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Thursday, January 28, 2016

A mysterious murder -- or a paranoid's suicide?

The conspiracy buffs are going apewire over this story. Although the death of John Lang does appear to be a legitimate mystery, I would advise everyone to proceed with caution. (Also see here and here.)

Lang lived in his own home in Fresno, California, where he worked in marine repair and property management. The articles I've seen give his age only as "mid-40s." On the internet, he functioned as a self-proclaimed investigator and rabble-rouser, claiming that he had uncovered an organized crime ring run by crooked cops. In a scenario straight out of L.A. Confidential, the ring is supposedly led by the local police chief.

Until recently, very few took Lang's claims seriously. But on January 20th, he was found stabbed to death in his burning home.

The attempt to burn the house indicates that the assailants may have hoped to destroy the "best evidence" -- the victim's body.

Throughout the preceding week, John Lang had posted predictions of his own imminent demise. He had spotted vans outside of his home which he presumed to be surveillance vehicles -- and he took video of these vans which he uploaded to YouTube.

Do not be surprised if the local authorities claim that Lang's wounds were self-inflicted. To be frank, the man's writings indicate an unbalanced mind -- thus, I cannot dismiss the theory that he committed suicide while attempting to frame his imagined enemies. On the other hand, I can't see why a man staging his own murder would set fire to the "crime" scene.

Before you say it: Yes, I am well aware that corrupt coroners do exist. Marylanders will recall the example of John Paisley, the CIA analyst found floating in the Chesapeake. His death was hilariously ruled a suicide, despite scads of evidence to the contrary.

Since the local cops are the accused perpetrators, Governor Jerry Brown should make sure that all evidence is investigated by objective outside authorities.

Let's take a look at the video and the tweets in which John Lang forecast his own demise. One of his videos appears at the top of this post. (A YouTube commenter says that the phone number painted on the side of the van is non-functional, but this claim is not true: Both the company and the number are real.)

At the bottom of this post, I have embedded another video which appears to show a man in a van, holding a camera mounted to an elaborate stabilizing rig. This footage provides the best evidence that Lang's enemies were real -- or, at least, that someone had decided to play psychological games with the man. (Incidentally, modern stabilizers for camcorders are usually much smaller than the device seen here.)

From Lang's Facebook feed, January 14:

On January 15, he contacted a local news person:

Lang posted a large amount of material to the website. The name of the website derives from an employee at the Fresno Bee who (according to Lang) had allegedly "censored" comments from citizen John Lang, a prolific participant in the online version of the newspaper.

Let's be honest: Lang's writings are often ultra-paranoid -- downright wacky. Many of his claims are impossible to take seriously. Of course, even paranoiacs may have actual enemies, and an actual enemy may drive a sane man into paranoia.

That said, it is difficult to believe that a simple tiff over a driving citation -- yes, that's how it all began -- could burgeon into a wild tale involving child porn and heroin. It's also quite difficult to believe that so many of Lang's acquaintances, neighbors and business associates could be "in on it."

Worth noting: Lang started down this path while emotionally distraught over a breakup.

No evidence indicates that a wide public had ever taken Lang's "investigations" seriously. Therefore, I cannot understand why the cops would mount an elaborate and expensive harassment campaign against Lang. The game's not worth the candle.

Too often, Lang refused to explain how he knew what he claimed to know. For example, how did he learn about Jody Murray's alleged relationship with law enforcement? Frankly, I would not be terribly surprised to learn that Lang acquired some of his information from voices in his head.

Most of you won't read the writings on that web site with any great care. Nevertheless, I think that you should expose yourself to the words of John Lang. To what degree does that text reflect reality? Is that website simply the diary of one man's battle with shadows?

Starting with a traffic violation doesn't seem all that odd. You may have heard the fuss about the recent netflix doc Making a Murderer. That seems to have started when the man who spent eighteen years in prison for a crime he didn't commit allegedly drove his cousin, married to a local policeman, off the road. And in that case no-one knew at the time what the motive might be, with the exception of that vendetta. Now it looks like the police were covering the fact that they were surveilling the real rapist and were embarrassed that they had allowed him to go off and rape the local bigwig's wife. Could be something similar here.
He sounds sane to me. I think he was telling the truth.
"Starting with a traffic violation doesn't seem all that odd"

It sounds odd to me, Stephen. Yes, there are notorious speed traps scattered around the country -- in fact, I used to work near one, just north of the San Fernando Valley in CA. The heavy cop presence became pretty unnerving at times.

Perhaps the most notorious trap in California is the small town of King City, which the interstate passes through. Everyone in the state knows (or should know) that one must be on one's best behavior if you drive anywhere NEAR that place. And everyone knows that it's all about generating revenue. For years -- decades -- there have been rumors that the King City police department is corrupt in other ways. I was not terribly surprised to learn that, in 2014, the rumors were verified...

