Memo from the Dead Zone | 1986 World Cycling Championships

Let’s take a trip back in time. The year: 1986 — the last and only year the US was allowed to host UCI World Cycling Championships since 1893. You’re about to find out why.

In the mid-1980s I was a columnist for the greatest cycling magazine ever, Bicycle Guide. They sent me to cover the Worlds in Colorado, and the following is my report. Consider it a little taste of what to expect next year when, for better or worse, the Worlds return!

That’s right. In 2015 the World Cycling Championships road race is scheduled for Richmond, Virginia — a state with hurricanes, tornadoes, hazardous seismic activity, toxic waterways, 31 Superfund sites, doctors in tents instead of modern clinics, a governor convicted of 11 felony corruption counts, and police who tried to force a teenager to have an erection to prove they saw it in private emails they spied on illegally. Yup, Virginia is for lovers. And, uh, racing.


originally published in Bicycle Guide, January/February 1987
Text and Photos Copyright ©1987, ©2014 SYDNEY SCHUSTER

Colorado Springs, America’s largest small town, wasn’t quite ready for the Worlds. After all, who else would sic police dogs on the World Pursuit Champion and ask you not to ride your bike in their hotel rooms?

I’m no good with small towns. I need large quantities of food at odd hours, department stores open ’til 9, all-night newsstands, winos who wipe your windshield because gas stations won’t, and 24-hour greaserias serving rotgut coffee. I’m a New Yorker. Bite me.

In the pantheon of small towns that should be avoided, Colorado Springs may be America’s largest. Its population, mostly somnambulant, consists of 375,000 tropes who seemed utterly unaware they were hosting a major international sports event.

Upward of 100,000 bikies had been making World Championships-related reservations since the previous January, but by August the Springoids remained staunchly oblivious even as cycling interests mainlined $10 million into the local economy. Few area businesses benefitting from this windfall reciprocated by donating primes to the Wheat Thins Mayor’s Cup street races, pretty much the only recreational entertainment available (and organized by David Pelletier, a savvy non-USCF East Coaster, natch). Because, you know, … duh.

Me, I saw the planets lining up upon my arrival at what I thought was a fancy B&B, but was more like a dorm in hell. The headmistress saw our bikes and demanded to know — wait for it — if we intended to ride them in our room. Huh?!

I tried to imagine her scenarios: The next track session is three hours away and every restaurant in town is closed (yes, that happened): “Honey, I’m bored. Let’s ride bikes around the room!” Or I’ve just met some interesting people who also shlepped bicycles along, like the Italian team (that happened, too): “Hey, let’s have some fun riding bikes around my room!”

Soon the headmistress found out I was press, which resulted in surveillance of my “gourmet breakfast” plate. Her “inn” publishes and sells a collection of its “special recipes” (too special to actually waste on guests, apparently). My leftovers (ie, everything) elicited a stern lecture from the management, who considered that a smart way to avoid bad publicity.

I have to tell you, this hippie moderne grub was everywhere, like acid rain. And they couldn’t even get that right. Hungry bikers turned militant as they searched in vain for bacon and eggs and burgers, and starved altogether from 3 to 5 pm and after 9, when Colorado Springs rolls up its streets — even when 100,000 tourists blow into town, dying to burn $10 million.

The city has exactly one diner (which I discovered on my way out of town) and barely enough late-night eateries to count on one hand. These establishments are distinguished by religious graffiti in the restrooms and menus featuring airbrushed, highly idealized photos of food-like matter. The pictures came in handy when the Japanese team (whose English was better than ours) failed at verbal communication with the waitresses, who eventually took orders by pictures. That is, after they finally stopped laughing and got up off the floor.

Where's the beef?

Where’s the beef?


Basic math
Ever notice how the ratio of small brains to small towns is in direct inverse proportion? I went sightseeing by bike and a local passed me in a tricked-out RV, yelling “Go Germany!” The jersey I wore was yellow, with my New York City club’s name on it. The Germans wear silver ones (East), or white (West). With German words, usually. Go figure.

I was luckier on my ride than others. Another hayseed drove his car over Olympic track star Shaun Wallace, and the police sicked an attack dog on world pursuit champion Tony Doyle. (Said Doyle after winning the pursuit gold with the teeth marks still visible on his calf, “I’ve got three legs he could have bitten. I’m glad he chose the one he did.”)

The Russians rode their bikes over to K-mart and were orgying inside when some hoods swiped their rides parked outside. Their bikes were recovered only because sharp-eyed neighbors noticed the $2,000 custom Colnagos with Cyrillic decals parked beside the Carrillo’s trash. [Hey, $2000 was a LOT of money in 1986. — ss]

Sensing something not quite right about that, the neighbors called the cops, who clearly needed all the help they could get. They never did find the $25,600 worth of equipment stolen from Campagnolo’s service truck.

Colorado Springs — a national treasure
No, really. Where else would contractors build bleachers to seat 8,000 by balancing them on little piles of sticks and sand? Where else would an elite international audience be expected to sing “Home on the Range”? Where else can you spend $100 on dinner and get food poisoning? (The Broadmoor, y’all — plan accordingly. I watched the men’s road race from the rear of a hatchback, alternately curled in a fetal position and vomiting in the bushes.) Where else would the Soviets end up in the Satellite Motel?

It’s somehow fitting that the United States Cycling Federation* is HQed in Colorado Springs. As small-time as small-town operations get, the USCF unfortunately was the organizer of this event, mired in provincialism to the bitter end. They blew a deal for network TV coverage. They let sponsors paint advertising directly onto the brand-new, state-of-the-art track surface at the US Olympic Training Center, on which many elite racers subsequently slipped and crashed. They mounted signs on all the velodrome’s rails, blocking most paying folks’ view. They recruited local rednecks to be road marshals; they’d never seen a bike race before, much less hoards of hardcore bike racing fans, with whom they interacted like the Berlin border patrol. There were a lot of fights.

Strategically placed advertising is key to viewing enhancement.

Strategically placed advertising is key to viewing enhancement.


Magic Beans
Judging by how late the town got the memo about the event, I’m guessing the USCF dropped the ball on publicity, too.

