Tag Archives: terror

Audio captures police strategizing about Pulse shooter

Police negotiators talking to the Orlando nightclub gunman at first weren’t sure if the person they had on the phone was actually in the Pulse nightclub, according to audio recordings.

The recordings between police negotiators and shooter Omar Mateen don’t stray from transcripts of conversations released previously by the city of Orlando.

But they do capture police officials strategizing among themselves about how to talk to Mateen, who hung up several times during the three-hour standoff at the gay nightclub.

Circuit Judge Margaret Schreiber ruled this week that Mateen’s calls should be made public.

But she won’t rule on releasing other 911 calls from the mass shooting until she has listened to them.

More than two dozen news groups, including The Associated Press, have been fighting the city in court over the release of more than 600 calls dealing with the worst mass shooting in modern U.S. history.

The city has released about two-thirds of the calls but is still withholding the 232 calls that lawyers for the city say depict suffering or killing and are exempt from Florida’s public records laws.

The media groups have argued that the city’s application of the exemption is too broad and that the 911 calls will help the public evaluate the police response to the shooting at the gay nightclub.

In one of the calls released, a police official can be heard early on saying he’s not convinced the person on the call is in the club.

At another point, the lead police negotiator, named “Andy,” said, “He sounds like he is in a very sterile environment, like he’s at a home or an apartment.”

But another police official said Mateen could be in an office or bathroom.

The recordings also show how the negotiators were feeling out whether they had accurately identified the suspect.

“We called him Omar,” said Andy, who was then interrupted by another police official who says, “He didn’t deny it.”

Between calls, they mulled over what Mateen had told them, such as his refusal to answer if he had an accomplice.

They discussed Mateen’s claims that he was wearing a vest and that he had explosives in a car outside the nightclub. He wasn’t wearing a bomb vest and there were no explosives in a car, but police officials didn’t know that at the time.

“He said the bombs are in a car in the parking lot. He’s not confirming anything,” a police official can be heard saying in the background as Andy implores Mateen to respond.

Andy tells another police official that Mateen had claimed to be wearing a vest but he didn’t know what type.

“A dress vest. A bulletproof vest, or a bomb vest. That’s all I got. We questioned him on it and he shut down,” the police negotiator said.

The judge allowed family members of the 49 patrons who died to testify about whether they wanted the remaining 911 calls made public. Some opposed the release while others were OK with the transcript being made public.

“It would be extremely difficult for family and friends to listen to these calls,” said Jessica Silva, whose brother, Juan Rivera Velazquez, died with his partner in Pulse. “Just listening to one of the calls … We can recognize voices. Just listening to them screaming … How are we going to feel?”

The FBI has offered no indication of when the probe into the shooting that also left 53 people seriously wounded will be done.

An FBI spokeswoman didn’t immediately return an email seeking comment.

Aileen Carillo, whose brother, Simon Adrian Carillo Fernandez, died in the nightclub, said she would like to listen to the calls to help her understand what happened, but didn’t want them to be made public.

“I would like to know what happened. We haven’t really heard what happened. We are unaware of the facts,” Carillo said on the witness stand through a Spanish interpreter.

Autopsies suggest killer targeted victims at Pulse nightclub

More than a third of the 49 patrons killed during the Pulse nightclub massacre were shot in the head, and most of the victims had multiple bullet wounds, according to autopsy reports released this week.

Only two victims at the LGBT club had traces of soot, gunpowder or stippling, meaning most of the victims were likely more than 3 feet away when they were shot in the deadliest mass shooting in modern U.S. history.

The autopsies show that about half of the victims had five wounds or more, and one victim had 13 wounds.

Gunman Omar Mateen was killed during a shootout with law enforcement officers following a three-hour standoff June 12.

“It shows he shot a lot and had a lot of ammo,” said Dr. Stephen Cina, a Colorado-based forensic pathologist, who has no connection to the case.

The large number of head injuries and multiple wounds on victims suggests Mateen was targeting his victims rather than shooting randomly, said Josh Wright, a former Florida Department of Law Enforcement firearms analyst who now has a forensics consulting firm in Tallahassee.

“I wouldn’t expect to have those many hits on those many people if you weren’t actually trying to take aim and make sure you hit your target rather than running around, spraying bullets,” said Wright, who also has no connection to the case.

The Florida Department of Law Enforcement is investigating whether anyone died from friendly fire during the shootout at the gay nightclub.

Officers knocked down a wall and stormed the club, killing Mateen in hail of gunfire. Mateen, who had pledged allegiance to the Islamic State, was shot eight times by police.

Cina said without evidence of stippling — particles of gunpowder in the skin — it’s difficult to know if the victims were shot in the head point-blank.

Michael Knox, a Jacksonville-based firearms expert, said the large number of victims with multiple wounds could also suggest Mateen was firing rapidly at groups of people in the crowded nightclub.

