One Woman Turns Tragedy into Advocacy

–By Laura Oles

Alice Almendarez has lived a nightmare few can fathom.  

Imagine celebrating a holiday with a loved one, enjoying the simple pleasure of a family gathering, the demands of daily life slowing down for this brief moment.

John Almendarez

Now imagine that your loved one disappears without a trace.  

This is the pain Alice endured when her father disappeared after spending Father’s Day with her family in June of 2002.  One moment he was with them, and then he was gone.  

Alice went to the Houston police to file a missing persons report.  She followed the instructions of what she was told to do, but adult missing persons cases can be challenging in many ways.  Law enforcement officers explained that her father was an adult and that it wasn’t a crime to go missing.  In her heart, she knew her father would never walk out on his family in such a way, but small doubts haunted her.  What if he had left them? It is a horrible burden to carry as a child.

Alice searched for twelve long years before she would learn the fate of her father.  

 She later discovered that his body had been found a few weeks after his disappearance, floating in the Buffalo Bayou in Houston, just a few minutes from his childhood home.  Early on, she had gone to the morgue asking if they had any bodies matching her dad’s description and was turned away, only to later find out he had been there during the time she was looking for him.  The truth had been close and she had no idea. 

Alice visiting her father’s grave

The one consistent support Alice’s family received was from NamUs, whose mission is to “bring people, information, forensic science and technology together to resolve missing, unidentified and unclaimed persons cases throughout the United States.” Alice reached out to NamUs and was able to identify her father’s remains through their database.  NamUs works with coroners, medical examiners, law enforcement and families to create comprehensive case files that can help identify remains previously unidentified.  It can provide answers to families who have waited years without word of what happened to their loved ones.

One of the most surprising things to learn is that many law enforcement offices and counties don’t use NamUs.  Many don’t even know it exists.  NamUs was established in 2007 with the help of the Department of Justice and has grown into a comprehensive resource available at no charge for law enforcement agencies.  

There is currently no national law, or law in Texas, that requires any type of law enforcement or coroners offices to report unidentified remains to any database.

This is a huge challenge for families of the missing because there are often important pieces of information that would lead to the discovery of a missing person if only they had been submitted to a central database.  Many families have lived the same horrific process once a family member disappears.  A missing persons report is filed with the police in the city that they live in but if the body of that person is found in another county, there is no guarantee that this information will be shared or communicated.  So many connections are never made, leaving the remains of family members unidentified for years or decades.  

If a person goes missing in Dallas and his body is found in San Antonio, the NamUs requirement would help make this connection.  If one agency enters the unidentified body into the database but the missing persons report isn’t also entered, the chances of identifying them are greatly reduced.  All sides must work together and be connected.

Alice at the Missing in North Texas Event 2019.

This past Saturday, Alice stood before a crowd at the Missing in North Texas Event at the NamUs headquarters at the University of North Texas and announced her intent to pursue legislation in Texas requiring all law enforcement to enter all missing persons cases into NamUs after 30 days if remains have not been identified. Similar legislation has already passed in Arkansas, Illinois, New Mexico, New York, Tennessee and Oklahoma. 

Using NamUs would not only benefit the families of unidentified missing–it would also benefit law enforcement on several levels.  More cases could be closed and counties would no longer spend excess money on burials because remains went unidentified.  A potter’s field is no place for someone’s father, someone’s child, someone’s sister–not when there are resources available to help them return those remains to loved ones. No one should have to wait decades for answers because a valuable resource like NamUs isn’t being used. This law would help change that.

Todd Matthews, Director Case Management & Communications at NamUs, told me, “I’ve seen Alice resurrect herself from total devastation into a powerful advocate for change. As a father myself – I am positive that her father would be more proud that she can even imagine. His passing and her resilience was a catalyst for change.”

Alice has been kind enough to share her story with me in the hopes of bringing awareness to the plight many families of missing people are experiencing as they go through each day without answers.  She knows this pain personally and deeply and still carries it today.  

