up the grieving-single-father angle by emphasizing his concern for poor Betty. After just half an hour, the jury returned a verdict of "not guilty." The crowd went wild. As he left the courtroom after his verdict, a crush of women pressed upon Thomas, trying for a kiss.

The police never pursued any other leads, convinced that they had missed their shot at the true villain. And maybe they were right. Perhaps Kate's husband was her killer. Or perhaps it was a man who suffered from her blackmailing—"Gorse," or someone else. Perhaps it was a member of the union who felt she hadn't paid enough restitution. Kate Jackson had made a lot of enemies in her four decades, which helped make her death as mysterious and complicated and sad as her enigmatic life as Molly, and/or Kate, and/or Madame X; she was truly the stuff of the novels she never actually wrote.

Additional Sources: The Times of London: February 12, 1929; February 25-26, 1929; March 13-14, 1929; March 20-22, 1929, July 2-8, 1929; Still Unsolved: Great True Murder Cases; A-Z of Swansea: Places-People-History

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