The unusual paths of some gunshots support eyewitnesses who said people were crouching under tables and hiding in toilet stalls.

“Some tried to run or hide under tables so you’re going to have these weird bullet paths,” he said.

Senate Republicans defeat gun violence prevention measures

The U.S. Senate has voted down gun violence prevention amendments just a week after 49 people were massacred and 53 others were injured in an attack on a gay club in Orlando, Florida.

The votes went largely along party lines, with Republicans siding with the National Rifle Association.

The amendments to the FY 17 Commerce, Justice, Science and Related Agencies Appropriations Act, H.R. 2578) were introduced by U.S. Sens. Dianne Feinstein of California and Chris Murphy of Connecticut.

Feinstein’s proposal would have ensured the U.S. Justice Department, which backed the measure, had the authority to deny gun sales to individuals it had a reasonable suspicion were involved in terrorism.

Murphy’s proposal would have tightened the unlicensed seller loophole by requiring criminal background checks on all sales while maintaining reasonable exceptions for family, hunting, and emergency self-defense.

“We are deeply disappointed in each and every senator who failed to stand up today for commonsense gun violence prevention legislation,” said David Stacy of the Human Rights Campaign, the nation’s largest LGBT civil rights group.

He continued, “For decades, LGBTQ people have been a target for bias-motivated violence, and easy access to deadly weapons has compounded this threat. The volatile combination of animosity towards the LGBTQ community and easy access to deadly weapons exacerbates the climate of fear and the dangers faced by LGBTQ people. Reasonable gun violence prevention measures are part of the solution to bias-motivated violence, and it’s critical that Congress pass commonsense legislation.”

HRC had urged senators to vote for the Democrats’ measures in a letter sent following the mass shooting in Orlando committed by a violent man who had easy access to guns.

HRC, in its statement, said the degree of bloodshed at the Pulse nightclub and many other recent mass shootings “may have been avoided if the perpetrators had faced reasonable restrictions on their ability to own a gun. In most states across the country, troubled individuals intent on carrying out violence can purchase assault-type weapons without a background check from an unlicensed seller, no questions asked, including in Florida.”

Erica Lafferty Smegielski of the Everytown Survivor Network called the senators who voted against the measures spineless.

“Following the worst mass shooting in modern American history, spineless members of the Senate blocked critical measures that would have kept guns out of the hands of dangerous, hateful people and saved innocent lives from gun violence,” said Smegielski.

“Three years ago, some of those same politicians blocked a gun safety bill after my mother was shot and killed in the Sandy Hook School shooting. Tonight’s shameful vote brings that day back all too clearly — the anger, the disappointment, the sense of injustice,” Smegielski continued. She is the daughter of Dawn Lafferty Hochsprung, who was shot and killed Dec. 14, 2012, at Sandy Hook Elementary School.

Recent polls show a supermajority of Americans support common sense solutions to gun violence, including expanded background checks.

Some Republicans in the Senate, including Ron Johnson of Wisconsin, supported an NRA-approved proposal to deny a gun sale to a known or suspected terrorist if prosecutors could convince a judge within three days that the buyer was involved in terrorist activity.

Gun control advocates mocked the proposal, which also was supported by Pat Toomey of Pennsylvania and Rob Portman of Ohio. Toomey, Johnson and Portman are considered vulnerable this election cycle, facing strong Democratic challengers.

Mark Kirk, a Republican from Illinois, also faces a strong Democratic challenge from U.S. Rep. Tammy Duckworth but he supported the Democrats’ proposals to expand background checks, close the gun show loophole and allow the government to deny gun sales to suspected terrorists.

“If you’re too dangerous to fly on a plane, you’re too dangerous to buy a firearm,” Kirk said, according to an AP report.

Before the Senate votes on June 20, the U.S. Supreme Court upheld Connecticut’s assault weapons ban.

Editor’s note: this story will be updated.

Terror in the ‘Happiest Place on Earth’

An act of terror.

An act of hate.

The world responded with love and compassion, fury and fight.

Early on the morning of June 12, a gunman armed with an assault rifle and a handgun went on a rampage at the gay nightclub Pulse in Orlando, Florida. He killed 49 people and wounded more than 50 others — some gravely.

The 29-year-old killer was an American who pledged allegiance to the Islamic State, abused his wife, used slurs against blacks, Jewish people, women and gays — although he himself was a regular patron of Pulse. He went on to terrorize LGBT people in that place that existed to celebrate Pride and provide sanctuary.

Orlando — famously known as the “Happiest Place on Earth” — became the site of the deadliest mass shooting in modern U.S. history, a massacre that left Americans mourning the many lost and struggling to address extremism, prejudice and gun access.

“I can’t stop crying. I can’t make any sense of it all,” said Henry Rivera of Orlando, a transgender man who works at a restaurant just outside Disney World. “Everything seems different now.”