The one thing the Federation managed the shit out of was press access. They demanded we provide passport pics for photo IDs that they promptly lost. The USCF generously reshot them, gratis, then thoughtfully provided a broken laminating machine to not seal the magic passes. I call them magic because, although they looked alike, women’s prohibited them from bringing anyone inside the press area, while men could bring their entire families and their analysts, stockbrokers, refreshment dealers, Akita trainers, et al. In the end I was only able to enter the velodrome infield with a pass Bicycle Guide‘s staff was sharing.

Despite all that deluxe press access, conversation was discouraged with Soviets in general and forbidden with East Germans in particular. The Soviets had boycotted the previous Olympics in retaliation for the US boycotting the Olympics before that in retaliation for Russia invading Afghanistan, and the East Germans were beating the crap out of the US at this championship, so I guess us ink-stained hacks were America’s last best defense against them Commies. I talked to them anyway. They were nice. We were all rabid fans of the East German world champs Mike Hübner and Lutz Hesslich, who were there winning all the track events and looking like movie stars. They were gods to us.

Olympic and World Champion Jeannie Longo looks for an exit.

Olympic and World Champion Jeannie Longo looks for an exit.


A night out in paradise
Every convention has its party scene and this Worlds was no different. The only trick was finding it. Utterly no entertainment was provided for athletes or press.

Club hopping to find the party became an event on its own. I hit one strip mall after another. One deejay proudly informed me, “I’m from Iowa, and we’re at the same level musically as New York.” Sure. Whatever. He demonstrated by spinning up a stupefying disco cacophony of stuff listened to in New York by people wearing vinyl pants and shower caps.

I pounded the buckaroo meat beat until I struck gold. Everyone else had found it first — including the border patrol, food murderers, RV fans, unilingual waitresses, Jebus graffitists, bike thieves — even the deejay from the other club was there. One townie flew at me out of nowhere, shrieking that I better dare not take the empty barstool that was obviously hers because she’d left her wallet on it while she went to pee. Like, to reserve it. I am not making this up.

The track events had just concluded and the biciclisti were there, too, boogying with a vengeance. The crème de la crème of sports proceeded to rout the scum de la scum of Colorado Springs. By midnight the townies had retreated in disgust.

Closing time came and went (too many receipts to skim). The morals squad came and went (not enough paddy wagons). Into the wee hours the bikies danced on the tables, danced on the chairs, danced on the bars. Had there been rafters, they’d have swung from them.

No big deal, the clueless bartender assured me. “It’s always like this on Ladies’ Night.”

The next day I called it quits. A simpatico native asked to beam up with me.

“The people who live here think the UCI championships are an annual local event,” he told me, incredulous. “They’re already talking about next year.”

Call it a hunch, but I’ll bet it’s a cold day in hell before Colorado Springs hosts another Worlds. And that’s just fine with me.

Many-times Tour de France winners Laurent Fignon, Bernard Hinault, and Jacques Anquetil (and some guy) at a Colorado Springs press conference, wishing they were someplace else.

Many-times Tour de France winners Laurent Fignon, Bernard Hinault, and Jacques Anquetil (and some guy) at a Colorado Springs press conference, wishing they were someplace else.


Text and Photos Copyright ©2014 SYDNEY SCHUSTER – All Rights Reserved
May not be reproduced without permission.
*In 1993 the USCF was incorporated into USACycling. It didn’t help.

I make no money from this blog. If you find it interesting or useful, please buy my book Dead Spot. The Kindle version’s only $5 and you’ll love it! (Also available in paperback.) Thanks.

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HELP WANTED | The Myth of the Mighty Bicycle Messenger

Back during The Great Bike Boom of the 1980s, I wrote for an assortment of cycling publications. Mostly I covered racing.

At that time there was this inexplicable American obsession with big-city bicycle messengers — or rather, the idiosyncratic romantic heroes Americans imagined they were.

I knew many New York City bike messengers and was mystified by the out-of-towner’s fascination with them. Romance, my ass. We were in a recession, and they were just a bunch of good kids making a bad living the hard way. In 1987 Cyclist magazine asked me for a report. Here it is. Enjoy!

Originally published in Cyclist Magazine, August 1987

Copyright ©1987 ©2014 SYDNEY SCHUSTER – All Rights Reserved

Kevin Bacon making a delivery.

Kevin Bacon making a delivery.

Let’s start this thing off with a fairy tale that came true. The prince is Nelson Vails — Olympian, film star, and officially New York City’s most famous ex-bicycle messenger.

Popular legend holds that Vails was snatched from obscurity by Fred Mengoni, the US Bicycling Hall of Famer who founded GS Mengoni USA. That’s the NYC farm team that produced international champions Alexi Grewal, Leonard Harvey Nitz, Mike McCarthy, Steve Bauer, and George Hincapie.

The story goes that one day Mengoni spotted the Harlem native chasing racers on a beater bike in Central Park. Profoundly impressed, Mengoni was moved to buy Vails his first good racing bike. The rest — Olympic stardom, product endorsement deals, film role, nice house in fancy neighborhood — it’s all history now. From ghetto to Gollywood on the express track.

Vails became the first African American to win an Olympic cycling medal (the silver), back in 1984. He also won a gold medal at the prestigious Pan Am Games in 1983. Not for nothing, but Vails’ messenger nickname was The Cheetah.

In the press, Vails’ story sold like ice water to bedouins. Hollywood couldn’t resist. So instead of making a movie about that, Columbia Pictures pandered to the appetites of drooling yahoos enraptured with idealized urban rebels (or the idea of them, anyway). The result was the fawning 1986 tribute to bicycle couriers, Quicksilver, about a fictional white stockbroker played by Kevin Bacon. Vails had a cameo. He played a bicycle messenger.

The best part of Quicksilver is the exciting opening action scene: a street race between Vails on a bike and Bacon in a cab. (Saw it or not, you know who won.) The movie goes downhill from there. New York Times reviewer Walter Goodman wrote: “Quicksilver is as much fun as a slow leak.”