Alice Almendarez

 “I know the guilt of feeling a moment of happiness, for celebrating a birthday, for celebrating anything when our loved one is no longer here,” Alice said.  “My commitment now is to help families who have experienced what I have endured and hopefully pass a state law that will give more families answers.”

Well Said

Great post by K.P. Gresham

Ink-Stained Wretches

by K.P. Gresham

“After all, tomorrow is another day.” Recognize that book quote? They’re the five favorite words of Scarlet O’Hara in Margaret Mitchell’s Gone with the Wind. A great line to live by if you need to move on from a tragedy, but not very motivational when it’s time to write another blog!

I am in awe of the memorable lines written by different authors. Several changed how I look at life.

“I am not afraid of storms, for I am learning how to sail my ship.” This quote from Little Women by Louisa May Alcott helped me discover my own strength in the time of challenge–a sense of control when surrounded by chaos.

“Sometimes the Bible in the hand of one man is worse than a whiskey bottle in the hand of (another).” This line from Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird pointed out that not every…

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Author, Author: Josephine Tey–Occupying the Hinterland

M. K. Waller at Ink-Stained Wretches — Writing about the inimitable mystery writer Josephine Tey

Ink-Stained Wretches

On his twenty-first birthday, Simon Ashby will become a rich man. He’ll inherit both his mother’s fortune and Latchetts, the estate left by his parents on their accidental death eight years ago. In the interim, his aunt Bee has, by skillful management, built Latchetts into a profitable farm and riding stable.

The other Ashby children—Simon’s sisters, nineteen-year-old Eleanor and nine-year-old twins Jane and Ruth—look forward to his  becoming master of Latchetts. Bee’s pleasure is marred only by the memory of Patrick, Simon’s twin, who shortly after their parents’ death disappeared, a presumed suicide.

Six weeks before Simon’s birthday, however, a stranger calling himself Brat Farrar appears and claims to be the long-lost Patrick. He looks like Simon, remembers everything Patrick should, has a reasonable explanation for his long absence, and—a striking distinction—knows and loves horses. Initially skeptical, Bee is yet open to the possibility of Brat’s being her missing nephew…

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Book Review: Phyllis Whitney’s The Ebony Swan

Today Francine Paino gives a review of The Ebony Swan.
Originally appeared on Ink-Stained Wretches.

Ink-Stained Wretches

by Francine Paino

I was inspired to read The Ebony Swan after reading Kay Hudson’s, Remembering Phyllis A. Whitney, a master of the mystery genre.

I’d forgotten how much I’d enjoyed her stories, years ago, and I hadn’t read all of her works, which added up to an impressive 77; the last three or four when she was in her nineties—Wow! What an inspiration to us all.  Her numerous works included 39 Adult mysteries; 4 On Writing; 20 in Juvenile Fiction, and 14 YA.

Whitney was not only a prolific writer but also a force for advancing women’s recognition in the mystery genre. In the late 1980’s she wrote an open letter to Mystery Writers of America, admonishing them for their refusal to take women in the genre seriously. She pointed out that in their forty-one-year existence only seven women had been awarded the Edgar for best novel. Yes. It…

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Confessions of a Closet Re-Reader: Le Carré and his Characters

Helen Currie Foster writes about re-reading old favorites by premier spy novelist John Le Carre — at Ink-Stained Wretches.

Ink-Stained Wretches

by Helen Currie Foster

In her 2001 collection Rereadings, Anne Fadimanchallenged writers to revisit books they read before they were twenty-five, and still re-read. Contributor Arthur Krystal (his favorite re-read is a boxing book, Witwer’s The Leather Pushers), quotes George Orwell: “The books one read in childhood, and perhaps most all bad and good bad books, create in one’s mind a sort of false map of the world, a series of fabulous countries into which one can retreat at odd moments.”

