A shocking story of citizen detectives, a videotaped murder, animal torture and one very disturbed celebrity wannabe
Death’s Messenger: One Soldier’s Job Delivering the Worst News Imaginable
“There’s still a war going on,” Captain Richard Siemion began. “There are still people dying—not as many as before—but it’s still happening. And when it does, the Army sends somebody like me to break the news.”
Captain Siemion was recently honorably discharged but was one of several casualty notification officers serving in upstate New York. Whenever a soldier’s death was reported, the CNO on duty would have four hours to track down the deceased’s family and deliver some of the worst news they would ever hear.
CNOs have been the focus of some interest over the last decade of American war. In 2006, the now-defunct Rocky Mountain News published a Pulitzer Prize–winning series about the Marines tasked with the same job as Captain Siemion, and in 2009 Woody Harrelson starred in the independent film The Messenger. He played a CNO.
I sat down with the 31-year-old Siemion to talk about his first-hand experience telling families of active-service soldiers that their loved one have died in action.
VICE: Did you volunteer for the job?
Captain Siemon: We call it being voluntold. I had just gotten back from my first tour in Afghanistan when my Battalion Commander sent me to the training course.
What did you learn there?
You learn that there’s no right way to tell someone that their loved one is not returning from war, but there are a lot of wrong ways to do it. If you look at history, the way they used to tell families about a death: You had telegrams, you had taxi drivers paid to ring doorbells, you had word of mouth. Through trial and error, the United States Army got it as close to right as they can. I was always the kind of leader who didn’t go 100 percent by the book, but in this case, I went right by the book, because there is a reason why they have it the way they do. Not much room for creativity.
What do you think they got right?
One thing is the idea that no job is more important than this job. So, if you’re in the middle of an important brief with a Colonel and you get called to give a notification, you say, “Gotta go.” Another thing is that you go in person. It shows the importance. Obviously you’re never going to see that individual again, or be their best friend, but if my brother died, I’d rather have it straight—face-to-face.
A Meth Pipe Shattered in a North Dakota Woman’s Vagina
What started as your plain old, run-of-the-mill car accident resulted in a woman being arrested while pieces of glass from a shattered meth pipe were stuck up her vagina. In North Dakota, 26-year-old Jeana Marie Smart rear-ended another driver on the road. When law enforcement officers responded to the scene, Jeana was arrested “after a warrant check revealed that she had failed to appear in court on a pending narcotics and drug paraphernalia case,” according to the police report.
The officer transporting her, Michael Benton, spotted blood on the backseat of his patrol car. Being the curious man that he is, he decided to inquire about the red stain as opposed to just doing what most people would do, which is naturally assume that it’s menstrual blood and not bring it up because that’s a really awkward conversation to have.
Floridians Are Losing Their Minds on Synthetic Cannabis
The rumors are floating among bystanders in downtown St. Petersburg, where a body lies motionless on the sidewalk, covered by a plastic sheet. Was it over a stolen lighter? Or was it a bicycle? It doesn’t matter. Kenneth Robert Sprankle finally snapped. Just like he said he would.
On the afternoon of September 24, Sprankle “borrowed” a red and yellow firefighter’s axe from a fire engine responding to an alarm at the Princess Martha Apartments. He started his evening by smoking spice, grabbing the axe, and wandering through downtown. Surveillance video caught Sprankle clutching the axe across his waist as he walked purposefully through the frame, seemingly oblivious to concerned onlookers trailing him from a safe distance. Witnesses recalled seeing him in an agitated state, wandering around nearby Williams Park with the axe for nearly three hours. Nobody bothered reporting him to police until things began to unwind, and Sprankle began yelling incomprehensible threats and chasing terrified citizens down bustling sidewalks.
St. Petersburg police quickly responded to an emergency call. The small group fleeing his erratic pursuit rounded a corner and ran past the officers. Moments later, Sprankle followed, axe raised menacingly. His world was closing in. Ignoring repeated orders to drop the axe, he charged. As Sprankle closed the distance, axe held high, veteran officer Damien Schmidt leveled a pistol at his chest and fired.
Five shots later, Ken Sprankle’s body crumpled to the sidewalk. The holes in his chest were fatal. He was 27.