Music, dancing, and terror

On June 11, more than 300 people crowded into the high-energy club on South Orange Avenue for Latin night, an evening that promised entertainment by two drag performers, as well as dancing and music — salsa, meringue, bachata.

Shortly after 2 a.m. on June 12, Omar Mateen, armed with a semi-automatic rifle and a Glock handgun, attacked the club, according to reports from the Orlando Police Department and FBI. As WiG to press, authorities were still compiling a detailed and complete timeline of what happened at Pulse.

Survivors described chaos as Mateen launched a barrage of bullets, striking people at the bar, on the dance floor, in the restrooms and elsewhere.

An off-duty Orlando police officer working as a security guard at the club responded to the gunfire. More officers arrived and Mateen retreated deeper into the club, then into a bathroom.

At 2:09 a.m. an alert was posted on Pulse’s Facebook page: “Everyone get out of pulse and keep running.”

Dozens of people ran from the club, and more than 100 police officers responded to what became a standoff.

Police believe Mateen killed most of his victims in the first 30 minutes. Those remaining in the bar were either hostages or in hiding.

At 2:39 a.m., Eddie Justice texted his mother from the bathroom in the club:

“Call them mommy”

“Now”

“I’m still in the bathroom”

“Hes coming”

“Im going to die.”

Justice did die. His last text from the club was at 2:50 a.m.

At about 5 a.m., police used a controlled explosion and an armored vehicle with a battering ram to clear a way for people inside the club to escape.

Mateen died in an exchange of gunfire with police shortly after that.

Violent, conflicted and radicalized

The killer talked with police three times during the standoff, FBI Director James B. Comey said in a televised news briefing from headquarters in Virginia on June 13. Comey said calls from the killer to law enforcement began about 2:30 a.m. During those calls, Mateen, who was born in New York, claimed allegiance to the leader of Islamic State, as well as to the perpetrators of the 2013 Boston Marathon attack and to a Florida man who died as a suicide bomber in Syria.

“These are strong indications of radicalization by this killer and of potential inspiration by foreign terrorism organizations,” Comey said.

He added that the bureau, along with state and local law enforcement, were trying to understand “every moment of the killer’s path” leading up to the shooting.

The FBI was already familiar with Mateen. In May 2013, the bureau began investigating him after co-workers said the contract security guard made inflammatory comments and claimed a family connection to al-Qaida. He was interviewed twice but the case was closed.

Two months later, Mateen’s name came up as a casual acquaintance of a Florida man who blew himself up in Syria.

“Our investigation turned up no ties of any consequence between the two of them,” Comey said. “We will continue to look forward in this investigation and backward. We will leave no stone unturned.”

According to AP, the investigation found that Mateen, the son of an Afghan immigrant, was a body builder who attended a mosque in Fort Pierce, Florida, and wanted to become a police officer.

AP also reported there were questions emerging about whether Mateen was conflicted about his sexuality. He allegedly cased Gay Days at Disney World about a week before the shooting and was seen regularly at Pulse. He apparently used gay dating apps as well.

Mateen’s first wife, from whom he was divorced, has said he was abusive and suffered from mental illness. The killer’s father said Mateen expressed a hatred of gays, recently expressing anger at seeing two men kiss.

Mateen’s father also made homophobic remarks to the press, saying that it was wrong for his son to shoot gay people because their punishment should come from God.

“While the motive behind this crime remains unclear, our resolve to live openly and proudly remains undiminished. Now is a time for the whole nation to stand together against violence,” Rea Carey, the executive director of the National LGBTQ Task Force, said June 12.

Chad Griffin, the president and CEO of the Human Rights Campaign, said, “This tragedy has occurred as our community celebrates Pride, and now more than ever we must come together as a nation to affirm that love conquers hate.”

Memorials and mobilizing

Vigils took place as early as June 12 and continued for days after the shooting.

Many of the observances included a moment of silence and a reading of the victims’ names (see “The slain, next page). Many vigils ended with candleholders singing “Over the Rainbow.”

Hundreds sang, “If happy little bluebirds fly/Beyond the rainbow why, oh, why can’t I?” at the end of a vigil June 13 in Sarasota, Florida, the hometown of Edward Sotomayor Jr., who recently helped to organize the first LGBT cruise from Florida to Cuba. Sotomayor was shot while trying to get his boyfriend to safety.

Many at the Sarasota vigil called the mass shooting a hate crime and, though there were demands for stricter gun control, the focus was on anti-LGBT violence.

“This attack was with guns, but our people have been killed with knives and bombs and fists, too,” said Patricia Callahan of Lakeland, Florida. “We can’t forget.”

Vigils took place across the country, at city halls and courthouses, plazas and parks, community centers and gay bars.

“This unimaginable atrocity has not only robbed countless people of their loved ones, it has also stolen a sense of safety within the LGBTQ community,” said GLAAD president and CEO Sarah Kate Ellis.

