2 years ago

Technology that led to recoveries of Aniah Blanchard, Kamille ‘Cupcake’ McKinney could help solve Alabama’s prison crisis

MONTGOMERY — Sources close to the investigations have confirmed to Yellowhammer News that LEO Technologies’ proprietary Verus Analytical System helped lead to the respective recoveries of both the remains of Kamille “Cupcake” McKinney and Aniah Blanchard.

Remains believed to be Blanchard’s were recovered on Monday, as reported by Yellowhammer News. McKinney’s remains were recovered last month. Both were the subjects of separate Alabama missing persons cases, which now seem set to be prosecuted as kidnapping and homicide cases. Blanchard, a 19-year-old Homewood resident, had been attending school at Lee County’s Southern Union Community College; McKinney, 3, lived in Birmingham.

Three suspects have now been arrested and charged by the Auburn Police Department in relation to Blanchard’s disappearance: first Ibraheem Yazeed, then Antwain Shamar “Squirmy” Fisher on Friday night and finally David Johnson, Jr. on Monday.

While previous media reporting has advised that Fisher allegedly “disposed of evidence and provided transportation for Yazeed,” how authorities learned of Fisher’s reported involvement has remained a public mystery — until now.

What is LEO Technologies?

Before delving into the two aforementioned cases, it is important to understand just exactly what LEO Technologies does.

Co-founded by Tuscaloosa native James Sexton, LEO Technologies specializes in bringing cutting edge software and hardware, along with world-class subject matter expertise, to law enforcement agencies, intelligence entities, correctional facilities and private sector partners. “OUR SOLUTIONS ARE BUILT FOR COPS BY COPS,” their website highlights.

The company, founded in 2016, was featured in a recent national ABC News story about its revolutionary artificial intelligence (AI) system, Verus, that transcribes participating prisons’ phone calls virtually instantaneously and alerts law enforcement to relevant information.

Using inmate phone calls, which are hosted by other companies on behalf of the prisons, Verus produces near real-time intelligence based on keywords and phrases selected by law enforcement. It automatically downloads, analyzes and transcribes all recorded inmate calls, proactively flagging them for review.

While legally mandated warnings play at the beginning of every inmate phone call stating that each call is being recorded and monitored, inmates — and individuals on the other end of the line — still disclose an incredible amount of information, from incriminating evidence important in criminal investigations to warnings that an inmate is in danger — whether through self-harm or threats from other inmates.

Respective prison phone providers across the country already offer transcription services, however, these are done manually — and normally after a specific, reactive request. No law enforcement agency has the manpower resources to transcribe or monitor every prison phone call. Simply put, this means information is out there across the country that could be used to save lives and reduce crime — yet that goldmine of data is sitting idly by, collecting digital dust as business as usual in the American corrections system nets the same old problems.

Verus, on the other hand, is automated and proactive. And corrections facilities or the relevant associated law enforcement agency do not even have to expend manpower to constantly monitor the results produced. LEO Technologies provides each entity that uses Verus with an expert, retired law enforcement officer, from some of the best agencies in America. This individual becomes embedded in that law enforcement entity, monitoring the Verus results, helping facilitate the most effective keyword and phrase usage and forwarding relevant information to the proper investigator.

More Alabama ties

Jefferson County, under then-Sheriff Mike Hale, was the national beta test subject for Verus. The county’s prison went online with the system first and is still utilizing it to this day.

Retired Los Angeles Police Department detective Joe Ferreira is LEO Technologies’ embed that has been working with Jefferson County. Ferreira has worked every division imaginable for LAPD: homicide, narcotics, gangs, vice, forgery.

Yellowhammer News spoke with David Thompson, the retired Jefferson County Sheriff’s Office unit commander who worked to implement Verus for the sheriff’s office.

He called Verus “a very valuable tool to help with several things.”

Thompson then listed gathering intelligence on criminal activity as one of these things, explaining, “[B]ecause even though inmates are in jail, [many] still either operate criminal enterprises or they try to stay in the loop about what’s going on on the outside.”

Next, he detailed Verus helps provide a wealth of information on contraband already in the facility and planned smuggling operations of contraband into the facility. These operations can be conducted through employees, contractors or visitors.