No doubt about it. Bike messengers are hot stuff. But are the genuine items really the scruffy-yet-lovable street urchins portrayed in the media? Or are they slumming yuppies like Kevin Bacon, or sports champions in training, or something else? Who the heck becomes a bicycle messenger, anyway? And does the reality live up to the hype?

Nelson VailsNelson Vails delivering the bacon.


At a spartan loft space one flight up from Park Avenue’s glitz, you’re welcomed into Amazing Racing Messengers by a scrawled Kilroy with a hole in the plaster instead of a nose. A crazy quilt of receipts, bike frames, posters and flags is the backdrop for Stella Buckwalter, a former racer. She looks like a fashion model, talks like a corporate executive and manages the business like an air traffic controller.

Most messengers, including Buckwalter’s, work part-time, furnish their own equipment and get a commission. Buckwalter’s are independent contractors who keep the standard 50 percent of what each trip nets, which is about $10. Buckwalter feels they don’t get compensated enough and loads them down with quarters out of her own pocket, she says, “to make sure they call for pick-ups.”

Not far away from Amazing Racing Messengers is its competitor, Born to Run. On the surface it seems antithetical to the standard courier company model. There are no random arrangements of tire tracks and chain grease. Floating amid glowing oak floors and pristine white walls is the only decoration: a landing strip of a desk covered with phones. Born to Run looks like an art gallery, sans the art.

“We just moved in,” apologizes owner Shelly Mossey, a former messenger with some great stories to tell.

While back office decor may differ, the function served by bicycle messengers stays the same. Or as Mossey puts it, couriers accommodate “anybody who can’t fax their package across town.”

Even with the proliferation of telecommunications and overnight air delivery, the cyclists’ immunity to gridlock and AT&T strikes makes them tough to beat.

Road to Riches! (Not)

Just so you know, messengers don’t get rich doing this. For 40 or so miles of daily riding, the average week’s messenger pay is a modest $250 to $300. A little ambition guarantees $450 to $600, and $1,000 weekly isn’t impossible for top earners.

But employee turnover is rapid — a messenger’s career is as spasmodic as a cabbie’s driving. And while they may have transformed communications, New York’s 3,000-plus messengers haven’t endeared themselves to the man on the street.

Despite superior bike-handling skills and a competitive attitude (plus any bull you’re asked to believe by Hollywood about stockbrokers-turned-messengers), these are not all middle-class bike racers.

The reality is that a relatively lucrative job with limited educational requirements is flypaper to immigrants and the underclasses. The racer look is often just vigorous posturing by wannabes with every reason to emulate athletes and no reason to take a driving test or learn vehicular law. Language comprehension and social graces are not givens, either.

The picture New Yorkers see frequently looks like this:

• A messenger zigzags the wrong way down a one-way street and then peels south on Madison Avenue, which goes north. He hits a pedestrian, who lies unconscious in the intersection. As a crowd gathers, he takes off without so much as a wave. Don’t want that pizza to be late!

• Joey is famous for his delivery uniform and style, which includes a hockey helmet complete with goalie’s mask. “He’ll ride the wrong way up Fifth Avenue, weaving in and out,” laughs Mossey. “At full speed. He’s totally crazed!”

• A non-English-speaking messenger drops off a package at the wrong address. The client is desperate. The frantic dispatcher tries to reconstruct the messenger’s trip. “Where did you come from?” he asks the messenger. The reply: “Cuba.”

• A messenger cuts off a bike commuter, hops a curb, scatters a gaggle of terrified pedestrians, and is stopped. A shouting match ensues. The messenger reaches into his pants as if to seize a weapon. Lycra doesn’t lie, clearly indicating the limitations of his defense options. Bewildered but relieved victims close in.

Despite the inherent chaos, it’s wrong to assume all messengers are guerillas. You’re just as likely to find gentle folk who can’t abide suits, or need flexible hours for auditions or classes. A cross-sampling of employees discloses lots of moonlighters from other trades: musicians, students, writers, artists, models — yes, even bike racers.

One of the latter is Craig Cook, a USCF-licensed junior racer. At 17 he’s more articulate and self-assured than your garden-variety teenager (or even your garden-variety racer). He looks like a choirboy from the waist up and a power sprinter from the waist down and doesn’t wear weird outfits.

Initially Cook was attracted to messengering by its mystique. That was before the pick-up that turned out to be a stack of dining chairs.

“But it also looked like a way to combine race training with a summer job,” he says. Now he finds that riding in fits and starts all day is stressful, and after-hours laps and Saturday races feel redundant. “By the end of the week,” Cook admits, “you’re sort of sick of bicycles.”

An interesting messenger subset is the small but growing contingent of women invading what’s considered male territory, because of the risks. One of them is Julia Ashcroft. Her purple locks are souvenirs from her last job, writing for a rock music publication in London. This American adventure junkie shifted to bike messenger mode, she says, “because the pay is better than a staff journalist’s, and I love riding.” She also loves the undeniable glamor of being a road warrior.

That last part, of course, comes with a downside.

Wild Kingdom

“It’s not an easy job, and it’s dangerous. It gets pretty wild for them out there,” insists Buckwalter. She estimates Amazing Racing Messengers’ crashes at one per week, “mostly minor. We try to get them to wear helmets.”

Trouble is a messenger’s shadow. Car doors open unexpectedly. Pedestrians cross against the light. One time a chicken-playing bus driver intentionally broadsided Mossey.

“Compare it to skydiving,” he suggests, remembering a messenger who lost two front teeth in an accident. “Take your eyes off the road for one second, you end up under a truck.”

Cook was prepared for bad surprises like oversized deliveries and rushes, but not certain others, like getting hit by a limousine that ran a light.

Casualties, which have doubled over the last five years, are a touchy subject. Sizable taxes and licensing fees are derived by the local government from commercial delivery activities, and the city doesn’t want the negatives publicized. But in 1986 there were 2,629 injuries and 7 fatalities in bike/motor vehicle accidents in New York. Pedestrians in the wrong place at the wrong time numbered 617, one of whom checked out permanently.

Who’s minding the store? The city claims courier services are responsible for insuring their messengers. Services claim their messengers are responsible for insuring themselves.

