Coping with Crime

by Bill Sasser
Whether in large metropolitan areas or small-town America, violent crime has become an increasing concern for most Americans--and a personal issue for some of them.
On May 27 last year, Fort Lauderdale attorney Karen Starr Marx '86 filled in for a colleague at a routine meeting where a deposition would be given for a wrongful dismissal suit.

Marx was fatally wounded when the plaintiff, sixty-nine-year-old Mario Zamora, pulled a nine-millimeter handgun in the conference room and started shooting. Another lawyer was seriously injured; Zamora's former boss was killed. Marx, who was four months pregnant, died several hours later during emergency surgery.

Marx's sudden, senseless death left a wake of shock and pain for family and friends, many of them members of the Duke community. While wrapped in the singular, obscure motives of one disturbed individual, Marx's death is also emblematic of a society where violence seems to be reaching into every community.

Nearly two years later, her brother, Gary Starr '83, still has difficulty talking about the loss of his sister. "Everybody was devastated and it's still that way," says Starr, an orthodontist who lives outside Charlotte. "My parents cry every day and are constantly reminded about it when they pick up the paper or turn on the news and see video of my sister being wheeled away on a stretcher. It's destroyed her husband's life. He lost his wife and their child in one day."

Kelly Luther '86 lost her closest friend on that Friday before the Labor Day weekend. She and Marx met as roommates on East Campus when they came to Duke as January freshmen in 1983. She can barely contain her emotions when she speaks about Marx. "She had a wonderful sense of humor and was incredibly nice," says Luther, now an attorney in private practice in Miami. "She would give anyone the benefit of the doubt."

Marx and Luther lived together on campus throughout their careers at Duke and joined the same sorority, Kappa Alpha Theta. "She thought Duke was the best time of her life," says Luther. "It was really special to her."

A psychology major who grew up in Plantation, Florida, Marx headed off to law school at the University of Florida after graduation. Luther followed suit a year later, attending the University of Miami. Marx was admitted to the Florida bar in 1989 and joined a Fort Lauderdale firm practicing commercial litigation. She also volunteered for the Guardian Ad Litem program in West Palm Beach, serving as a court-appointed guardian for children winding their way through the court system. She and her husband, Joe, a state attorney for Palm Beach, were putting down roots and looking forward to starting a family.

"We lived about an hour-and-a-half from each other and saw each other about once a month," says Luther. "We had a friendship that was going to last a lifetime."

Zamora, apprehended shortly after the shootings, is in a Florida jail awaiting trial for first-degree murder. Accounts of his past reveal an almost stereotypical portrait of an obsessive, unbalanced loner, angry at the world. The 1994 shootings were not his first violent episode. He pleaded self-defense and a jury found him not guilty of attempted murder in the 1983 shooting of his ex-wife, with whom he was engaged in a bitter child-custody battle. Zamora--whose repertoire of bizarre behavior includes claiming to be a genetic engineer who worked for the Nazis in World War II--changed his name following that acquittal. Prosecutors from the 1983 case watching press coverage on last year's shootings recognized him immediately.

"His motive the day he killed my sister wasn't aimed at her," says Starr. "Obviously, this was random--someone going off the deep end."

Whether in large metropolitan areas such as south Florida or small-town America, violent crime has become an increasing concern for most Americans, says Duke sociology professor Kenneth Land. Debate about crime legislation dominates the political scene, and stories on domestic, racial, and hate crimes dominate the news. "Some stories get national attention, but it seems that every community in the country has its own horror story," Land says.

In the past two years, incidents at Duke and in the Durham area include the kidnapping of an undergraduate--who was beaten and left for dead--and his girlfriend, who was twice raped; the kidnapping and robbery of a Duke female undergraduate who was taken from campus at gunpoint in her own car; a Duke engineering student who planted a defective fire bomb in the registrar's office in Allen Building; and a university postal worker who was robbed at gunpoint in the Bryan Center's post office last May. The Triangle's university community was shaken a year ago when a law student at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill went on a shooting spree in downtown Chapel Hill, killing a UNC undergraduate and a town resident.