Third, Thompson outlined that Verus is an important tool in helping with mental health issues in the facility. The system can help identify, through keywords, inmates battling mental illnesses, including those who are risks for self-harm or suicide.

Similarly, Verus can be used to thwart planned assaults, homicides or riots in the jail, Thompson remarked.

Verus typically costs about $500,000 annually for a corrections facility of 1,000 inmates. In addition to the potentially life-saving — thus priceless — benefits he mentioned, Thompson noted how the system pays for itself.

“When you find those calls ahead of time and you prevent an inmate from killing themselves or killing another inmate, it potentially saves millions of dollars in legal fees and settlements,” he added.

‘Success stories’ galore

Thompson explained that Hale’s office initially was very willing to try the system to decrease violent crime.

“The biggest untapped source of intelligence is the jail,” he said, speaking in general terms. Thompson added that trying to use a prison phone company’s monitoring tools is like “trying to find a needle in a haystack.”

He continued to praise LEO Technologies’ software for its unparalleled effectiveness and efficiency.

Citing a litany of “success stories,” Thompson remarked, “The reality is law enforcement is here to help bring justice, and the information [revealed by Verus] allows you to close a lot of cases.”

He said this includes cases that law enforcement officers were not even actively investigating, rather Verus allowed them to “just stumble upon” evidence. Additionally, there are many high profile cases in recent years in Jefferson County that Verus did not receive public credit for helping close but were indeed some of these success stories.

Take this wild story originally reported by Carol Robinson, when LEO Technologies’ involvement went unheralded.

Thompson told ABC News about this example stemming from a Birmingham man who was arrested in 2017 on outstanding felony warrants. His car was towed to a local impound yard, and while he was in the Jefferson County jail, Verus alerted law enforcement officials to search his car for drugs.

“He calls family members and asks them to go to the tow yard, and get a locked camera case from his car,” Thompson said. “And he gives them the three-digit code to unlock the case.”

Law enforcement officers, once notified of the contents of that call, got a search warrant and rushed to the impound yard with a drug-sniffing K9.

“We sent our narcotics people to the tow yard and beat the family there,” Thompson explained. “We didn’t even have to break the case open because we had the code.”

Authorities reportedly recovered three grams of cocaine, two grams of heroin and an undetermined amount of the sedative alprazolam.

Without Verus, it would have been doubtful that law enforcement officials ever found out about the drugs. And, even with a slower, manual prison phone monitoring service, the man’s family members would have been able to beat authorities to the car and move the drugs.

This is just one of many positive results made possible by Verus in Jefferson County alone. Thompson said numerous illegal weapons and a large amount of drugs have been taken off the streets in the Birmingham metro area due to the technology.

Last year, an inmate call in Jefferson County even recorded a live murder outside the jail involving suspected gang members. Using intelligence from the call, local, state and federal authorities were able to launch a large-scale roundup called “Operation Focused Remedy” in and around Bessemer that sought targeted arrests on nine federal and 26 state warrants. Over 20 firearms were recovered from this operation.

Then there was the case of a Jefferson County inmate allegedly running a prostitution ring from inside his jail cell. Verus helped authorities bust the ring and rescue at least one human trafficking victim, Thompson told ABC News.

Another example obtained by Yellowhammer News pertains to ‘Two Gunz Vito,’ a local rapper who was indicted in 2017 for the murder of then Mayor-Elect Randall Woodfin’s nephew. The indictment was made possible because Vito, already an inmate, on a prison phone call provided a synopsis of the homicide that he allegedly committed. He was arrested and detained with an admissible confession in this high-profile case due to Verus, requiring no search warrant, phone tap, interview or law enforcement operation.

Indeed, information obtained by Yellowhammer News concluded that in 2018 alone, Verus helped the Jefferson County Sheriff’s Office screen over four million inmate calls. These calls resulted in a total of 118 criminal reports, including 39 homicides.

More jurisdictions starting to benefit

Jefferson County, however, is not an outlier in having success with Verus.