Just call it a free-for-all, because that’s what it is. Tired of dodging two-wheeled projectiles, irate citizens and businesses lobbied for citywide bike control several years back. City Council members and even Mayor Ed Koch jumped in, although Koch would jump into a vat of boiling Afrosheen if a camera was there. Steady streams of damning legal documents flowed between lobbyists and City Hall. Guess who was hired to deliver them.

The upshot was a toothless commercial regulation passed in 1984, Local Law 47. It requires company uniforms on messengers and identification plates on their equipment, so they can be more accurately fingered in the event of mishaps.

With messengers pretty much left to police themselves, compliance is unsurprisingly lax. Improvised head protection and comic book onesies rule. A courier named Juda authored and distributes a handout entitled Safe Cyclists Code [sic] in a sincere (if bone-headed) attempt at self-government. The Code dispenses jewels of advice like this one: “Don’t run red lights or ride against traffic without giving everyone else the right of way.”

So are couriers above the law, or what? Let’s just say they’re in a grey area of enforcement. This fact contributes substantially to their fearlessness, or foolhardiness, depending upon your vantage point.

One fellow sure to take the long view was standing on Wall Street recently, minding his own business, lost in thoughts of blind trusts and insider trading when one of Mercury’s own zoomed out of nowhere. Pedal and knee connected in a mighty crunch. David Stockman, former bad-boy budget director of the Reagan administration, went straight to the hospital. Do not pass Go, do not collect $200.

Legends die hard, especially ones about blue-collar workers in day-glo Spandex. Andy Warhol said that in this, the Electronic Age, everyone will be a celebrity for 15 minutes. It’s been a long trip from anthropological footnote to media darling, but for better or worse, the bicycle messenger’s quarter-hour has arrived.

Team Breakaway Courier — real messengers, really racing.

Team Breakaway Courier — real messengers, really racing.

New York City’s 1992 Team Breakaway Courier. From left to right: Craig Cook, architect; Mike McCarthy, 1992 World Pro Pursuit Champion; Kurt Gustafsson, competitive skier; and Rafe Diaz, MIA. Photo © 2014 Kevin Hatt


Sydney Schuster rides bikes, lifts weights and battles computers in New York City. She was hit by a bike messenger once. He is expected to recover.

Text Copyright © 1987, © 2014 SYDNEY SCHUSTER – All Rights Reserved
Photo of Nelson Vails © 2014 Nelson Vails
Photo of Team Breakaway Courier © 2014 Kevin Hatt
Photo & Video from Quicksilver © 2014 Columbia Pictures

Breaking: A new documentary about the life of Nelson Vails will premiere in New York City on February 15, 2014. It’s called Cheetah: The Nelson Vails Story. For tickets, go to Vails’ info page.

If you enjoyed this post, you’ll really like my book Dead Spot!

DEAD SPOT on AmazonSydney Schuster and Dead Spot neither approved nor endorse any third-party advertising that may appear below, nor do we derive any income from it. Feel free to ignore it.

Diagnosis Murder: Imaging as a Psycholegal Defense Tool

I used to be a regular contributor to the website — an unfortunate name for a fantastic publication read and revered by the entire radiology profession. Go check it out sometime.

I covered many aspects of radiology, but my hands-down favorites were legal-flavored. In 2006 I wrote the following story for, a look into the surprising ways medical imaging could be used to defend — or convict — people accused of violent crimes.


Diagnosis Murder: Imaging as a Psycholegal Defense Tool
Originally published in, June 29, 2006
Copyright © 2014 Sydney Schuster – All Rights Reserved

If the current crop of TV shows is any indication, medical imaging is primed to replace forensics as the cool crime-fighting science.

On the Fox drama “Bones,” FBI doctors use whiz-bang 3D virtual reconstruction to identify homicide victims. Imaging also popped up on all the incarnations of “CSI,” most often in the context of forensic autopsy, although one episode of “CSI: Miami” did raise hackles when iodine-131 was used as a murder weapon.

Of course, in these cases, imaging was used on the deceased victim. But in real-life crime dramas, imaging is being deployed in a new context — as a defense tool for those looking to back up a plea of legal insanity.

Consider the recent trial of Dena Schlosser, who was accused of fatally dismembering her 10-month-old daughter with a kitchen knife in the family’s apartment in Plano, TX. During her first trial, which ended in a hung jury, Schlosser’s team failed to convince the jury that voices in her head drove her to commit murder.

During Schlosser’s retrial, defense attorney David Haynes introduced new evidence that Schlosser had a midbrain tumor, which was spotted after she underwent a functional MRI (fMRI) test. The new defense tactic was that the voices Schlosser had heard were caused by this inoperable brain tumor. Schlosser was subsequently found not guilty by reason of insanity.

Schlosser beat serious odds when her brain tumor was confirmed with the MR scan. Now others are attempting to do the same. It would seem that defense attorneys order up MRI, PET, and SPECT scans so often that the topic inspired a lively debate in the General Radiology Forum.

“We had an attorney in the state’s public defender office (who) would get a PET or MRI (on the taxpayer’s dime) on every capital murder defendant,” stated one Forum member.

Such complaints inspired to investigate the use of scanning as a psycholegal defense tool (and before “Law & Order” beat us to it). Can a scan actually convince a jury that a person is not at fault for committing a heinous act of violence against another human being? Under what circumstances are scans most likely to be ordered? And how much liability do radiologists carry when they are asked to perform such exams?

Different states, different standards

Certainly defense teams can request an imaging exam, find a doctor to perform and interpret it, and submit the results as evidence in their client’s favor. But how likely are the courts to admit the evidence, especially as a bolster for the tricky insanity plea? The answer varies from state to state.

“The Texas formulation of the insanity defense is one of the tightest in the 50 states,” said David Haynes, Schlosser’s attorney. “In Texas, a person is insane if, as a result of a severe mental disease or defect, he did not know that his conduct was wrong. Unless a defendant can show a long history of documented bizarre behavior that has been observed by lay persons, he has no chance to use the insanity defense successfully.”