Superficially, there are similarities between the King City scandal and the things that John Lang talked about. I can easily believe that his problems started when he ran afoul of a "King City" style speed trap.

But over time, Lang started making charges of kiddie porn and heroin trafficking, without offering anything resembling evidence. That's the problem.
Speaking of corrupt coroners, never forget the incompetent and corrupt Fahmy Malak. If Ken Starr had had half a lick of sense he'd have made Malak the star of Starr's star chamber inquisition. (I couldn't help it, lol)
In that video, what is the driver smoking and why?
I think the phrase ""Starting with a traffic violation doesn't seem all that odd" is being misunderstood, meaning it's normal that a traffic violation could escalate.
It looked like there were fast food wrappers by the feet of the camera person, which might lead one to wonder if these guys really do surveillance for a living. Was the driver smoking a pipe or looking at a social media device?
I'm pretty sure that's a Freefly Systems MoVi (probably a MoVi 10), which actually *is* pretty much the smallest motorized, gyroscope-stabilized camera stabilizer available. For instance, the MoVi 10 without camera weighs less than 4 lbs. -- note how casually the camera operator holds the rig...

---except he most likely *isn't* the camera operator but just the rig operator. While the MoVi *can* be used single-handed, more often there are two operators involved: One handling camera placement and movement and one in charge of the actual camerawork. The second operator uses a hand-held wireless controller that controls rig mechanics and camera features. In this case, the camera operator is either the driver or front-seat passenger.

Here's what the MoVi controller looks like.

At around 1:04 in the video, you can see someone in the front of the van fiddling with a controller that looks very much like the one above. Again, I can't tell which of the two folks up front is using it. If it was the driver, then that oddly tubular thing he's holding may be the controller antenna. If the passenger is operating the camera, then I suspect the driver is vaping, probably from -- based on the object's size -- a Chinese-made disposable vape pen. And if *that* is the case, there's a good chance what he's inhaling isn't nicotine.
Good work maz.

Say the word "stabilizer" to a guy like me, and I'm more likely to think of something like the VidPro SB-10. I can't understand why a couple of guys doing surveillance would want more. They weren't making a Hollywood movie.
As the proud owner of a Steadicam Jr -- which, as I write this, sits on a shelf in my office, virtually untouched in 20 years -- I can assure you any gimbal-based stabilizer (such as the VidPro) is *not* what one would choose for shooting surveillance footage. They are infamously touchy, depend upon the camera being balanced perfectly, and are incredibly sensitive to breeze or abrupt movement -- both of which one might expect when shooting from a vehicle. (There's a reason cop shows always depict surveillance taking place from a stationary plumber's or florist's van. Well, several reasons, actually -- but the impossibility of shooting meaningful still or video imagery through a telescopic lens from a moving vehicle is one of them.)

That said, the use of a MoVi here, for whatever reason (LE surveillance? B-roll footage? practice?) seems a little overkill -- especially as the grinning guy in the back is essentially here in the role of 'tripod.' That said, while the MoVi isn't cheap -- at around $5,000, it costs 10x what I paid for my Steadicam, and probably 5x to 6x what a comparable gimbal system would run today -- it's also not all that expensive, weighing in at its introduction at 1/8 to 1/10 the cost of the next-cheapest motorized, gyro-stabilized rig. It doesn't take too many days of use to amortize 5k.

To me, the MoVi (and the three-man team) spell 'PI' rather than 'LE.' I don't know if anyone else is tracking this case, but I would think a little digging around might find a black SUV (or a familiar face) outside the offices of a Fresno-based investigator. I'm not as convinced we're seeing use of thermographic camera, though -- although I'd almost guarantee the Fresno PD has some in its lab to sniff out grow rooms, at least. In my experience, still-image thermographic cameras don't shoot at slow enough a frame rate to require stabilization, while their video equivalent are relatively niche items, the use of which in an LE environment is usually quickly followed by the use of a Big Red Key to open the front door....
Thanks, maz -- you raise some good points. Last time I talked to a PI (he worked mostly insurance fraud cases), I learned a bit about the video cameras he used. They weren't that good, and he did NOT use any kind of stabilizer.

If I were doing surveillance on a guy in a house, I'd pick up one of those devices that locks the camera in place on a windshield or car window.

Also, a PI would not open the van door and play peek-a-boo.

Bottom line, I'm now gravitating toward the idea that someone had Lang pegged as a paranoid, so they were trying their damnedest to freak him out.

Of course, even paranoids have real enemies...
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