The East Metro Area Crime Center has also subsequently chosen to use the technology, and Oxford Police Chief Bill Partridge told ABC News “it made a believer out of me in the first week.”

In an interview with Yellowhammer News, Partridge, currently president of the Alabama Association of Chiefs of Police, shared personal experiences that mirrored the positive results that Thompson outlined.

Partridge stressed that the “biggest thing” that continues to strike him about Verus is helping prevent inmate suicides.

The police chief outlined that inmates, just as in the outside world, normally reach out to loved ones with a cry for help. Because this happens frequently via prison phone calls, law enforcement authorities are able to be alerted by Verus and act accordingly to potentially save a life.

“That alone is the most fantastic part about it,” Partridge said of preventing suicides.

He added that Verus “pays for itself with [suicide reductions] alone.”

“Now the rest of it is all gravy from there,” he further noted, mentioning lots of gravy at that — the same broad benefits outlined by Thompson.

“I think this technology is probably some of the best technology put out since the taser,” Partridge stressed, noting he has firsthand seen some “serious crimes” solved and multiple potential suicides prevented because of it.

These sentiments were echoed by Calhoun County Sheriff Matthew Wade, who is now utilizing Verus in his county jail.

“We have — almost daily — analysts (from LEO) send us something,” he shared.

Wade detailed one example of an inmate who on a call told someone to go get a gun he had stashed, revealing the location. Authorities were then able to recover this gun before the inmate’s contact could, allowing the inmate to be appropriately prosecuted.

The sheriff said several crimes have been solved in Calhoun County that occurred outside the jail walls but were talked about over the prison phones.

“Having this technology is paramount,” Wade emphasized, outlining that the difference between Verus and traditional prison phone company monitoring is night and day.

He called the traditional, non-Verus method “the least effective way” possible. Wade, like Thompson and Partridge, praised potential suicide preventions as a key result for his jurisdiction.

“Intelligence-led policing is the future,” Wade added.

McKinney, Blanchard cases

While Wade very well might be right, it would seem intelligence-led policing’s time is now, too.

Just take the McKinney and Blanchard cases as prime examples — crimes that occurred outside of jail walls and rocked entire communities, with waves being felt around the United States.

First, before McKinney’s abduction become national news, she was the talk of the Jefferson County jail.

Yellowhammer News has learned that Verus helped identify approximately 20 phone calls about McKinney from the night she went missing alone. The calls identified potential witnesses and suspects alike that were at that point unknown to authorities.

A source with direct knowledge confirmed that authorities were even able to firmly place Patrick Devone Stallworth, one of the now-charged suspects, purchasing candy because Verus alerted to the keyword “candy.” Additionally, authorities were alerted to a call about exactly how McKinney was lured away from the party from a Jefferson County jail phone call, confirming what on-scene witnesses said. The totality of the information from calls into and out of the jail helped lead to the recovery of her remains.

Verus’ involvement with the Blanchard case is perhaps even more striking.

At the time of her disappearance, no entity in Lee County or Montgomery County was utilizing LEO Technologies.

Approximately one week into the search for Blanchard, the Montgomery City Jail requested to begin using Verus. After approximately another week that it took for the respective prison phone company to comply and allow LEO Technologies the proper access, the results started almost immediately.

A source close to the investigation confirmed to Yellowhammer News that on November 10, Montgomery Police Department received a tip in reference to a truck possibly involved in the disappearance. The word truck was then added as a keyword into that jurisdiction’s Verus alert list, and the following day, the system alerted to a phone call with that keyword used several times that seemingly helped solve the case.

In that phone call, it is alleged that Fisher, who had been arrested on unrelated warrants the previous day and was an inmate at the time, was extensively talking to an individual outside the jail about Blanchard’s disappearance. In said phone call, Fisher was personally implicated as having involvement with the aftermath of Blanchard’s disappearance, including having been in her car. Fisher reportedly warned the individual not to call the police, although the individual wanted to. Another suspect was also allegedly implicated in this same phone call.

After Verus alerted to the phone call, LEO obtained a copy through the prison phone company and gave the copy to Auburn Police Department. This was the piece of evidence that led to Fisher, then back out of jail, being picked up by Auburn PD on November 22. Sources close to the investigation confirm that the call also ended up being crucial in locating and recovering Blanchard’s remains.