Primary glioma imaged on FDG-PET and 11C-methionine PET, revealing tumor glucose utilization and protein synthesis respectively. Image courtesy of Siemens Medical Solutions and Huashan Hospital, Shanghai.

Before the MR scan and the brain tumor, Schlosser had been diagnosed with schizoaffective disorder, for which hallucinations are a classic symptom. But that diagnosis alone was considered inadequate proof of incompetency by the Texas court.

Above, T1-weighted postcontrast axial image from the MRI series undergone by Dena Schlosser. Below, an axial diffusion-weighted image. Schlosser’s neurologist examined Schlosser after her first trial and, based on the MRI exam, testified that midbrain injuries could cause visual hallucinations. Schlosser had previously told psychiatrists that she believed God wanted her to cut off her child’s arms, as well as her own arms, legs, and head (Dallas Morning News, April 3, 2006). Images courtesy of David K. Haynes, Attorney at Law.

In 1998, Florida death row inmate Michael Robinson — who had pleaded guilty to first-degree murder — decided he wanted to serve a life sentence instead. In an effort to show mental incompetence, his defense counsel put in a bid for a state-sponsored PET scan, which was deemed too expensive by the state, and then a SPECT scan — dubbed “a poor man’s PET scan” by the defense. Robinson claimed his constitutional right to due process was violated when Florida denied him both scans.

Other states are more lenient. In Massachusetts, a judge felt a homicide defendant with attention deficient/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), traumatic brain injuries, and a language disability actually may have been unable to control his behavior. The court blamed the defense attorney for not mentioning those details during the trial, thereby depriving the accused of an insanity defense, and the defendant was granted a new trial.

In the U.S. territory of Guam, Joseph Hughes Valenzuela, accused of repeatedly stabbing his wife with a kitchen knife in 2003, was actually ordered by the court to undergo a brain scan. His criminal trial was set for June 30, 2006.

In New York City, Peter Braunstein underwent PET scans at the request of his attorney, Robert Gottlieb. Braunstein allegedly set a small fire in an apartment building and impersonated a firefighter to gain access to the victim’s apartment. He is accused of drugging the woman and raping her repeatedly for 13 hours, before fleeing with a pair of her shoes.

2006_06_23_14_17_12_706 Above, Peter Braunstein. Image courtesy of Below, Braunstein’s PET scan. Image courtesy of the Law Offices of Robert C. Gottlieb.

2006_06_23_14_17_25_706A neuropsychiatrist who reviewed the images said that Braunstein’s scans showed frontal lobe deficiencies consistent with schizophrenia. Additionally, a psychologist hired by the defense interviewed Braunstein at Rikers Island and said that he suffered from “psychotic breaks with reality, a systematized paranoid delusion and compromised ability to control his impulses.”

In December 2005, Braunstein pleaded not guilty to charges of sexual abuse, arson, kidnapping, burglary, and robbery. Gottleib is rumored to be planning a psychiatric defense (New York Daily News, June 2, 2006).

A felon in your future?

Many types of psychoses and dementias are identifiable by brain anomalies or pathologies on imaging, so the appeal of imaging to defense attorneys is a given, especially as technologies become more cost-effective.

A 2001 study found that among forensic referrals for competency to stand trial, the largest diagnostic category was schizophrenia (44%), followed by psychosis (43%). Overall, 18% of the present sample was found to be incompetent to stand trial, while 12% were found to be not criminally responsible or “insane” (Behavioral Sciences & the Law, September 17, 2001, Vol. 19:4, pp. 565-582).

Another study from the Yale University Child Study Center in New Haven, CT, found that of the 18 males in their patient sample — all of whom were condemned to death — all showed signs of prefrontal cortex impairment. In addition, “83% had signs, symptoms, and histories consistent with bipolar spectrum, schizoaffective spectrum, or hypomanic disorders” (Journal of the American Academy of Psychiatry and the Law, 2005, Vol. 32:4, pp. 408-429).

What is the role of radiologists when requests for these scans come their way? Does the imaging expert’s obligation end once this “patient” is out of the scanner and/or once the films have been read, or is he or she now a reluctant participant in a criminal case?

First, the type of practice can makes a difference. A radiologist in private practice can always refuse a referral to image a violent criminal. On the other hand, those who work for government institutions (federal or state hospitals) may not have that option, although prison-based doctors have successfully bowed out of certain tasks citing ethical concerns (Boston Globe, February 21, 2006).

When defendants are referred for imaging, the order may come from another physician who is acting on the request of a judge or attorney, or if the defendant has been sent to a particular institution for competency evaluation. Occasionally, proper protocol is ignored and attorneys will order imaging exams as will physicians who are acting as an expert witness, but are not licensed to practice within the trial state.

Radiologists can refuse to provide medically unauthorized exams, although they risk being called on the carpet for insubordination, especially if a supervisor has approved the order. But that may be lesser of two evils — accepting such a referral does carry some legal risk. Conducting an imaging exam without a medical indication is questionable. Imaging experts also may be held liable for performing medical exams on referral from someone who is not a doctor.

The request for the scan should come directly from a medical professional, although the implicit understanding is that the psychiatrist or neurologist is asking on behalf of an attorney, said Dr. Harry Zibners, chairman of the medicolegal commission of the American College of Radiology (ACR).

As for reading the scan itself, Zibners recommended that radiologists approach it as they would in a routine clinical setting, including a working knowledge of the person’s relevant medical history.

“I would not view this any differently than any other case that I agreed to read,” Zibners told “I want to have some kind of history. I would read it and interpret it like I would anything else. That’s what my job is.”
For the written report, Zibners again suggested that radiologists walk the straight and narrow. While it may be obvious to everyone involved in this case that the defense team has an agenda, the radiologist need not play into that by making any connection between results of the scan and the defendant’s violent actions.

“I would not (make that connection) because I’m not a psychiatrist, and I don’t have that kind of expertise,” he said. “The radiologist’s job is to demonstrate an abnormality if there is one. But I think the attempt to connect these abnormalities with certain kinds of behavior is overdrawn. I don’t think it’s appropriate to say in a report ‘There’s a certain kind of abnormality in the frontal lobe so that might explain why this guy killed someone.'”