Oh yes, “odd moments,” like when the world is too much with us. Then I repair to the shelves and drag off not only my pre-twenty-five faves (Tolkien, Dorothy Sayers, Jane Austen, Kim) but also later loves: Patrick O’Brian, tattered volumes by Dorothy Dunnett, mysteries by Rowling/Galbraith, Marsh, Hillerman—and, especially, John Le Carré. Over and over I…

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AMW’s Anthology to Support Ellis Memorial Library

By Laura Oles

On August 25, 2017, Hurricane Harvey tore through the heart of Port Aransas, hitting with such force that several longstanding homes and businesses ceased to exist. Harvey scattered boats like leaves—in front a beloved coffee shop, in a nearby neighborhood, beached on a random patch of grass. The town has been left to rebuild without the benefit of ongoing media attention. This community takes care of its own, and people from other cities have rallied with physical and financial support in an effort to help this island town regain its rightful claim as one of the most beloved vacation spots in Texas. However, one important landmark that has yet to return to proper service is the Ellis Memorial Library.  Despite the diligent work of assistant Library Director Toby De La Rosa, volunteers and Port Aransas local officials, the library is still closed to the public and unable to provide important services to its community.

This boat, just recently removed after almost two years in this resting place, served as a reminder of how far Port Aransas has come since Hurricane Harvey

Port Aransas needs its library back.  

Austin Mystery Writers has committed to supporting the Ellis Memorial Library by choosing to donate proceeds from its latest anthology, Lone Star Lawless, to this important cause.  In addition to featuring stories from award-winning Austin Mystery Writers Gale Albright (who passed away unexpectedly before the anthology’s release) VP Chandler, Kaye George, Laura Oles and Kathy Waller, it includes submissions from some of today’s top talent in crime fiction.  Gripping tales from Alexandra Burt, Janice Hamrick, Scott Montgomery, Mark Pryor, Terry Shames, Larry D. Sweazy, George Wier and Manning Wolfe are sure to keep you turning the pages.  You’ll find compelling tales about cons gone wrong, cowboys and criminals, grifters and girlfriends, morticians and motel clerks… And best of all, each copy purchased benefits the Ellis Memorial public library.  It’s our small way of showing support for this important and much-beloved island institution. 

Those of us who love our local libraries know how much they bring to our communities.  We understand the powerful ways a good book touches us, stays with us, invites us to share it with others.  Libraries serve this need in a way that no other entity can. 

If you’d like to make a donation to the Port Aransas Library, you may do so by sending check to:  Friends of the Ellis Memorial Library, PO Box 11, Port Aransas, Texas 78373.  In addition to these efforts, I have been working with some wonderful neighbors who have been collecting quality books to donate to Ellis, and we will be delivering them once they are in a position to receive them.  It’s a big delivery, and special recognition goes to Trisha Taylor, who spearheaded an incredible book donation drive. 

Also, you can pick up a copy of Lone Star Lawless from your favorite independent bookstore (such as BookPeople in Austin) or online. You can find it here: https://amzn.to/2YTbhpD

For those who know and love Port Aransas, you know it is returning better and stronger than ever.  Showing your support through donations, vacations and other methods of bringing people and commerce to its businesses and community are so very appreciated. And when packing for your next trip, remember to bring a book for the beach. It’s beautiful this time of year.

Three Days at Wrigley Field

by K.P. Gresham

Hey! Hey! Holy Mackerel! The Cubs are on the field!

Baseball’s back, and I’m celebrating with a return to one of my favorite subjects—The Chicago Cubs. Yes, I am a huge Cubbies fan, so much so, I wrote a book about it, THREE DAYS AT WRIGLEY FIELD.

Why? Easy. Chicago Cub blood runs in my veins.  And I come by it honestly.  Blame my father, Ed Gabel.