What else can LEO Technologies help solve?

While the apparent closure of these two high-profile cases are two more examples of crimes committed outside of prison walls being aided by Verus, Alabama especially has an ongoing crisis in its corrections facilities.

This past spring, the Department of Justice’s (DOJ) Civil Rights Division and the U.S. Attorney’s Offices for the Northern, Middle and Southern Districts of Alabama concluded that there is reasonable cause to believe that the conditions in Alabama’s prisons for men violate the Eighth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution — the prohibition against “cruel and unusual” punishment.

While public examples of the conditions — from prison violence to overcrowding and inadequate resources — have been reported on for years, Melissa Brown just this month published yet another tear-jerking account of Alabama inmates’ “horrid” experiences.

While some action has been taken on the state level in recent years, there is still clearly much to be done, especially to reduce inmate deaths.

“Alabama Dept. of corrections confirms 3 inmate deaths in 8 days.” That’s a headline from last month.

“2 inmates found dead in Alabama prisons.” That happened on Monday of this week.

These examples are the norm, not the exception.

However, while there is an acceptance by legislators and state officials that something must be done, there is still seemingly no consensus on what solution(s) should be implemented.

The governor has convened a study group to gather all of the relevant data and propose solutions. That group is set to hold its final meeting on January 12 ahead of the February 4 start of the 2020 regular session of the Alabama legislature.

State Sen. Cam Ward (R-Alabaster), viewed as the leading legislator on corrections and criminal justice reform, has explained that the prison problem is no “one bill, one solution” issue. He has emphasized the complexity of the crisis, as well as the necessarily multifaceted nature of any potential package of solutions.

Yet, lines are already being drawn by some. State Rep. Matt Simpson (R-Daphne), a career prosecutor before his election in 2018, on Friday argued against sentencing reform as a potential part-solution.

Governor Kay Ivey, for her part, will drive much of this conversation in 2020, just as she did on major bipartisan issues like the Rebuild Alabama Act last time around.

In an op-ed earlier this, she detailed the problems, some things done in recent years to start improving conditions and what more needs to be accomplished. As she wrote, Ivey wants “an Alabama solution” for what is surely an Alabama problem.

While potential proposals such as sentencing reform and new prison construction are sure to be political wedges, there may be one bipartisan, commonsense change to be made. As Jefferson County, the Metro Area Crime Center, Calhoun County and now Montgomery City Jail have witnessed firsthand (Talladega is also in the process of going online), LEO Technologies’ Verus system is making tangible positive impacts on the very worst issues that Alabama is facing in its prisons: suicide, violent inmate-on-inmate crime and contraband-related problems.

Alabama solutions for Alabama problems

Yellowhammer News spoke with LEO’s Sexton, who said the company has had conversations with the Alabama Department of Corrections and senior members of the governor’s staff, including chief of staff and former Congressman Jo Bonner. Conversations are ongoing between ADOC and LEO. The state has recognized and embraced the need first to address staffing shortages, and the company invites corrections to try out its technology as a complement to those efforts.

Sexton said, “Governor Kay Ivey has asked for Alabama solutions … for Alabama problems. I believe we have one, and I’m working through the proper channels to get it in front of her for consideration.”

“I’m an Alabama boy that was adopted by Alabama officials to solve Alabama problems (in Jefferson County and the subsequent partners),” he continued. “I love my state, and this is a hometown problem for me. I want Alabama to win every time.”

Sexton advised Yellowhammer News that LEO is offering 90-day trials for any Alabama law enforcement agency or corrections facility (or “bundle” of agencies/facilities like the Metro Area Crime Center) 700 beds or over that want to see the product work for themselves before making a long term commitment.

“We have past performance of dealing with every issue the state of Alabama has had,” he added.

He also stressed that this is a bipartisan measure. While Hale, a Republican, as sheriff in Jefferson County first brought LEO in mainly because of violent crime, now-Sheriff Mark Pettway, a Democrat, has been able to focus on different benefits through improving inmate welfare.

