Death of a Spammer, in a Place Called Hope

By Todd F. Bryant
Staff Writer

HOPE, CA — In this dusty Mojave town, pop. 5000, which averages roughly one murder per decade, Sheriff James Wilcox recently encountered the first serious crime he was unable to solve in his 25-year law enforcement career.

“Incidents like this don’t happen here,” said the 50-year-old Wilcox, who has one deputy, his daughter, and operates out of a converted construction trailer with a single makeshift cell, which is rarely occupied. “We’re not exactly Crime City, U.S.A.”

The crime was murder. The victim was a local resident, a white male, 42, shot six times in the chest and arms. The time was roughly 4 p.m. The location was the post office. There were no witnesses. The Hope post office is staffed only 4 hours a day, but the lobby doors are unlocked around the clock so that residents can access their post-office boxes. The victim, Keith James Lawrence, unmarried, was gunned down in the post-office-box area.

“Heidi [his daughter] and I knew this was going to be a tough one,” said Wilcox. “Nobody around to see it. Nobody even heard any shots. Not even a suspicious vehicle seen in the area. Just bad luck for us. It happens.”

It was during the autopsy that things took a turn for the weird. The medical examiner noticed an obstruction lodged deep in the victim’s throat. He reached in and pulled out the objectÐa can of Spam. “I knew then that we had something that was maybe out of our league,” said the examiner, Dr. Anu Ram, a surgeon at Mojave County Hospital. “I mean, we don’t know anything about serial killers here, and I told Jim [Wilcox], ‘This is really scary. It’s probably some guy traveling around killing random people, and this is his signature.'”

It is perhaps only in small rural towns like Hope that a can of Spam and murder wouldn’t immediately conjure up an obvious hypothesis. Wilcox, while not oblivious to the existence of the World Wide Web and email, did not have an Internet connection and hadn’t heard the word “spam” used in the context of junk mail. It was only when Wilcox talked to his daughter on the phone two days after the crime (she had gone out of town for a scheduled visit with her husband’s relatives), that the pieces began to fit together. “I told her the victim had a post-office box there, that it had letters in it, with money in the form of money orders and cash, generally five dollars each, and it appeared he was running some kind of a business selling information for a few bucks a pop. It looked legitimate to me, so I wasn’t focusing on that. And then I told her about the can of Spam.”

“I knew right then, or at least I thought I did, what the motive was,” says Heidi Jensen, 29, who has worked with her father since she was 17. “I said, ‘Daddy, this guy is a spammer.’ And he goes, ‘A what?’ And I’m like, ‘A spammer, he sends out those messages, you know, “make money fast” and “get a new mortgage” and stuff.’ He had no idea what I was talking about. He refused to believe that spam could be a motive for murder. I’m like, ‘Daddy, you’re not on AOL, you don’t understand.'”

But Wilcox was not one to ignore what he calls his daughter’s “intuition.” He acquired an expert in computers–by calling the local computer store, and securing the services of a clerk for $10 an hour–and examined Lawrence’s Dell computer hard drive and dozens of CD-ROMs. “It was true, this guy was a spammer,” said Wilcox, who is now well-versed in Internet lingo. “He had literally millions of e-mail addresses, and lots of bills from different ISPs, and we determined he’d been doing this for about two years. He grossed about $5,000 a year from it.”

At that point, Wilcox called the FBI, who sent an agent to help him scan Lawrence’s email and snail-mail records for any particularly hostile messages. Not surprisingly, they found quite a few. In fact, they found so many that they stopped cataloguing them when they reached 200.

“This case is impossible,” said Wilcox, shaking his head. “I mean, if you add up all the spam recipients who threatened his life directly, that’s probably ten thousand right there, probably more. And really, it’s the ones that don’t make overt threats who are usually the perpetrators in grudge cases like this, because the folks who write the poison-pen letters get it out of their system. So now you’ve got to add all of the other people on those CD-ROMs to the list. There’s roughly 20 or 30 million suspects in this case, all over the world.”

Wilcox tracked down a few more manageable leads. “I thought maybe one of Lawrence’s acquaintances might have killed him, knowing he was a spammer, and made it look like a grudge crime. But, no, that didn’t really pan out. I couldn’t find anything substantial there.”

Both the Mojave Sheriff’s department and the FBI classify the case as open. At this writing, ten weeks after the murder, no suspects have been interviewed.

“Will [the killer] do it again?” Wilcox asks. “I don’t know. But I don’t think he was mad at Stanley Lawrence the person. I think he was mad at spammers. And there are a lot of spammers out there.

“And I’ll tell you this much: I wouldn’t want to be one.”

For more information on just what this is all about, check in with Brian Flemming.

(via John)

iTunesBizarre Love Triangle (Hot Tracks)“ by New Order from the album Hot Tracks 15th Anniversary Collectors Edition (1997, 8:05).