Introduction to Corporate Serial Killers

There’s No Flag for That

“The greatest trick the Devil ever pulled was convincing the world he didn’t exist.” 

Keyser Soze, The Usual Suspects

Every year, thousands of police officers, sheriff’s deputies, and FBI agents across the United States search for approximately fifty active serial killers. They pursue those killers with the most advanced scientific and technical support, and with all the vast resources of our federal, state, and local governments. These fifty killers will likely murder almost two hundred people around the country before they are caught. 

But they will be caught. They will be stopped. And they will be punished. 

“You can’t get away with breaking the law, not when you’re killing so many people,” a homicide detective told me. “We will hunt you down.”

But what if they didn’t?

What if they didn’t even know about a new kind of serial killer, slipping past our precautions and our defenses, killing not hundreds, but thousands of people a year? 

Not all serial killers take sadistic pleasure in their work. Consider the mafia soldier, the hired hitman, or the gang enforcer. They kill for money, and many of them would prefer not to kill at all, if it doesn’t cost them. It’s not personal, it’s strictly business. But these criminals will kill if that’s the move that makes the money. 

This, too, is how certain corporations have come to act. 

It’s no surprise that big companies sometimes put profit over safety, but this is something different, something new. The few lawyers on the front lines of the battle have seen a staggering change. Yet no one else seems to have noticed, even as the legal protection for the most massive corporations, and only the most massive global apex corporations, has expanded to the point that even when they get caught, it’s still the money move to commit the killer crime. 

When I started my career as a lawyer, I believed in America, and I believed in the strong moral character of Americans. I still do. But during my two decades fighting in courtrooms around the country, I have caught a glimpse of something destructive. Something corroding our most massive corporations, and also ourselves. 

I have been able to peek inside these corporations, to read their secret documents, to listen in on critical meetings. They use every lawful tactic, and unlawful ones as well, to keep me out. 

But sometimes I get in.

Courts have ordered me not to reveal some of what I know. But not all of it. So I can tell you the stories in this book. I can tell you about Shane McGee, about how he was burned alive at thirteen years old, and about how the car company calculated the cost of letting him die. Five hundred people a year were burning. Engineers rushed to fix the problem, but management said no.  

That wasn’t the money move. It was more profitable to let those people burn.

So the company schemed, and lied, and broke the law, laying the foundation for a new American reality. That reality is all around you now, you just don’t see it. Not yet. 

But I do. Because, in bits and pieces, in lawsuits all over the country, the truth came out. The clues turned into a pattern, and the pattern, a picture. That’s how I know that corporations kill thousands of people each year. I have the proof, and I can show it to you.

I can show you why Shane burned alive on the side of a highway; why Chasity Glisson got strangled in her own bedroom; why Ariel Crohare’s little body ended up covered with bloody bruises.  

It was corporations that did it. Oil companies intentionally breaking worker safety laws, killing dozens. Automakers concealing known defects, killing hundreds. Pharmaceutical companies plotting to sell contaminated medicine, killing thousands. On and on, until the reality of this fearsome new corporate power becomes impossible to deny. 

These are our most powerful and most trusted corporate citizens. 

They are caught in serious criminal schemes at a startling rate. More than 250 of the largest corporations have been prosecuted since 2001. And many of them are recidivists, committing the same crimes again and again. As shocking as it is to discover how common it is for massive corporations to go criminal, this is more shocking still: I can assure you that most corporate criminals are never caught. The vast resources of our federal, state and local government are not hunting corporate killers. Law enforcement does not walk the tower offices of the global apex corporations. In fact, the Justice Department has lost interest in the kind of crimes committed inside corporations. White collar criminal investigations resulting in prosecution have cratered to almost half of what they once were. 