Sexton also addressed head-on one potential talking point of naysayers: privacy concerns with the system automatically monitoring inmate phone calls.

“An inmate phone call is a consensual phone call, and it has been upheld for the last 30 years that … anything you say on those calls is evidence,” he said. “That’s the beautiful part about our tool. Anything discussed on the inmate phone call is for the benefit of society. Well upheld.”

In fact, LEO has a major civil rights organization in its corner.

Don Baylor with the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC), the organization co-founded by Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., praised LEO Technologies and Verus in an interview with Yellowhammer News. He said he was “so impressed with the technology they offer.”

“They’re so effective at saving lives,” Baylor extolled.

He noted the SCLC was heavily involved with prison reform efforts as well.

Baylor continued to explain that LEO has been a big help with what they are doing in that regard. He underlined that Sexton is a big believer in giving deserving inmates second chances and actively aids in inmate education and rehabilitation initiatives.

‘I think they’re losing out’

To all of the corrections facilities and law enforcement agencies not using Verus in Alabama right now, Baylor urged them to get on board.

“Once this technology is understood, all of the things that it can do, I think it could revolutionize some of the issues that we have,” Baylor said.

He was joined by all of the law enforcement officials Yellowhammer News spoke to in making this call-to-action.

Thompson said Verus is worth it “if you can prevent (just) one jail suicide.”

Partridge added of facilities and agencies not using Verus, “I think they’re losing out by not taking advantage of the technology — not only the crimes they could be solving with it but also preventing those inmate deaths.”

“We’re doing everything we can to keep people safe inside jail — and then get them out of jail,” Sexton summarized. “And isolate the bad actors.”

If all of the above testimonials are not enough, Ferreira, the veteran detective and California transplant now working as LEO’s embed in the Heart of Dixie, told Yellowhammer News that he would not be in Alabama spearheading Verus’ usage if it did not work.

“I equate the technology we have to fishing with a fish finder,” he said. “I believe in the product. I was offered several other jobs prior to choosing to come here after I retired. But I was so impressed with the product and how effective it is that I wanted to be a part of it. Because I’m still doing police work but doing it in a different form. If I didn’t believe in the product, I wouldn’t be here.”

Sean Ross is the editor of Yellowhammer News. You can follow him on Twitter @sean_yhn

13 hours ago

VIDEO: Prisons could be built with COVID-19 funds, Shelby endorses Katie Britt for Senate, Brooks battles with Swalwell as a new poll shows big lead and more on Alabama Politics This Week …

Radio talk show host Dale Jackson and political consultant Mecca Musick take you through Alabama’s biggest political stories, including:

— Will Alabama really use COVID-19 relief funds to build prisons?

— Does Katie Britt’s entering of the U.S. Senate race shake things up, or has U.S. Rep. Mo Brooks (R-Huntsville) already won this race?

— Can U.S. Sen. Joe Manchin (D-WV) keep the more radical members of the Democratic Party at bay?

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Jackson and Musick are joined by former U.S. Attorney Jay Town to discuss the issues facing the state of Alabama this week.

Jackson closes the show with a “Parting Shot” directed at those who want to use the illegally acquired tax returns of the uber-wealthy to push for higher taxes. He argues the released returns show that we should implement a flat tax and do away with all deductions.

Dale Jackson is a contributing writer to Yellowhammer News and hosts a talk show from 7-11 AM weekdays on WVNN and on Talk 99.5 from 10AM to noon.

16 hours ago

Auburn’s David Housel tackles more than sports in ‘From the Backbooth at Chappy’s’

When David Housel retired from Auburn University in 2006, after a legendary career as athletics director for the Tigers, it wasn’t long before his wife urged him to get busy again – and a deli on Glenn Avenue in Auburn was the beneficiary.

“Susan wanted me to do something to get out of the house,” Housel recalls. “I started going to Chappy’s to drink coffee, read the paper. Pretty soon, Kenny Howard would meet me there, and it just kind of grew from there.”

In short order, friends of Housel began to gather, first a few one day a week and then, just prior to the pandemic, 12-16 people nearly every day of the week.