How Remote Islands Are Coping with Typhoon Haiyan’s Devastation
Across the Leyte Gulf from the Filipino city of Tacloban, where Typhoon Haiyan killed upwards of 10,000 people, lies the island of Eastern Samar. It was once an under-the-radar tourist destination—its idyllic beaches lined with surf shacks. Today, the island and its largest city, Guiuan, are in shambles, having faced what was perhaps the largest storm in recorded history head on.
Haiyan’s eye passed just miles south of Guiuan early last Friday morning, sending 200-mile winds and a 20-foot storm surge onto its coast. I drove from Tacloban to Guiuan this week to see how this remote community of fishernmen and banana farmers is coping with the catastrophe of a lifetime.
Guiuan is a city made up of 60 barangays, or sub-villages, where around 70,000 people live. According to Kitchy Bayan, secretary to the mayor, there have been 85 reported deaths, 24 missing, and 482 injured. These figures are much smaller than reported deaths in Tacloban, but the numbers don’t include information from the island barangays that are now completely isolated because the storm destroyed the only means of transportation—boats. There is still no electricity across Samar and mobile phone service has yet to be restored. For those who are known to have perished, the end came quickly.
The Unhappy Fate of Ghanaian Witches
In Ghana, witches are real. At least, enough people believe they are for accusations of sorcery to be a serious thing. The lucky ones wind up in one of the country’s six “witch camps,” where village chieftains offer them safety from persecution, but even those (which hold around 800 women) are hardly idyllic sanctuaries. Here’s what happens when women are branded witches:
A woman is generally accused of witchcraft by her family or neighbors after someone contracts a disease, suffers a tragic death, or, sometimes, just has a bad dream. Awabu, a woman in the Gambaga camp, told us her daughter-in-law called her a witch after she dreamed Awabu was chasing her with a knife. A 2012 survey from the nonprofit ActionAid reported that more than 70 percent of the women in one camp were widows.
Accused witches have no way to prove their innocence, so they are beaten, tortured, banned from their villages, and sometimes lynched or even burned to death.
If they are banished or flee, like Awabu, the women find a way to the camps, some of which were established over 100 years ago. (One, in the village of Gnani, also accommodates male witches, a.k.a. wizards.) Once at the camp, a priest will perform a ceremony to determine a witch’s guilt or innocence by throwing a sacrificed chicken at her feet.
A Woman Was Denied a Marriage License Her Fiancé Can’t Say “I Do.”
A couple residing in the Winnebago County, Illinois was denied the right to get married. Colette Purifoy has been with her partner John Morris for 38 years now. They have children together and have been seeking a marriage license for the past six months. What’s stopping them? In the eyes of the law, John is unable to give his consent due to brain damage.
Syrian Rebels Are Killing Each Other for Control
"Watch out—there are snipers on this street," warned the ISIS fighter as my driver stopped next to him and eight other heavily armed men who were preparing to head into battle. ISIS, or the Islamic State in Iraq and al-Sham, is an offshoot of al Qaeda currently operating on the battlegrounds of Syria.
He wouldn’t have guessed it, but we were all trying to reach the same place—the front line outside the headquarters of yet another of the militant groups fighting in Syria, Ahfad al-Rasul. This organization is affiliated with the Free Syrian Army and had declared war on ISIS just a few hours earlier, for control of the provincial capital of Raqqa.
This was my third visit to the city in the four months since it had been “liberated,” as Syrians tend to refer to areas where rebels have managed to expel government troops.The battle against Bashar al-Assad’s forces in Raqqa had only lasted for about a week—a sharp contrast to the fighting in Aleppo, where gunfights and shelling have continued for over a year since the conflict began.
Once rebels take control of an area, it is now standard procedure for the regime to respond by bombarding it with indiscriminate air strikes in the hope of killing swathes of anti-Assad fighters. But back in April, just weeks after the liberation, cheerful residents seemed to greet the inevitable trail of destruction as a good thing—a sign of the progress the rebels were making.
Recently, however, the tension has risen considerably in Raqqa and the atmosphere has completely changed, as the rebel resistance continues to splinter, pitting many groups who once fought side by side against Assad against each other. The original celebration of freedom has given way to fear and uncertainty.
A number of civil movements—both religious and secular—have also been trying to establish themselves in a bid to influence the future of the city and eventually the country. A group named Haqna, Arabic for “Our Right”, is one of the organizations leading the charge. Its logo, a hand making a V sign, the index finger marked with election ink, is spray-painted all over the city. Mostly made up of young local activists, Haqna is aiming to educate the population about their civil rights and the importance of elections.