If the medical expert working for the defense requests a consultation to go over imaging exam results, Zibners said taking that meeting is up to the individual radiologist. “It’s like any other malpractice litigation. The radiologist has to decide whether he will or he won’t. I bet most people would say ‘No.’ I think that’s why the radiologists are upset (by these requests) because they feel like they are being set up. They don’t need to get pulled into that (case).”

Above, regions of interest (ROI) examined in MRI study of patients with first-episode schizophrenia or affective psychosis and normal comparison subjects. Top (A) is a 1.5-mm coronal slice of the temporal lobe; the ROI used to evaluate the temporal structures are outlines. The gray matter of the superior temporal gyrus is shown in red (subject left) and green (subject right); more medially, the amygdala-hippocampal complex is shown in orange (left) and blue (right) with the parahippocampal gyrus underneath in pink (left) and purple (right). Below, a left lateral view of a 3D reconstruction of the cortical surface with the anterior superior temporal gyrus (light pink) and posterior superior temporal gyrus (red).


There is a chance that the imaging expert will be called to testify, but it’s a slim chance. What attorneys really want is an image that will sway a jury and give weight to a psychiatric evaluation, not testimony from someone who may not stick with the defense team’s strategy.

“Lawyers don’t want an unfriendly witness,” said Dr. Leonard Berlin, chairman of the department of radiology at Rush North Shore Medical Center in Skokie, IL.

Same subject. Above and below, axial MRI is used to present top-down views of the 3D reconstruction of the amygdala-hippocampal complex and parahippocampal gyrus. All images: Figure 1, Hirayasu Y, Shenton ME, Salisbury DF, et al. “Lower Left Temporal Lobe MRI Volumes in Patients with First-Episode Schizophrenia Compared with Psychotic Patients With First-Episode Affective Disorder and Normal Subjects,” (Am J Psychiatry 1998; 155:1384-1391).


If a subpoena is issued, don’t even think of ignoring it, Berlin said. “If subpoenaed by a court, you must obey that order. If you don’t, you’re in contempt of court and can be jailed. But you cannot be forced, except in rare circumstances, to testify as an expert witness.”

If subpoenaed to testify, consult an attorney first and your malpractice insurance carrier, as they often will cover lawyer fees. The ACR offers practice guidelines on being an expert witness in radiology.

Finally, Zibners suggested that if a radiologist is contacted directly by the defense team for a consultation, the practice or hospital’s legal counsel should be notified about the request as a courtesy, even if the radiologist refused the meeting.

Endless possibilities

So what are defense teams looking for with imaging? In most cases, they order neurological scans that will cast their client’s violent actions in a slightly more forgiving light. And radiologic forensic studies have indicated that tendencies toward violent behavior are manifested physically.

For instance, an FDG-PET study showed that temporal lobe anomalies can be linked to violent crimes, particularly homicide and sexual assault (American Journal of Neuroradiology, April 1997, Vol. 18:4, pp. 625-63).

Above, a coronal FDG-PET scan in a control subject. Note relatively homogenous temporal lobe metabolism. Below, a coronal FDG-PET scan in a 20-year-old male, with a history of unpredictable behavior and domestic violence, who shot and raped his stepmother and hid her body in a closet. Note low metabolic activity in medial temporal lobes.

D Seidenwurm, TR Pounds, A Globus, PE Valk, Abnormal Temporal Lobe Metabolism in Violent Subjects: Correlation of Imaging and Neuropsychiatric Findings. American Journal of Neuroradiology, Volume 18, Issue 4, pp. 625-631, April 1997. © by American Society of Neuroradiology.

In a poster presentation at the 2006 International Society for Magnetic Resonance in Medicine (ISMRM) meeting in Seattle, Danish researchers used 3D volumetric MRI to demonstrate that major depression caused measurable structural changes in the thalamus, inferior and middle prefrontal gyrus, and occipital lobe. Severe postpartum depression was the defense mounted by Andrea Yates’ attorneys when she was tried in 2002 for drowning three of her five children in the bathtub. Yates is currently undergoing a retrial and has pleaded not guilty by reason of insanity (, February 7, 2005).

Physical illness as the basis for an insanity defense has also relied on imaging to prove a disconnection — or disprove a connection — between a violent act and the defendant a la Dena Schlosser.

In 1998, Concord, CA-based physician Gary Parkison claimed AIDS-related dementia made him legally insane — and that’s why he plotted to hire a hitman to kill his former lover in a life insurance scam. Parkison was also convicted of setting fire to his office to dodge his lease.

Coronal MR scans from a chronic schizophrenic (above) and normal comparison subject (below). Note increase in CSF in left amygdala-hippocampal complex. Images courtesy of Schizophrenia Research Project and Psychiatry Neuroimaging Laboratory, Harvard University, Boston.


Parkison was diagnosed with AIDS in 1992 and, after he was jailed, an MRI scan showed brain lesions. In an HIV-positive patient, these lesions can lead to poor impulse control and a lack of judgment, according to the psychiatrist who examined Parkison (, May 1, 1998).

Liar, liar

And what if there are no obvious disease processes or mitigating psychological problems? Then bring on the “No Lie MRI.” Recent research has focused on differentiating truth tellers from those who are being less than honest. A study done at the University of California, Los Angeles, used MRI to determine that pathological liars had 22% more prefrontal cortex white matter and 14% less gray matter than normal controls (British Journal of Psychiatry, October 2005, Vol. 187, pp. 320-325).

An earlier controlled fMRI study at the University of Southern California in Los Angeles also showed that schizophrenics showed a distinct lack of functioning in the prefrontal region of the brain (Schizophrenia Bulletin, 2002, Vol. 28:3, pp. 501-513).

In another study, Dr. Daniel Langleben, an assistant professor of psychiatry at the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia, showed that deception is distinguishable from truth by increased prefrontal and parietal activity, and that fMRI clearly revealed frontal lobe activity associated with lying (Human Brain Mapping, December 2005, Vol. 26:4, pp. 262-272).