They meet at Chappy’s, where a plaque commemorates Housel’s booth, and they talk – about sports, of course, but about pretty much anything that’s on their minds.

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Housel began to write essays about those mornings, posting them to Facebook. He’s now compiled more than 100 of those pieces into a new book, “From the Backbooth at Chappy’s: Stories of the South: Football, Politics, Religion, and More.” It’s officially released next week at a series of book signings at Chappy’s in the Auburn area from 10 a.m.-2 p.m. each day: Tuesday in Auburn, Wednesday in Montgomery and Thursday in Prattville.

“Consider this Housel unleashed,” the author says. “Most of the stuff I’ve written in my life has been about Auburn on an Auburn platform. Even after I retired, I was a representative of Auburn, even though I wasn’t working there. This is not an Auburn book. It’s about football, politics, religion and more.”

“From the Backbooth at Chappy’s,” with a foreword by Auburn graduate and acclaimed journalist Rheta Grimsley Johnson, evolved as Housel’s morning gatherings at Chappy’s evolved, though he began writing the essays fairly early in the process.

“When something is in your mind, in your heart, in your head, if you’re a writer, it just has to come out, and it just comes through your fingers,” Housel says. “Turns out people like to read it, so I got the Facebook page. I shared thoughts and essays and that kind of thing. It was not a planned thing.”

When COVID-19 came along, Housel decided to listen to a few folks who told him his musings would make a good book.

“I had been thinking a lot about it, and it was time to do it,” Housel says.

Housel has written six other books. Most have to do with Auburn sports history, but one, “From the Desk of David Housel,” is similar to “From the Backbooth at Chappy’s.”

“That one was primarily sports, but it had some other things in it,” Housel says. “This one is about the other stuff, but it has some sports in it.”

Though the three topics in his book’s title – football, politics and religion  – are often the subjects people are warned not to bring up if they want to keep the peace, Housel and his friends don’t shy away from any of them. Housel especially gravitates toward religious topics.

“I like the ones that I hope make people think,” he says of his essays. “The good Lord gave us a mind, and we’re supposed to use it. Too few people who call themselves Christians do what the Lord said and use their minds. … Faith has got to be built not on challenging God but questioning God. I think God likes that, because it shows we’re engaged and that we care.”

Now that the pandemic is ending, the Backbooth at Chappy’s events are slowly but surely returning to normal. On Mondays, Housel eats two eggs scrambled, lean bacon and a helium biscuit; on Tuesdays maybe a parfait with granola; on Wednesdays, it’s blueberry pancakes, and Fridays a waffle.

What remains constant is the conversation. And the writing.

“I’m still writing the Backbooth, and since the first of the year, I’ve written a couple I think are book-worthy,” Housel says. “I started out doing maybe one a week, but I’m old enough that I don’t have to meet a self-imposed deadline. When the spirit moves me, I write.”

(Courtesy of Alabama NewsCenter)

18 hours ago

State Rep. Pringle pushes to ban critical race theory in public schools — ‘Woke culture indoctrination,’ ‘Needs to be stopped in its tracks’

Last week, Florida’s Board of Education banned so-called “critical race theory” from its public schools, and it is a move State Rep. Chris Pringle (R-Mobile) hopes to follow in Alabama.

Critical race theory, a belief that racism is ingrained in some of America’s sacred institutions, is widely panned by critics because it distorts and weaponizes history for political gain.

Friday, Pringle discussed his prefiled bill for the Alabama Legislature’s 2022 regular session to prohibit critical race theory from being taught in Alabama’s public schools.

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“It’s simply a bill that says in public education, you can’t teach or indoctrinate our children with critical race theory,” he said. “People are waking up all around the nation to how bad this stuff is. I mean, this is woke cancel culture gone completely amuck. They want to completely disregard our 14th and 15th Amendment rights, the Voting Rights Act, the Civil Rights Act. If you don’t agree with them — here’s what’s crazy: They want to send you to a reeducation camp. Think about that, a reeducation camp. Don’t they do that in China, Russia and North Korea?  That’s how bad this stuff is. Either you agree with them or you have to be sent off to a reeducation camp.”

