Truth was often stranger than fiction in 1996


Once again This Just in Presents a collection of strange occurrences on Earth during the planet's most recent revolution around the sun.

All of these stories are true. They were culled during 1996 from news wires by this columnist and his extensive network of keenly observant associates to provide further proof that strange things have always happened in this world, but probably with greater frequency since the American League instituted the DH.

Dateline: Shanghai

A man who robbed a house made a big mistake the next day when he asked a woman at a bus stop for directions. The mistake? Of all the people in Shanghai -- population 7.5 million -- he picked the woman whose house he had robbed; she recognized the clothes he was wearing as her husband's. The woman grabbed the thief with the help of bystanders and handed him over to police.

Dateline: Hong Kong

Chinese scientists have been baffled by a corpse that did not decompose or turn stiff 3 1/2 years after the old woman died. Not only had the body not rotted away, the face of the corpse was still radiant, many of its joints were still loose, and the head still turned on its shoulders. The body was that of a woman in Xianghe county, Hubei province, whose heart had stopped in November 1992. Her grandson said her temperature was normal and her muscles were still flexible 10 hours later. After two days rigor mortis had still not set in, so the family decided to keep the body and only loan it to science.

Dateline: Pierson, Fla.

A bumbling robber had to back off when he discovered the bank he was trying to stick up wasn't a bank at all. It was City Hall. Police say the robber-wannabe intended to hold up Tomoka State Bank, but he walked up to the wrong counter, demanding money from a clerk who collects water fees for the city of Pierson. (City Hall and the bank share a building in this rural town.)

The robber headed right when he should have gone left through the bank's double-glass doors. At the city's counter, clerk Carmie Burnsed greeted him and assumed the guy wanted to pay his water bill. Instead, the crook gave Burnsed a note demanding money. She told him she didn't have any and opened her empty cash drawer to prove it. The schnook hasn't been seen since.

Dateline: Miami

Just like the swallows returning each spring to Capistrano in Southern California, vultures keep returning to the Miami courthouse. They're often seen devouring the flesh of the dead, usually small rodents or fish, on courthouse ledges. "The vultures are this wonderful metaphor for Miami," decided lawyer-turned-author Paul Levine. "We are in an area that has been repeatedly picked to the bone and fleeced by human predators." When Levine was was an attorney working in a nearby skyscraper, vultures would perch outside his office. "You would hand a client a bill and he would see this vulture sitting over your shoulder outside nibbling on some road kill." The dedication of Levine's first novel read: "To the city of Miami, where vultures endlessly circle the courthouse, some on wings and some in Porsches."

Dateline: Pennsauken, N.J.

A would-be burglar needed to make sure the door to Hill-Rom Corp. wouldn't fully close while he looted the place, so he stuck a piece of paper in the door -- a traffic ticket he'd been issued for driving with a cracked windshield. Police found the ticket, with a name and address on it, still in the door the next day, which proved helpful in their pursuit of the burglar, who was arrested at his home in Camden a little while later. (Poor soul. With cash from the loot he stole, he might have been able to get a new windshield for his car.)

Dateline: Bend, Ore.

A suspected drug buyer trying to reach his dealer via pager dialed a wrong number. He got police. "At first, I thought it was some of the county guys playing a joke," said narcotics Detective Jim Porter. The caller identified himself as Wayne and said he needed a "Q-P of green," slang for a quarter-pound of green marijuana buds.

Porter played along, arranging a meeting that night. When the detective met "Wayne," he arrested him for possession, delivery and conspiracy to deliver. Even then, "Wayne" refused to believe he had dialed a wrong number. It took him three hours to realize Porter wasn't the guy he had been buying drugs from for six months. "What are the odds he punches in the wrong number and out of 3,500 pagers in central Oregon, he would get a narc's pager?" Lt. Les Stiles said. "It's absolutely amazing."

Dateline: Hickory, N.C.

Barney Church learned the perils of nice pants. He was walking to his car after finishing a late shift at Burger King on Highway 70 when a man in a black ski mask approached, held a small-caliber handgun to Barney's head and demanded money. When Barney said he didn't have any, the bandit ordered him to hand over his pants instead.

"I was lucky," Barney said later. "I was wearing brand new underwear."

And let that be a lesson to you all. Happy new year!

Pub Date: 12/30/96

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