Looking beyond the headlines, Land and other members of the Duke faculty have been considering the issue of violent crime in American culture, its causes, and what measures can be taken to stem its tide. Crime is a diffuse issue in which causes and trends are often difficult to define, says Land, whose scholarship focuses on American social trends, crime rates, and juvenile delinquency. While fear of crime has grown, statistical findings are often contrary to public perceptions, he says. Most Americans are actually safer in their own homes now than they were fifteen years ago, 8 percent less likely to be victims of property crime.

While violent crime started an upward swing in the mid-1980s and has reached new peaks in recent years, much of the increase has taken place in inner cities, usually attributed to domestic disputes and the drug trade. Land adds, however, that although no good studies have been produced to date on the phenomenon, all Americans appear to be at greater risk of becoming victims of indiscriminate crime on the street and in the work place.

"I can't dispute that it seems simply to be a more acceptable solution for people to grab a gun and use it to solve their problems and complaints," he says. "This is something you read and hear about with some frequency, but, to date, no good studies have been done. Part of it seems to be a breakdown in the criminal justice system, in identifying and controlling the behavior of individuals prone to violence. In a sense, we're all at greater risk."

Although she agrees that inherent shortcomings exist in the legal system, Duke law professor Sara Sun Beal doesn't believe the courts can provide a solution for the nation's problem with violent crime. "Once a serious crime occurs, the system to deal with it is already there, but that's not the answer to the underlying causes," says Beal, whose research interests include criminal law and criminal procedure, judicial evaluation, and rape.

Tough reforms at the state and federal level, such as "three strikes and you're out" statutes, won't prevent the bulk of violent crimes that occur, she says. She sees a blueprint for failure in federal and state efforts to impose harsher punishment and build more prisons while cutting back funding for such preventive social programs as substance-abuse and mental-health treatment. "The answer lies outside the criminal justice system, in social reform and education. What do you do when a child is abused or failing in school? How do you deal with drugs and alcohol abuse? It shouldn't be an either-or proposition between punishment and prevention and rehabilitation. It costs half a million dollars to imprison someone for life, and that's only the ones we catch. We don't catch most perpetrators."

While getting tough on crime has become a favorite mantra of politicians, for decades many social critics have called for gun control to combat the nation's crime problem. Approaching his subject from the politically realistic perspective that current ownership laws are unlikely to change, Duke economics and public policy professor Philip Cook proposes stricter enforcement of current laws, new controls on the private resale of guns, and an effort by law enforcement to track the sources and distributors of illegal handguns. In a recently completed research project sponsored by the Guggenheim Foundation, Cook examined the prevalence of gun ownership among inner-city juveniles, a segment of the population whose homicide rate has doubled in recent years. His recommendations also would make acquiring guns more difficult for criminals.

"Police can do for illegal guns what they've done with the drug market: develop sophisticated intelligence for finding out who's selling guns, who's buying guns, who's carrying them," says Cook, whose study draws a portrait of a culture in which guns are prolific and controls range from lax to non-existent.

Cook notes that, while federal law requires gun dealers be licensed and most states require a permit and background check to buy a gun, in many states there is a huge secondary market in private sales. Whether advertising through newspapers or plying their wares at gun shows, unlicensed private owners sell their weapons on the spot to total strangers with no paperwork and no records, a practice federally-licensed dealers also often engage in, he says. Although unlicensed sales are illegal in most states, local law enforcement usually turns a blind eye. Cook estimates that such sales account for approximately one-half of the annual gun sales in the United States. Guns are also prime targets for theft, and in many inner-city neighborhoods, he says, weapons are traded as a commodity.

During interviews conducted for his study at a state training school in Butner, North Carolina, one adolescent told Cook he had owned a dozen different guns and had traded some for a Super Nintendo, a VCR, and a waterbed. His story was not unusual. With millions of guns already in circulation, Cook says that perhaps the best that gun-control advocates can hope for is a means of allowing fewer guns to get into the hands of people most likely to use them. "It's a chronic condition," he says. "We've adopted a system that allows people to have easy access to guns. You don't declare a war on guns and expect to win it in a year."

Since launching themselves from campus, many Duke alumni have gone on to lives and careers where, either directly or indirectly, the specter of crime has been a daily issue to deal with. John Valentine '71, A.M. '73 chose not to move far from the ivied walls of Duke when he went into the bookstore business in the mid-1970s. "Durham has in many ways always been an idyllic place for us, and we've just never wanted to leave," says Valentine, who runs The Regulator Bookshop on Ninth Street with partners Tom Campbell '70 and Helen Whiting '69.