In New York City, many gathered outside the Stonewall Inn, considered the birthplace of the modern LGBT civil rights movement. There, they chanted, “No hate, no hate! More love, more love.”

In Wisconsin, multiple vigils took place, including in Milwaukee, Madison, Racine and Appleton.

There also were many memorials outside the United States. In Paris, U.S. and gay Pride flags flew at city hall and the Eiffel Tower was lit up like a rainbow.

Heads of state sent letters of condolence and issued condemnations. Israeli President Reuven Rivlin said his country stands “shoulder to shoulder with our American brothers and sisters,” and Palestinian Prime Minister Rami Hamdallah called the shooting a “senseless act of terror and hate.”

Afghanistan Chief Executive Abdullah Abdullah urged “collective actions to end such attacks.”

At the United Nations, High Commissioner for Human Rights Zeid Ra’ad al-Hussein decried insufficient gun control in the United States and criticized the irresponsible pro-gun propagandizing in the country.

‘America’s rifle’

Criticism also was leveled in the United States.

The massacre is “a further reminder of how easy it is for someone to get their hands on a weapon that lets them shoot people in a school, or in a house of worship or in a movie theater or in a nightclub,” President Barack Obama said June 12, in remarks from the White House. “And we have to decide if that’s the kind of country we want to be.”

Mateen was armed with the handgun and a Sig Sauer MCX semi-automatic rifle — marketed in the U.S. as a “modern sporting rifle.” He purchased it at the St. Lucie Shooting Center in Florida. Semi-automatic rifles also were used in mass shootings in Newtown, Connecticut; Aurora, Colorado; San Bernardino, California; and elsewhere. The NRA calls that weapon class “America’ rifle.”

After the shootings at Sandy Hook Elementary in Newtown, the president dedicated the start of his second term to pushing legislation that would have banned certain assault-style weapons and capped the size of ammunition clips. The effort, however, failed in the U.S. Senate due to heavy opposition from Republicans who are backed by the National Rifle Association.

In the years since, some reforms have taken place at the state level. But GOP-headed states, including Wisconsin, have enacted measures to weaken gun control laws.

On June 13, Senate Democrats renewed calls for reform and Hillary Clinton, the Democrats’ presumptive nominee for president, repeated her call to keep weapons of war off the streets and “out of the hands of terrorists or other violent criminals.”

Clinton and the president postponed a campaign visit to Green Bay scheduled for June 15, as the president made plans to visit Orlando on June 16 to “stand in solidarity with the community.”

 

The slain

As WiG went to press, these were the known dead in the Pulse terror attack:

Stanley Almodovar III, 23; Amanda Alvear, 25; Oscar A. Aracena-Montero, 26; Rodolfo Ayala-Ayala, 33; Antonio Davon Brown, 29; Darryl Roman Burt II, 29; Angel L. Candelario-Padro, 28; Juan Chevez-Martinez, 25; Luis Daniel Conde, 39; Cory James Connell, 21; Tevin Eugene Crosby, 25; Deonka Deidra Drayton, 32; Simon Adrian Carrillo Fernandez, 31; Leroy Valentin Fernandez, 25; Mercedez Marisol Flores, 26; Peter O. Gonzalez-Cruz, 22; Juan Ramon Guerrero, 22; Paul Terrell Henry, 41; Frank Hernandez, 27; Javier Jorge-Reyes, 40; Jason Benjamin Josaphat, 19; Eddie Jamoldroy Justice, 30; Anthony Luis Laureanodisla, 25; Christopher Andrew Leinonen, 32; Alejandro Barrios Martinez, 21; Brenda Lee Marquez McCool, 49; Gilberto Ramon Silva Menendez, 25; Kimberly Morris, 37; Akyra Monet Murray, 18; Luis Omar Ocasio-Capo, 20; Geraldo A. Ortiz-Jimenez, 25; Eric Ivan Ortiz-Rivera, 36; Joel Rayon Paniagua, 32; Jean Carlos Mendez Perez, 35; Enrique L. Rios, Jr., 25; Jean C. Nives Rodriguez, 27; Xavier Emmanuel Serrano Rosado, 35; Christopher Joseph Sanfeliz, 24; Yilmary Rodriguez Solivan, 24; Edward Sotomayor Jr., 34; Shane Evan Tomlinson, 33; Martin Benitez Torres, 33; Jonathan Antonio Camuy Vega, 24; Juan P. Rivera Velazquez, 37; Luis S. Vielma, 22; Franky Jimmy Dejesus Velazquez, 50; Luis Daniel Wilson-Leon, 37; Jerald Arthur Wright, 31.

 

Donations and support

Equality Florida, the statewide LGBT civil rights group, established a GoFundMe page to raise money to support those injured and the families of those killed at Pulse. Donations are accepted at www.gofundme.com/pulsevictimsfund.