“This is just indoctrination — the woke culture indoctrination of our children,” Pringle continued. “That’s all it is and it needs to be stopped in its tracks. I mean, our children need to learn history and we ought to open a frank discussion about history — the good, the bad. But this is not about good or bad. This is teaching our children that our nation is a bad nation, is an evil nation and is not the great country that we live in. We are the safest, freest people in the world and that’s what our children need to learn.”

“Do we have problems? Yeah,” he added. “Have we done bad things? Yeah. But we’re still the greatest nation in the history of the world.”

According to the Mobile County Republican lawmaker, the response to the effort thus far has been positive and supportive.

@Jeff_Poor is a graduate of Auburn University and the University of South Alabama, the editor of Breitbart TV, a columnist for Mobile’s Lagniappe Weekly, and host of Mobile’s “The Jeff Poor Show” from 9 a.m.-12 p.m. on FM Talk 106.5.

21 hours ago

Why Sylacauga marble is known around the world

If you’ve ever visited the Lincoln Memorial in Washington D.C. and stared up at the translucent marble ceiling, you’ve witnessed a piece of Alabama history. The ceiling is made of white marble mined in Talladega County’s Sylacauga (appropriately known as the Marble City).

In addition to lending its natural treasure to some of the nation’s most notable buildings, Sylacauga also holds the title for having the longest deposit of marble in the world. The bed of stone runs 32 miles long, a mile and a half wide, and more than 600 feet deep. The marble found in this quarry is especially desirable for two key characteristics: its purity and its durability. When paired together, these distinct qualities make Alabama marble some of the most desired in the world for large-scale buildings and monuments, as well as homes and sculptures.

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The History of Alabama Marble

sylacauga marble

The Sylacauga Quarry (Sylacauga Marble Festival/Facebook)

Marble is formed when limestone is subjected to extreme pressure and heat. In Sylacauga, the conditions are perfect for the formation of metamorphic marble. Sylacauga’s massive deposit was first discovered by Native Americans, but it wasn’t quarried until 1834, 20 years after army surgeon Dr. Edward Gantt stumbled upon the vein while passing through with General Andrew Jackson’s army.

In the years that followed Gantt’s discovery, Sylacauga’s marble business thrived. More quarries popped up, mining the marble for everything from funerary monuments to building projects to sculptures. By the 1960s, the use of the quarried marble shifted toward the utilitarian. Rather than being mined in huge chunks for building material, the marble was being ground down for use in products like cosmetics, diapers, magazine paper, fertilizer, fiberglass, toothpaste, and chewing gum. In 1969, marble was named Alabama’s state rock.

A Timeless Treasure

Sylacauga Quarry (Sylacauga Marble Festival/Facebook)

Today the charge for Alabama marble is being led by the Swindal family, who own Alabama Marble Mineral & Mining Co. (AM3). AM3’s 50-acre quarry in Sylacauga is the world’s only supplier and leading distributor of Alabama marble. Owner Roy Swindal’s goal is to reintroduce the world to Alabama marble, once again marketing it as a prized material for both commercial and consumer construction. According to the Alabama Department of Archives and History, around 30 million tons of marble have been pulled from the ground in Sylacauga since 1900. The Swindals hope to add to that number by continuing and improving upon the state’s tradition for many years to come.

Marble Mania

sylacauga marble

Sculptor Enzo Torcoletti at the Sylacauga Marble Festival (Sylacauga Marble Festival/Facebook)

It’s only fitting that a town built on marble pay tribute to the stone that brought its success. For the past 13 years, the city has celebrated its marble mining heritage with the 12-day Magic of Marble Festival. The festival, typically held in April, features several activities and events that are all free and fun for the whole family. Festival participants can take a tour of operational quarries and visit the Gantts/IMERYS Observation Point that overlooks the town’s historic first quarry. The creative side of marble is put on display at Blue Bell Park, where 25 sculptors create original pieces made entirely of marble. On the final day of the festival, the finished pieces are displayed and sold at nearby B.B. Comer Library. Other activities include a 5K run and a scavenger hunt.