Like cities across the country, however, Durham saw a big jump in crime at the end of the Eighties with the arrival of the crack-cocaine epidemic sweeping the nation. While the dramatic increase in robberies, assaults, and property crimes was concentrated in the city's poorest neighborhoods, business areas, including Ninth Street, were also affected. Valentine says a community response seems to be turning the tide in Durham. Ninth Street business owners formed a merchant's association that meets twice a month with police, officers patrol the area on foot as part of a community policing effort, and the city has installed more street lights to increase public safety.

"Crime is less of a problem here than it was five years ago," says Valentine. "Everyone has gotten together and things seemed to have changed. In fact, on Ninth Street we don't seem to be having the kinds of crime that local malls are having."

However, his attitude has changed since opening shop seventeen years ago, when he was on a first-name basis with many of his customers. "We've had to take a step back and be more cautious," he says, recalling a Chapel Hill bookstore owner who was killed during an apparent robbery several years ago. Valentine and his staff have taken personal safety and defense classes and have discussed how to deal with potentially dangerous situations.

He adds, however, that Durham doesn't deserve its local reputation as a hotbed of crime. Break-ins still occur periodically on Ninth Street, often with several businesses being hit the same night. But, fortunately, that's been the only trouble on Ninth Street in recent memory. "The perception about Durham is much worse than the reality. Crime sells newspapers and Durham gets an incredibly bad rap in the local press."

After resigning his post after years on the criminal court and crime beats, journalist Mark Pinsky '70 wholeheartedly agrees with Valentine that the media exploit the crime issue, often without adding any substance to the public debate. In 1993, Pinsky wrote an essay for The Columbia Journalism Review detailing the toll that bearing witness to countless acts of violence had taken on his personal life, and why, after making a name for himself, he was ready to get out of crime journalism. During a career spanning two decades, he covered such notable murder cases as the trials of Ted Bundy and Jeffrey McDonald and gained a perspective on the effects of violence shared only, perhaps, by veteran criminal lawyers and officers on the beat.

Starting in the mid-1970s as an idealistic freelancer working for the social good, Pinsky says many of the trials he covered early in his career had civil-rights overtones and involved defendants he believed were innocent. "During this period, any transient twinges I felt about profiting from others' pain were offset by the sense that, in the process, I was rescuing a few people who had been dropped onto the fast track to the electric chair, and occasionally exposing injustice in pockets of the rural South largely bypassed by the civil rights movement," Pinsky wrote in his CJR essay.

Over the years, however, following the direction of editors and the market for freelance work, his focus shifted to cases whose main merits seemed to be offering readers a steady diet of death and depravity. The low point came in 1979, when he was simultaneously covering the trials of Bundy and McDonald. Pinsky won an exclusive jail cell interview with Bundy, the smooth, young psychopath who investigators believe raped and murdered up to forty women in four states in the Seventies.

"After yet another day of viewing color slides of Bundy's mutilated victims in the Miami courtroom, I simply broke down during dinner with a television reporter and began to weep," Pinsky wrote. "Despite the freelancer's truism that 'murder sells,' I felt I couldn't do it anymore and resolved to give it up."

Twelve years later, Pinsky was working as an arts reporter for The Los Angeles Times when staff cutbacks forced him to return to the criminal-court beat and, later, the police beat. During a four-and-a-half year stint, the cases he covered included a mentally ill woman who killed her two young children, a thirty-year-old man who stalked his ex-girlfriend and shot her down on the street, and a thrill-seeking couple who raped and murdered two young women.

"My job became depressing in an unrelenting way," he says. "There's a point where it all becomes tuna fish. You find yourself distancing yourself emotionally from the grief and the horror--you forget that they're people who are leaving family and friends behind. The best I could often do was try to draw some kind of social lesson from these incidents, but often they were so mindless there was no lesson to be drawn."

After editors failed to honor his request for a new assignment, Pinsky left Los Angeles last July for The Orlando Sentinel, where he now works as a religion reporter. One of his recent articles looked at Disney-animated movies, from Snow White to Pocohontas, analyzing whether a consistent values system is at work in Disney themes and story lines. "I'd rather spend my time writing about the meaning of life rather than death," Pinsky says. "You're never going to finish with the crime beat. It's a fact of life in America in the late twentieth century that if you put a large group of people together, a certain percentage will kill someone and a certain percentage will be victims."