The Associated Press contributed to these reports.

For updates and continued coverage, go to www.wisconsingazette.com.

 

What makes us scream? Read on…

Margee Kerr says she has the best job in the world: She studies fear for a living, and loves to scare herself as part of her research.

Kerr is a sociologist with a Ph.D. from the University of Pittsburgh, and just in time for Halloween, she’s written a book called “Scream: Chilling Adventures in the Science of Fear.”

The book documents Kerr’s adventures around the world experiencing extreme attractions, ranging from the tallest roller coasters in Japan to the CN Tower’s EdgeWalk in Toronto, where participants are tethered to the skyscraper for an outdoor walk 116 stories off the ground.

Kerr also works at a haunted attraction in Pittsburgh called ScareHouse, analyzing customer responses to help keep the fright levels just right. “We’re trying to scare people in a way that’s going to make them feel good,” she said.

Kerr is interested in the notion that society usually regards “fear as a negative force. But there’s another side to fear that’s fun and fulfilling,” and that’s the sweet spot sought by recreational activities — whether skydiving, ziplining, roller coasters or haunted houses.

“When we know we’re not really in any physical danger, we can enjoy the endorphins and the dopamine. That response is similar to being really excited and happy,” she said.

Her quest for the “Scream” book took her on “many, many adventures across the world, doing as many scary and thrilling things as I could. I look at it from the cultural perspective, the physiological perspective and the psychological perspective: Why do we engage with this type of material? Part of it is the natural high we get from activating the flight-or-fight response in a safe environment.”

Kerr says the trick is to figure out what types of situations “trigger our flight or fight response. What are people afraid of, what’s going to tap into the fear?”

For example, “we know from science that seeing the whites of people’s eyes will activate the amygdala _ the emotional processing center of our brain.” That intense response to another being’s eyes explains why scary attractions often have “dolls with big eyes or animatronics with wide-open eyes.” Startling sounds, fast-moving props and other sudden visual effects also trigger instinctive responses, upping the fear factor without putting people in real danger.

She added that part of the draw for an extreme adventure or attraction is that “you are testing your own resilience. When you come out the other side of a scary movie or haunted house, you have accomplished something. You’ve tested your will. Even though we know nothing will hurt us, the self-esteem boost is real.”

As for her own responses, she found the CN Tower Edgewalk to be “way more terrifying than I thought it would be.” Skydiving, on the other hand, was pure pleasure for Kerr.

Kerr says her research can have implications beyond theme parks and haunted houses by helping people understand how to tolerate stress. “We’re trying to find the best ways to teach people how to experience their emotions in ways that are healthy and not debilitating,” she said. “When people lean into the experience and test themselves in an environment that is safe, they come to learn they can handle stress and they are stronger than they thought they were.”

Terror abounds at the Wisconsin Fear Grounds

What’s the scariest haunted house in the country?

Ask a lot of people, and you’ll get a horror movie-ready response: right behind you.

The house in question is the Wisconsin Fear Grounds in Waukesha, which consistently ranks as one of the top haunted houses in the United States. Haunted Attraction magazine gave it the No. 1 spot for Wisconsin and the nation at large, while USA Today readers have placed it as high as second place in a still-ongoing contest.

For such a spooky place, the Fear Grounds started small. Husband and wife duo Tim and Ann Marie Gavinski started it all with an annual small spook house in their garage, for their neighbors, before making the big, scary investment.

“Tim was nearing retirement,” Ann Marie says. “And one day I asked him, ‘What’s next?’ Tim replied, ‘I want to start a haunted house.’”

In 2004, beginning with a $55,000 investment to build and a matching amount in advertising, they opened their first haunt — The House of Darkness — at the Walworth County Fairgrounds. The people’s need for entertainment that could provide fear-induced shots of adrenaline grew and the Gavinskis subsequently expanded to the Waukesha Expo Center.

When you visit the Fear Grounds, Ann Marie says, “You know you’re going to get a great scare. We put on a huge theatrical production. We have 100 monsters every single night.

“I would never ask our actors to do anything I wouldn’t do and we’ve done it all. I have to give credit to the great people who work here — we wouldn’t succeed without their dedication and willingness to come back year after year.”
The whole thing starts in August, when methodically packed trailers are unloaded and a crew of 12 carpenters assembles the four houses. The entire Fear Grounds encompass 55,000 square feet.

As there are multiple houses in one location, the Fear Grounds are more like a haunted sub-division. Compared to the 3,500 other haunted houses in the United States, it’s unique in that regard.

The Gavinskis recommend at least 90 minutes for the full set, if you can make it through them all.

No self-respecting modern haunt would be complete without zombies. So, if you have a thing for The Walking Dead, try out Revenge Paintball. It’s the chance to hone your zombie kill skills before the Apocalypse and a way to entertain kids under 10, who aren’t allowed into the haunted houses. 