Group analysis showing significant differences in brain activation between Lie, Truth, and Repeat Distracter conditions. Row 1: Truth > Repeat Distracter; row 2: Lie > Repeat Distracter; row 3: Lie > Truth (blue scale) Truth > Lie (red scale). Images are displayed over a Talairach-normalized template in radiological convention. Significance thresholds for all contrasts based on spatial extent using a height of z ≥ 2.57 and cluster probability p ≤ 0.05, except Lie > Truth (blue scale) presented at a z ≥ 1.64, uncorrected. Image courtesy of Dr. Daniel Langleben.

Could defense attorneys start ordering MRI exams as “proof” that their clients are telling the truth when they claim they suffered from diminished mental capacity at the time of the crime and did not understand their actions?

Possibly. According to Langleben, the No Lie MRI system, when used in combination with a carefully controlled query procedure, demonstrated 80% to 92% accuracy versus a polygraph test, which turns in an accuracy of 50% to 90%.

“The problem with polygraph is that it seems to be operator-dependent and thus susceptible to manipulations,” Langleben told With the 3-tesla MR test, “no one ‘reads’ the scan,” he said. “The data is automatically processed with preset thresholds of significance.”

The No Lie MRI system has not been used in a U.S. criminal court case to date, although fMRI lie detection and brain mapping were used in 2006 to convict a rapist in Mumbai, India. Abhishek Kasliwal, 27, was accused of kidnapping and raping a 52-year-old woman at the compound of a mill owned by his father. Kasliwal underwent brain mapping at the Central Forensic Science Laboratory in Bangalore as a routine part of the investigation (, March 28, 2006).


While courts seem to be more open to using imaging in criminal cases, ethical questions still need to be answered. Neuroethics is the name given to a new field that encompasses the array of issues emerging from different branches of clinical neuroscience (neurology, psychiatry, psychopharmacology) and basic neuroscience (cognitive neuroscience, affective neuroscience), including the use of functional neuroimaging.

“Most of neuroethics theory is highly speculative at the moment,” said Professor Margaret Somerville, founding director of McGill University’s Centre for Medicine, Ethics and Law in Montreal. Scanning for insanity or deception “leads into a whole lot of other things,” according to Somerville. “What if you find someone’s got a hyperaggressivity gene? Does that mean they couldn’t help it if they did something aggressively?” she said.

There are other ethics issues as well, such as the application of imaging for nonmedical reasons and the potential violation of informed consent if the attorney is keen on the scan but the accused isn’t interested in being tested, whether by choice or an inability to make those kinds of decisions. “The patient has to agree. It can’t be done against a patient’s will,” Berlin said.

Haynes agreed with Somerville that the future of brain scans in court appears limited. “The law proceeds on the assumption that people decide to do bad things out of their evil hearts and minds,” he said. “This is the basis of the criminal law. If we’re now going to say we can scan a person and see why he engages in violent behavior, then why are we going to put him on trial or punish him at all?”


By Sydney Schuster / Copyright © 2014 SYDNEY SCHUSTER – All Rights Reserved contributing writer
Originally published June 29, 2006

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Eureka Hits the ‘Burbs! | My New Article in New England Home

One of my favorite magazines to write for is New England Home. My latest contribution is this fun update about smart home technology. Enjoy!

Copyright © 2012 SYDNEY SCHUSTER
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Wedding Music

This is an article about wedding music that I wrote for the current issue of Rhode Island Monthly Engaged. The photo here is just a screen grab. To read the entire article, click this link, or cut and paste the one below into your browser.

Copyright © 2012 SYDNEY SCHUSTER

Sydney Schuster
and Dead Spot neither approved nor endorsed any third-party advertising that may appear on this blog, nor do we derive any income from it. Feel free to ignore it.

Five O’Clock World | Was (Not Was)

I used to be the nightlife columnist for a newspaper. The column was called Five O’Clock World, after the old Vogues song. I’ve already explained this a gajillion times, so won’t bore you with the details again. The following is a club report I wrote in 2005. I’m posting it as a tribute to my departed friend, Josh Barber. Cheers, Josh.

Five O’Clock World
Was (Not Was)
Copyright © 2014 SYDNEY SCHUSTER – All Rights Reserved

Old clubs around here never die. It seems they just change names and reopen with different management. Such is the case with a couple of “new” lounges I checked out.

The first was Rusty’s (Wave Ave., Middletown), which in a former incarnation was the popular neighborhood watering hole called Overflo’s.

Though it has changed hands as well as names, everything at Rusty’s seemed comfortably the same on a recent Saturday night: the usual highly animated customers; a local band from the regular rotation; the familiar cheesy decor; the squirming line outside the miniature restroom; the rutted, parked-out parking lot.

As ever, the place was jammed. A cadre of loopettes commandeered the dance floor, boogying manlessly to driving rock‘n’roll and R&B tunes. The band providing them was Smokestack Lightning, the totally awesome project of Jamestown’s Josh Barber. A guitarist who’s a devotee of Stevie Ray and Jimmie Vaughan, Barber possesses staggering musical ability all his own that belies his tender age (25). Plus he’s really cute, which explains all the chicks.

As it turns out, one critical element of Rusty’s is different. I ordered a straight margarita and received — check it out — a straight margarita. I couldn’t remember the last time a bartender didn’t load up my margarita with ice and other useless crud. Score!

The way Rusty’s is losing money on the bar, you better go before you have to call it “the place that used to be Rusty’s.”

Josh Barber

Josh Barber


Being from a land where businesses stubbornly remain in the same families for all eternity, I find it amusing how the natives here describe everything in terms of what it used to be (as in “the place that used to be Overflo’s”). So don’t be surprised when you phone the new club Area Venue (3 River Lane), and the recording assures you “it’s where the back door of Friends used to be.”

Like Rusty’s, Area Venue lived a prior existence (in addition to Friends, apparently) as a place called Area 22. It was bigger then, and its front door on Broadway was easier to find. Area Venue is about half the size of Area 22 and its front door, to be honest, is in an alley. An alley exactly like the one with the bistro where Buffy and Principal Wood battled vampires on their first date.