Born on Chicago’s northside in 1920, Dad was a lifelong Cubs fan.  In his lifetime he never saw his team win the World Series.  Oh, they went a few times, but no World Championship.  That never stopped him from rooting for the Cubs.  I swear his DNA had Cubbie blue genes in it, and I inherited those beautiful blue chromosomes.  I was a Cub fan from conception.

Wrigley Field was only six years old when my dad was born, so you could say the two grew up together.  I remember he talked about how, during the depression, Mr. Wrigley let the neighborhood kids come in and sweep down the stands after games.  Their payment was a free ticket to the next day’s game. Dad did a lot of sweeping back then.

When he was seventeen (i.e. 1937) Wrigley Field underwent a few renovations, enlarged for more seating, and put up the huge, iconic, hand-operated centerfield scoreboard. (Which is still in use!) And Bill Veeck  (who started out with the Cubs) planted the bittersweet ivy along the outfield wall.

Yep, my dad loved the Cubs, and he passed that passion on to me.  Sometimes a curse, but mostly a blessing.  Hey, it’s taught me that success has many faces, and that it’s a cardinal sin to be a fair-weather fan. (And yes, that’s a direct dig at that team from St. Louis).

I wrote THREE DAYS AT WRIGLEY FIELD before the Cubs won the 2016 World Series. My favorite review from Publishers Weekly Booklife Prize called it “a love letter to baseball and powerful page turner.” A love letter to baseball. Yes, that’s exactly what it is.

Then came 2016, and my Cubbies won the World Series. As I watched play resume after that nineteen minute rain delay in the ninth inning, I thought of my father. Although he was long gone, I felt I was watching the unbelievable come true—but not just for me, for my dad as well.

To capture that soul-filling love in a book is humbling and exhilarating.  I invite you to experience that love with me. Give THREE DAYS AT WRIGLEY FIELD a read.

You can kind it on Amazon. Three Days at Wrigley Field

I Love Research and Nolan Ryan!

by K.P. Gresham

Writing for me is both a compulsion and an exploration.  I know, I know, they say “write what you know”, but I’d add another clause on that. Write what you know and/or what you’d like to research.

The best book prompt that I know of is “What if?” For example, what if my heroine wants to become a professional baseball player?   (By the way, that is a cheap plug for my first novel, Three Days at Wrigley Field.) Even though I am an avid baseball fan, there’s no way I had enough baseball knowledge in my head to complete a novel on the subject.  More important than knowing that Nolan Ryan pitched seven no-hitters in his career (a record known by thousands of fans), I needed to know how he pitched those no-hitters. To that end, I purchased Nolan Ryan’s video on how he pitched. That information is integral to making the book work. (Side note: I’m nuts about Nolan Ryan. When I lived in Houston, I’d drive an hour to his hometown of Alvin just to get my hair cut. I kept hoping on the off-chance I would see this super-human walking down the street.)

Research for me is one of the most fun parts of creating a fictional piece.  For example, in my Pastor Matt Hayden Mystery Series, I do indeed write what I know. I grew up a PK–preacher’s kid (I prefer the term TO for ‘theological offspring’, but alas, that never caught on). I know a whole lot about what a preacher does, about how congregations work (or don’t work), about the ever present pitfalls for even the most devoted. But I didn’t know anything about the Federal Witness Protection Program or how to own and run a sports bar. (I hope that’s a tease–what is my series all about??)

In the coming blogs, I’m going to talk about how and/or where I do my research.  A writer may write in a bubble, but IMO they certainly can’t research in a bubble. She has to join groups, go to conferences, hit the bars J, and talk to experts in the field. (Hence why I had to hit the bar.) She has to get the facts right, or she risks losing the trust of the reader. Why is this important? A “This is bogus!” reaction from the reader means they’re slamming the book shut never to pick it up again, and, worst of all, telling others not to read it.

Research is necessary, but fun! I hope you’ll enjoy my escapades into research that I’ll share with you in coming blogs.