If all the terror scares up your appetite, don’t worry. The Fear Grounds offer carnival-style food — including hamburgers, hot dogs, cider, popcorn and caramel corn.

The Fear Grounds are open Friday and Saturday through October, as well as Sunday, Oct. 25, and Thursday, Oct. 29. If you somehow miss that wide window, you can swing by Nov. 13. That’s when the Gavinskis will reopen the houses for the annual TransWorld & Netherworld Haunted House three-day Legendary Haunt Tour, and they’re inviting the public to join 7:30-9 p.m.

Ticket prices depend on which houses you want to enter and how fast you want to get to them all. Morgan Manor is $13, while Morgana’s Escape is $30. The Three-Hunt Combo Pass is $30 ($20 if you reserve tickets online and arrive between 7 p.m. and 8 p.m.), but that requires you to wait in line, usually an hour or more. To skip the lines, you can get a Morgana Manor Speed Pass ($25) or Three-Hunt Combo Speed Pass ($45). To reserve tickets or for more details, visit wisconsinfeargrounds.com.

Fear Grounds Houses

Morgan Manor: All things ghoulish and terrifying orbit around Morgana and her eight sisters, who have a twisted thing for terrorizing people in their old Victorian manor. There are the obligatory jump-out-at-you moments of frightening fun — it’s a classic old-school haunt. One of the most startling moments occurs in the Green House.

Unstable: Grip your friend’s hand tightly and hurry through the dead cornstalks to the stables where the horses and barnyard animals are kept. Gentle reader, a spoiler alert: Make sure you’re into blood and gore before you embark.

CarnEvil of Torment: This “three ring circus of evil” is based on the premise of a traveling freak show of yesteryear. If you are at all claustrophobic or afraid of the dark, be forewarned: This house immerses you in total darkness and challenges you to work your way out of the obstacle course yourself (if you can’t handle it, just say, “I quit” and you will be escorted out, although you will have to pass through a personalized “Hall of Shame”).

Morgana’s Escape: The final house — new this year — is an interactive escape game. Fright seekers are locked in a room and given clues and puzzles. They must solve the riddles, locate three keys and unlock the doors or “abandon all hope, ye who enter here.”

Exorcism of 1949 continues to fascinate St. Louis

Saint Louis University junior Zach Grummer-Strawn has never seen “The Exorcist,” the 1973 horror film considered one of the finest examples of unadulterated cinematic terror. He’s only vaguely familiar with the monthlong 1949 demon-purging ritual at his school on which the film and William Peter Blatty’s 1971 novel were based.

But just in time for Halloween, Jesuit scholars have joined a whole new generation of horror buffs in St. Louis to recount the supernatural incident. The university hosted a panel discussion this week on the exorcism, which involved the treatment of an unidentified suburban Washington, D.C., boy. About 500 people crammed into Pius XII Library, with some spilling into the library aisles, leaning against pillars or sitting on desks.

“I’d like to believe it’s the real thing,” said Grummer-Strawn, a theology and sociology student from Atlanta. “But you just can’t know. That’s part of why we’re here. It’s the pursuit of truth. And it’s such a great story.”

The university scholars and guest speaker Thomas Allen, author of a 1993 account of the events at the school’s former Alexian Brothers Hospital, emphasized that definitive proof that the boy known only as “Robbie” was possessed by malevolent spirits is unattainable. Maybe he instead suffered from mental illness or sexual abuse – or fabricated the entire experience.

Like most of religion’s basic tenets, it ultimately comes down to faith.

“If the devil can convince us he does not exist, then half the battle is won,” said the Rev. Paul Stark, vice president for mission and ministry at the 195-year-old Catholic school. He opened the discussion with a prayer from the church’s exorcism handbook, imploring God to “fill your servants with courage to fight that reprobate dragon.”

Some of the non-students in the audience spoke of personal connections to an episode that has enthralled generations of St. Louis residents.

One man described living near the suburban St. Louis home where the 13-year-old boy arrived in the winter of 1949 (his Lutheran mother was a St. Louis native who married a Catholic). Another said she was a distant cousin of Father William Bowdern, who led the exorcism ritual after consulting with the archbishop of St. Louis but remained publicly silent about his experiences – though he did tell Allen it was “the real thing.”

Bowdern died in 1983.

Bowdern was assisted by the Rev. Walter Halloran, who unlike his colleague spoke openly with Allen and expressed his skepticism about potential paranormal events before his death a decade ago.

“He talked more about the boy, and how much he suffered, and less about the rite,” Allen said. “Here was a scared, confused boy caught up in something he didn’t understand.

“He told me, ‘I simply don’t know,’ and that is where I leave it,” the author added. “I just don’t know.”

Allen zealously protects the anonymity of “Robbie,” despite others’ efforts to track him down to this day.