If you can’t wait for next year’s festival and you want to see Alabama’s famous white marble in action now, there are several locations around the state to see it put to good use. In Birmingham, try the John Hand Building, Wells Fargo headquarters, City Federal building, or the Chamber of Commerce. If you’re in Montgomery, don’t miss the “Head of Christ” sculpture at the Alabama Department of Archives and History. It was created by Italian sculptor Giuseppe Moretti, who also happens to be the artist behind Birmingham’s Vulcan.

(Courtesy of SoulGrown)

22 hours ago

The economics of paying ransom

The cyberattack on the Colonial Pipeline by the hacker group DarkSide disrupted gasoline supplies across the Southeast. The company caused a stir by paying a 75 Bitcoin ransom to DarkSide. America historically has been opposed to paying evildoers, as reflected in the slogan, “Millions for defense, but not one cent in tribute,” and President Jefferson sending the Navy and Marines to fight the Barbary Pirates.

Ransomware raises many economic issues. A first question is, do hackers ever give the data back if paid? DarkSide provided Colonial Pipeline a key to decrypt their data. According to Proofpoint, this is the norm: 70% of ransom payers got their data back, 20% never got their data back and 10% received a second ransom demand.

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From an economic perspective, this is not surprising. About two dozen groups, identifying themselves by name and known to insurance companies, carry out most of the sophisticated attacks. Insurers would never recommend payment in the future to a group which has reneged. The hackers must deliver as promised to make money.

Some have suggested making payment of ransom for cyberattacks illegal. If no one ever paid ransom, the hackers could not make money. Refusing to pay ransom though faces two significant economic challenges.

The first is time consistency. Kidnapping illustrates this concept. Before an event, the incentive exists to say, “We will never pay ransom.” If the bad guys believe this, they will never invest the time, effort and expense to stage a kidnapping. Once they hold hostages, however, our incentive changes; negotiating just this one time now makes sense. Our policy to never pay ransom is not credible.

Collective action poses the second challenge. Businesses collectively have an interest in not rewarding cybercrime, yet individual businesses suffer these attacks. A business which does not pay ransom benefits other businesses, creating the challenge. Why should Continental Pipeline suffer losses to make other businesses less likely to be attacked?

Why do businesses pay ransom? Reports mention several factors. A business may face a closure of unknown length and cost. Customers’ personal information will be sold if ransom is not paid, leading to fines and bad publicity. And the hackers might sell proprietary information to competitors.

Good economists know better than to second guess business managers’ decisions. Decisions to pay ransom often involve the business’ executives, its insurance carrier and tech security experts. They know the options and likely costs and should make a good decision, despite the pressure of a crisis.

Insurance companies and government regulations reduce organizations’ vulnerability to hackers, which is good. But what about channeling President Jefferson and going after the hackers? Most of the hacker groups operate in Russia, which provides Safe Haven as long as the hackers do not target Russian companies. Some law enforcement options may exist. Federal prosecutors apparently recovered most of the Bitcoins paid to DarkSide.

Crime is a very costly way to transfer wealth. Stolen merchandise typically sells for one-third (or less) of market value. A criminal might have to steal thousands in property to net $1,000. Ransomware appears much more wasteful than traditional theft. Consider just the value of the time Americans spent searching for gas during the disruption. Remember then that the ransom was about $4.4 million.

Cybercrime makes us poorer. The hackers and defenders at tech security companies are highly skilled computer programmers. But instead of making new apps or games, they are hacking or defending existing computer systems. Add to this the service disruption during cyberattacks, the reduced use of technology for fear of being hacked and the time spent on security training. The costs may be $1 trillion annually, or one percent of global GDP.

We must guard here against comparing the real world to an imagined utopia. We cannot costlessly protect our property from thieves or our computers from malware, or make people no longer willing to steal from others. Economics teaches that there are no perfect solutions in life, only tradeoffs. Vigilance, antivirus programs and backup are the tradeoffs we face with cybercrime.

Daniel Sutter is the Charles G. Koch Professor of Economics with the Manuel H. Johnson Center for Political Economy at Troy University and host of Econversations on TrojanVision. The opinions expressed in this column are the author’s and do not necessarily reflect the views of Troy University.