The Bosslight Book Store

If you’re ever in East Texas I encourage you to check out The Bosslight bookstore. It’s located in historic down town Nacogdoches so it has a perfect vibe of old and new. Old architecture and new books and art! (Check out the brick paved street. I love it.)

Owner Tim Bryant is an author himself, author of the Dutch Curridge series and the Wilkie John Liquorish Westerns. So you know he has a soft spot for books and wants to help authors and readers connect. (I’m currently reading book one of the Liquorish series and it’s great. Good voice and very suspenseful.)

 

 

Not only does he have lots of books, but he works hard to connect and support people in the community. He has art from local artisans and hosts book clubs, author events, and even music events too.  Did I mention he’s also a musician? Yes! He’s full of talent. So head on over to The Bosslight book store and support a great community! And tell them I said “howdy”!

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Austin Mystery Writers Lone Star Lawless event! Kathy Waller, VP Chandler, Laura Oles, George Wier, Alexandra Burt, Scott Montgomery

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Tim and good friend Joe Lansdale

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On Podcasts and the Creative Process

By Laura Oles

As writers, we often contend with voices inside our heads. It’s not just me, is it?  As much as I love these characters who demand to be heard, there are moments when I need a break.  I need someone else’s voice inside my head. Someone to inspire me or to teach me something interesting that could also prove useful in a future scene or novel. 

That’s where podcasts come in.  I’ve long been a fan of podcasts, and the quality of what’s currently available is a true treasure trove for those tuning in. There’s something for every interest, and almost any topic can be found by doing a simple search in your podcast app. 

Here are a few of my favorites:

Reply All:  This podcast explores how technology and culture collide, often in interesting or unexpected ways.  Want to learn how someone can steal your Instagram account? And why would they want it? Or maybe a profile about how a software designer turned his skills to building an illegal empire online?  The quality of the reporting and narration are top notch, and this is the one podcast I anxiously wait for each time a new episode drops.  

Murder Book with Michael Connelly:  This passion project created by powerhouse author Michael Connelly is a new release and one that quickly captured my attention.  Connelly explores an unsolved thirty-year-old homicide case that “tests the limits of the American criminal justice system.” 

Hidden Brain:  “Shankar Vedantam uses science and storytelling to reveal the unconscious patterns that drive human behavior, shape our choices and direct our relationships.”  Vedantam is a skilled narrator and the topics are fascinating, ranging from how to move past a life-altering injury to the psychology of surprise endings (an excellent episode for writers).  

This American Life:  Produced by NPR, this podcast never disappoints (me).  Each week involves a certain theme, and the reporting ties several stories to that theme.  The storytelling focuses on compelling people, difficult dynamics and big questions that don’t always have an answer.  Thought-provoking and beautifully produced, this one is worth a listen.

Here’s The Thing with Alec Baldwin: Alex Baldwin’s personal antics can be up for debate, but you can’t argue with the man’s interviewing skills.  This one surprised me in all the best ways.  He’s interviewed everyone from Billy Joel and Carly Simon to Cameron Crowe and Kyle MacLachlan.  Alec’s questions dig down deep into the topic of the creation of art of all kinds and how those pursuits impact personal relationships.  The episode with Jerry Seinfeld is one of my favorites because he shares how to make time to write–and how he did it during the Seinfeld years. His answers may surprise you. For those curious about the inside-baseball elements of writing, acting, and other creative endeavors, this public radio podcast pulls strong. 

Wait, Wait, Don’t Tell Me:  Sometimes, after a long writing session,  I need a good laugh. A quiz program with a rotating panel including  comedic talents Mo Rocca, Paula Poundstone, Alonzo Bodden and several others, this show blends current events with fake news stories in an effort to discern what’s true and what’s not.  Sometimes truth really is stranger than fiction on this show.  

When compiling this list, I realized that most of my recommendations came from podcasts created by public radio.  Just one more reason to support your local public radio station!

Do you listen to podcasts?  If so, which ones are your favorites?