Gary Mackey, a 59-year-old accountant who left work early to attend the campus event, said he also is unsure whether “The Exorcist” was a work of fiction or instead a riveting real-life account of barely comprehensible forces.

He does know this: He cannot forget the movie that he saw with a buddy four decades ago. They drove 100 miles (160 kilometers) from their home in Louisville, Kentucky, to the nearest theater showing it across the state line in Cincinnati.

“I saw the movie when I was 19 years old and it scared me to death,” Mackey said. “I think it’s the scariest movie ever made.”

Rights groups demand action against violence against Iraqi gay youth

The government of Iraq must investigate and bring to justice those responsible for a targeted campaign of intimidation and violence against Iraqi LGBT youth, says a coalition of rights groups.

Human Rights Watch, Amnesty International and the International Gay and Lesbian Human Rights Commission said the attacks have created an atmosphere of terror.

“The Iraqi Ministry of Interior’s inaction and denial of the ongoing campaign to punish people seen as non-conformists threatens everyone who is different, including those who defy traditional notions of gender and sexuality,” said Jessica Stern, director of programs at IGLHRC. “The government needs to ensure the safety of all Iraqis, not amplify the threats against those already being targeted.”

On March 8, the Iraq Interior Ministry, in an official statement, dismissed reports by local activists and media of a campaign against those seen as “emo.” The ministry said the reports were “fabricated” and “groundless,” and that it would take action against people who were trying “to highlight this issue and build it out of proportion.”

But an official ministry statement, on Feb. 13, that characterized emo culture as “Satanist” cast doubt on the government’s willingness to protect vulnerable youth, the international rights groups said.

“The government has contributed to an atmosphere of fear and panic fostered by acts of violence against emos,” said Joe Stork, deputy Middle East director at Human Rights Watch. “Instead of claiming that the accounts are fabricated, Iraqi authorities need to set up a transparent and independent inquiry to address the crisis.”

The campaign’s victims appear to represent a cross-section of people seen locally as non-conformists. They include people perceived as LGBT, but also people with distinctive hairstyles, clothes, or musical taste.

In English, “emo” is short for “emotional,” referring to self-identified teens and young adults who listen to alternative rock music, often dress in black, close-fitting clothes and cut their hair in unconventional ways. People perceived to be gay, lesbian, transgender or effeminate are particularly vulnerable.

Iraqi human rights activists told the three organizations that in early February, signs and fliers appeared in the Baghdad neighborhoods of Sadr City, al-Hababiya and Hay al-‘Amal that threatened people by name with “the wrath of god” unless they cropped their hair short, gave up wearing so-called “satanic clothing” – styles critics associate with emos, metal music  and rap – hide their tattoos and “maintained complete manhood.” Other names appeared on similar posters in different neighborhoods.

One sign, seen by the international rights groups, was posted on a wall in Sadr City, and read, “In the name of God the compassionate, the merciful, we warn every male and female in the strongest terms to stop their dirty deeds in four days before the wrath of God strikes them through the hands of mujahedin.” This poster listed 33 names and was decorated with images of two handguns.

Since February, the three international rights groups have received information from local human rights groups, community activists and media about numerous deaths of youth. Some local media reports have put the death toll as high as several dozen. The international rights groups have not been able to confirm that people have been killed as part of an organized campaign.

A 26-year old man from Mosul told the rights groups that unknown assailants killed two members of his heavy metal band on March 8 because of their appearance. He said, “We don’t know who is behind this now, but for a long time, people have been accusing us of being Satanists. So this is not new, but now it has become murderous.”

While it is unclear who is behind the attacks and intimidation, Iraqi media reports have fueled the campaign by characterizing what they call the “emerging emo phenomenon.” Some clerics and politicians have also contributed to the demonization of emo youth. On March 10, the Shia cleric Muqtada al-Sadr called emos “crazy fools” and a “lesion on the Muslim community” in an online statement, but also maintained that they should be dealt with “within the law.”

Documents received by the international rights groups indicate that the Education Ministry in August 2011 circulated a memo that recommended schools curb the spread of emo culture, which it called “an infiltrated phenomenon in our society.”

The Interior Ministry’s Feb. 13 statement on its website characterized emos as “Satanists” who constitute a danger to Iraqi society. The statement also indicated that the ministry was seeking approval from the Iraqi Education Ministry for “an integrated plan that would let them [police] enter all the schools in the capital.”

On Feb. 29, the Interior Ministry released another statement in which it announced a campaign against emo culture in Baghdad, particularly in the Khadimiya neighborhood, where they identified one shop that sold “emo clothing and accessories.”

After widespread media coverage of the violence and intimidation against emos, the Interior Ministry toned down its language in the March 8 statement, warning “radical and extremist groups attempting to stand as protectors for morals and religious traditions from any conduct against people based on a fashion, dress or haircut.”