Asked for insights on the nation's crime problem, Pinsky says he believes that its prominence in the public psyche is in part generational. "I think crime is getting more media attention in part because, as the Baby Boom population becomes middle-aged and middle-class, more people are seeing themselves as the potential victims of crime. There are more Boomers interested in protecting the kids, the cars, and the homes they have."

As an ever-present subject for books, movies, and television, crime offers vicarious excitement to people with safe, insulated lives, who feel it won't happen to them, he adds, compounding the media fixation on crime. "As to why the horrendous crimes are taking place, my sense is that the root cause is a rupture in civility in American society, where the norm now is insensitive treatment of one another," he says. "It's an attitude that you're on your own, you can't count on being paid back for loyalty on your job, you can't depend on government, and it's 'Devil take the hindmost.' It alienates people and hardens them."

Sociologist Land agrees with Pinsky's assessment. "I think if I had to place my bets on the mechanism at work, I'd look at the increasing amount of stress put on individual rights in this culture, and the decreasing amount put on responsibility to the community," says Land. "The decline in the nuclear family, the loss of structures that allow people to defuse frustrations, and a lack of means to identify people with problems are, I believe, root causes of violence, symptoms of a society that is becoming more and more individualistic."

Duke religion professor Thomas McCullough says he believes the solution lies in a return to community ideals in American culture. "Most people, including my students, have a difficult time thinking about the communal aspects of our society, the fact that we're all interconnected with people we'll never know personally," says McCullough, author of The Moral Imagination and Public Life, an ethical analysis of public-policy issues. "We used to have what people call a democratic society. Now it's a free-market society and capitalism is equated with a political system. More than any time in American history, the attitude is 'go for number one.' The response of people to the social issues that often produce crime has been inhibited by basic rules, by political and economic ideology. We should be asking ourselves what can lead us to act on behalf of the weak, the poor, and, above all, children. There are many kids now who don't think they'll live to adulthood, and just don't think that it matters what they do."

Recalling a Durham friend who now refuses to drive down a section of Duke University Road near campus where a passing motorist was killed by a stray bullet, McCullough sees a society in which people who, in another age, would have been the bulwarks of their community, instead are withdrawing. "Americans with money and education are afraid and are putting themselves behind locked gates. They're not citizens anymore, but 'entrepreneurs' or 'investors' or 'consumers.' But if you look at the ways we respond to the needs of others in times of need--whether it's the Los Angeles riots or the Oklahoma City bombing or some local emergency--you see that the communal impulse is still there, that most people have empathy for others and want to help."

For Gary Starr, Kelly Luther, and other family and friends, the past year-and-a-half has been spent trying to make sense of Karen Marx's death and put their own lives back together. Memories, both good and bad, are still fresh.

Luther, who had gone to Key West in 1994 for Memorial Day weekend, was given the news of Marx's killing by mutual friends she ran into who had read about the shootings in the newspaper. Since that awful moment in a Key West hotel, both her personal and professional outlook has changed profoundly. "Security-wise, every time I go into a deposition, I wonder if this person is armed," she says. "I make people go through a metal detector and only agree to meetings held at the court house."

An only child, Luther says she has been shattered by the loss of her best friend. "I've never lost someone like this. Some days are better than others. As far as finding any meaning in this, there were kooks out there before and there are kooks out there now. I don't think I've gotten anything out of this but a broken heart."

Starr keeps fond memories of the time he and his sister spent together at Duke. A senior when Karen came as a freshman, the brother and sister started a tradition of having Sunday dinner together. "We met at the Cambridge Inn at 10 p.m. and called it 'Sunday with the Starrs,'" he says. They remained in close contact while Starr attended dental school at UNC-Chapel Hill. "I brought my friends along and she would bring hers, and we would have a great time."

Starr has raised $30,000 for a memorial scholarship in the name of Karen Starr Marx, looking to raise $50,000 for a permanent endowment. Busily engaged in building his orthodontic practice when his sister died, he says he has since taken time to pause and reassess. "It's tough. It makes you refocus your purpose in life. It definitely makes you appreciate friends and family a whole lot more."

Sasser, a freelance writer living in Chapel Hill, is a frequent contributor to the magazine.

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