Spooky? Kind of. But on the plus side, no vampires here yet. And Area Venue’s dance floor is now the perfect size. Its stage is elevated so that overwound drunks can’t slam into the band, only each other, as it should be.

The bar is on sort of a terrace that offers terrific people-watching opps for armchair dancers like me. No margaritas, alas, but you got your beer, wine, champagne, sake, juice, and endless combinations thereof. The bartender is indefatigably cheerful.

It’s all charmingly reminiscent of the punk-era pubs of London, especially the bathrooms. Not only don’t the stalls lock, but they have swinging saloon-style doors — the better to see you with, my dear.

Despite this one drawback (or value add, depending on your perspective), it’s just incomprehensible why a place this awesome is flat empty on a Saturday night.

Remembering the great wriggling hordes at Rusty’s, I ask the bartender whither Area Venue’s. Well, it’s been open for barely a couple of cold, nasty months, she explains, and “we’ve only had our liquor license for two weeks.” Another mitigating factor, she says, is that “people travel in clusters, following ‘their’ bands around. When we get an out-of-town band, it’s tough.” Ah, Newport — every touring band’s dream.

Indeed, the night’s music is provided by a New Jersey group, The Commons. They’re plenty good enough, playing original dance material for their sound check when we walk in at 9:30. They stop playing at 10:15, presumably to wait for more customers to arrive.

Now the band’s at the bar with us, drinking suds and watching “Design on a Dime” on the huge flat screen. (“Here, you hold the remote,” the bartender told me and then promptly regretted it.)

Me, I think an imported band is a fine reason to go anywhere. I hope others cluster on over to Area Venue, because I like this place and want it to stay open, swinging doors and all.

Text, Art & Photo Copyright © 2014 SYDNEY SCHUSTER – All Rights Reserved
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Five O’Clock World | Rock ‘n’ Bowl

I used to be the nightlife columnist for a weekly newspaper that was so chaotic, I had a different editor for every column I submitted. In the dictionary, next to the description of “revolving door,” there’s a picture of this place. Fun!

Anyway, the running title of my column was “Five O’Clock World,” and then each piece had a subject-specific title based on a song lyric. A cool musical theme for the club column! Get it?

Unfortunately, only my first editor knew this. I’d dutifully turn in my pieces and every new editor would change the titles without telling me. Then I’d submit invoices referencing what I’d named each piece, except they weren’t named that anymore, and then I had to call and beg for my money because the poor bookkeeper had no idea what was going on, either.

I bagged the gig after getting stiffed a couple of times and the sixth editor called to say he couldn’t wait to meet me. Maybe he meant in the parking lot, on his way out, if I got there fast enough.

The following is one of the “Five O’Clock World” columns I wrote in 2005. It was a blast while it lasted.

Copyright © 2011 SYDNEY SCHUSTER – All Rights Reserved


When I was in high school back in the last millennium, I hung with a bunch of delinquents who loved to go bowling. Actually, it wasn’t the bowling they loved so much as the rental shoes, which they always wore home.

Wondering whether things have changed any with this century’s young fashionistas, I cruised over to the Hi-Way Bowl in Middletown to find out.

Seemed like a pleasant-enough way to spend an evening. Every Saturday night from 8 until 11, the Hi-Way Bowl hosts a thing called Rock‘n’Bowl. I called in advance to get the details.

“It’s a DJ. And music. And a light show. Uh, and bowling,” said whoever answered the phone. There’s a $10 cover, too, but they throw in the shoes.

They also have a bar, which meant everyone would be too sauced to notice what a terrible bowler I am. So off I went.

It took a really long time to find the Hi-Way Bowl. First of all, it’s on a road with no street sign. And the guy on the phone had assured me that “it’s right behind the Ames.” Of course, the Ames is long gone. And natch, the Hi-Way Bowl isn’t on a highway. After driving up and down Route 114 for what seemed like weeks, I finally turned into the Home Depot parking lot on sheer gut instinct. I’ve been told I can smell a bar from the next county.

Sure enough, way behind the big box store and the Holiday Cinema and completely invisible from Route 114 is the Hi-Way Bowl. The parking lot was crammed with cars owned by people whose olfactory powers far exceeded mine.

I wasn’t sure what to expect once I finally got inside, but I figured a bunch of drunks slinging 16-pound balls around had to have some kind of entertainment value. But Rock‘n’Bowl is more than that. Much more.

First of all, there’s disco music and pulsing lights and semi-psychedelic projections on the walls. There’s a really polite, fine-looking hunk who relieves you of your cover money as you stroll in. (“Yes m’am, we do draw regulars on Saturday nights. No m’am, it’s a different crowd from the other times.”) Do people still steal the shoes, I ask? Occasionally, yes.

Sharing the building with the bowling alley are the Oddball Sports Bar and a video-game arcade. The edifice is better known to all and sundry as the “Halls of Balls.” Inside the bowling alley, the music is loud and fast. I’m reminded of marketing studies that proved customers in grocery stores that play up-tempo hits shop faster and spend more than those at stores (like mine) that play Spishak’s Greatest Hits of Plane-Crash Victims. I presume that’s the marketing tack at Rock‘n’Bowl, too, and it’s working. This place has 20 lanes, and they’re really getting down with the bowling here. It’s $3.50 per line. You do the math.

You’re probably way ahead of me here. To my mild disappointment, there was no caveman-like action with bowling balls, nor herds of snickering teens stampeding out with smelly, purloined shoes — just neatly dressed couples in their 20s and 30s, drinking and rolling in a civilized way. But Rock‘n’Bowl fans, I’m told, are eclectic. The Boston Celtics have been known to drop by.

So if it’s a Saturday night and you’ve seen every movie in town, and you’re sick of breathing other people’s cigarette smoke in clubs, and you like to bowl or just like the idea of it, check this out. It’s a great place to go with a bunch of friends. Call it a party and bring your own festive grub. The owners of the movie theater next door are threatening to expand their operation and “upgrade” the Hi-Way Bowl out of existence. Go while you still can.


Family Guy photo © Twenty First Century Fox Television
Text Copyright © 2011 SYDNEY SCHUSTER – All Rights Reserved

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