The ministry denied that any emos had been killed and threatened “necessary legal actions against those who try to highlight this issue and build it out of proportion.”

On March 14, security forces in Baghdad detained for three hours the film crew of Russia Today’s Arabic TV channel, Rusiya al-Yaum, as they tried to film a segment related to the attacks on emos. Security forces confiscated their footage even though the channel had a permit to film in downtown Baghdad.

A report by Al-Sharqiya TV on March 7 said that men in civilian clothes brutally beat two young women in public in al-Mansour district because of their “fashionable clothing.”

People perceived to be LGBT told the rights groups that they feel particularly vulnerable.

In 2009, Human Rights Watch, IGLHRC and Amnesty International documented a pattern of torture and murder by Iraqi militias against men suspected of same-sex conduct or of not being “manly” enough.

A 22-year-old gay man in Baghdad told the international rights groups that anonymous callers made death threats on his phone on March 11. The callers described a friend of his whom they had kidnapped and brutally beaten days earlier, saying that was how they got his number. They told him that he would be next. He has since cut his hair and does not leave his house for fear of being targeted.

“When the news started spreading about emos, the threats and violence against gays increased,” he said. “They are grouping us all together, anyone who is different in any way, and we are very easy targets.”

Unlike the 2009 killings, the recent campaign has generated strong condemnation within Iraq. A statement by Ayatollah Ali Sistani, a leading Shia spiritual leader, who referred to the targeted killings of emo youth in Iraq as a threat to the nation’s peace and order, was a positive development, the groups said. According to Ayatollah Sistani’s representative in Baghdad, Shaikh Abd al-Rahim al-Rikabi, “those targeted killings are terrorist acts.”

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More blood on the right’s hands

“It was international jihadism that we feared,” said a Norwegian leader about the terrorist bombing and massacre of young liberals in his country. “But what we have now is more painful in terms of a re-evaluation of ourselves.”

What’s true for Norway is equally true for the United States. Our country is more politically fractured than ever. Polarization has been exacerbated by economic collapse and unemployment. And our anything-goes media often fan the flames of unreason and resentment through sensational and inaccurate reporting.

I hope the Department of Homeland Security is investigating domestic extremists – and I don’t mean Quakers signing petitions against our foolish wars. Conservatives, always on offense, attacked DHS a few years back for documenting how the economic and political climate was fueling a resurgence in radicalization and recruitment among right-wing groups, including private militias. The DHS, thoroughly cowed, withdrew the report and unwisely cut the number of analysts tracking domestic terrorism from six to two.

The report had cited an increase in anti-government rhetoric, conspiracy theories, resentment about immigration – a laundry list of things that motivated Norway’s Anders Breivik and our own Timothy McVeigh, who killed 168 people in Oklahoma City in 1995.

I worked as director of the Wisconsin Center for Pluralism for six years. The center studied and tracked right-wing activity across the state. I attended right-wing conferences, monitored extremist websites and interviewed many true believers. I always was, and still am, shocked by the casual violence of right-wing rhetoric and it came to mind again thinking about the horrific events in Norway.

At the Wisconsin Conser-vative Leadership Conference in 2006, Madison radio squawker Vicki McKenna urged the audience to challenge the “left-ended world view” of the mainstream media “until we kill them, until they are deader than dead.”

At the same meeting, Chris Kliesmet of Citizens for Responsible Government repeatedly referred to politics as a “blood sport” and reveled in the current “target-rich environment.”

Stanley Zurawski Sr,. of Tosans for Responsible Government, a perennial “anti” campaigner (anti-tax, immigration, gays, Victoria’s Secret), declared in 2005: “We need more intolerance.”

Ralph Reed, former director of the Christian Coalition, on political campaigns: “I want to be invisible. I do guerrilla warfare. I paint my face and travel at night. You don’t know it’s over until you’re in a body bag.”

J.J. Blonien on staff members of the Madison-based Freedom From Religion Foundation, which promotes separation of church and state:  “Somebody should kill them all.”

Ann Coulter could have coached Anders Breivik in his mass political assassination of liberals. In 2002, Coulter opined about the “American Taliban” John Walker Lindh: “In contemplating college liberals, you really regret, once again, that John Walker is not getting the death penalty. We need to execute people like John Walker in order to physically intimidate liberals by making them realize that they could be killed too. Otherwise, they will turn into outright traitors.”

Although liberals like me can be vociferous in our opposition to right-wing leaders and policies, there is no comparison to the overt, lethal threats continually issuing from the right.

Controls traditionally exercised by ethical, scrupulous editors over uncivil discourse have dissolved in our freewheeling Internet age. The Supreme Court has ruled video games depicting the mutilation and murder of women are protected by the First Amendment, making it highly unlikely they will ever restrict political speech.

So the fear mongering, scapegoating and intimidation will go on. Bloodbaths will ensue. Where is the moral leadership to stop this free fall into chaos?