Not only are corporations likely to get away with their crimes, they don’t have much to fear, even if they are caught. When a massive corporation acts, responsibility is diffused among many individuals. Those with the most responsibility are insulated by the layers below them, just like in a mafia organization. It’s hard to build a case against the boss when it’s the soldiers who execute. Prosecutors do not have the tools they need to penetrate the corporation sufficiently to develop proof against a particular individual. Mafia prosecutors need wiretaps, and constant surveillance, and undercover agents—none of which are typically available to corporate crime investigators. That’s one reason why none of the top bankers were convicted for the endemic fraud in 2008 that devastated our economy. Prosecutors have, in effect, given up. 

Nor does the Justice Department favor indicting the company itself. Instead, the government now offers non-prosecution or deferred prosecution agreements to corporate criminals. The government agrees not to prosecute the company, and the company promises to stop committing crimes. It beggars belief, but—even though typically no individuals are prosecuted or even fired, and the company itself cannot be imprisoned or executed—in almost half of these non-prosecution agreements, there is not even a criminal fine. As you would suspect, these sweet deals don’t provide much deterrence. Crime pays, at least for these most massive corporations, and the proof is right there in the long list of corporate recidivists. 

Why do prosecutors go so easy? One reason is that the courts have made it almost impossible for them to win. The most massive criminal corporations have created a wildly successful backdoor campaign to convince the legal community that corporations are somehow the innocent victims of police and prosecutorial misconduct; that these corporations are marginalized and in need of protection; and that prosecuting these companies has unacceptable collateral consequences on innocent employees, consumers, and the economy. Judges across the spectrum, from liberal to conservative, have been convinced by this corporate “civil rights” movement. While courts have expanded government power to prosecute people, the courts have found hidden constitutional rights for corporations and their executives, and then used these “constitutional” rights to overturn many of the most notable corporate crime convictions.

The United States Supreme Court has gone still further, creating a new “constitutional” right that limits the amount of financial punishment in civil cases brought by victims. For a real person, or a small business, the limit is more than high enough to deter lawbreaking; but it is far too low to have any effect on the most massive companies. So, shielded from criminal prosecution and protected from adequate punishment in civil lawsuits, global apex corporations can now make more money breaking the law even when they are caught.

The judges who made these rulings were convinced by an idea, and our politicians in both parties have been captured by that idea as well. But the politicians have been captured by something else also: money. The courts have ruled that politicians can enjoy unlimited, secret financial support for their political campaigns. It may be legal, but it’s the very definition of corruption; and by far most of that money comes from big business. So our politicians, greased with corporate money and directed by corporate lobbyists, eviscerate our regulatory agencies in the name of “deregulation” and change the laws to boost corporate profits regardless of the body count. 

It’s our politicians who built the scaffolding for this new world, and it’s the corporations who own it. But blaming our corporations and our politicians is not nearly enough. 

The disease infecting these corporations has spread. It has spread to my profession, and many more. It has spread to our culture and our character. It has changed our country along with our corporations. 

With your life on the line, would you trust your fellow Americans if they could make money by letting you die?

When I was growing up, we had no doubt. At Mass, Father Hourigan made sure we knew that there were some things we didn’t do because of who we were, no matter the benefit, no matter the take. Every coach and teacher I ever had, including my father who was a coach and my mother who was a teacher, showed us how to sacrifice and to endure. I grew up near Fort Lauderdale, Florida, on the edge of the Everglades. Now it’s drained and cut, and the people here, most of them, have no idea of the wild that used to inhabit this place. But I felt protected. I felt protected by the people around me, who were good and would sacrifice to help me out, even strangers. That was America.

God knows we weren’t perfect. There was prejudice, and crime, and structural injustice. But it felt like we were moving in the right direction. Does it feel that way today? Does anyone doubt that we have become a greedier and more selfish nation, more willing to step on those we can, feeling no duty of obligation to each other? We have become a caricature of ourselves, the soulless human in economic models. Economics has replaced our faith, and instead of every one of us doing our bit, too many have chosen to become free riders. Surveys show that most American kids think they must do what it takes to win even if that means cheating. Our President brags about not paying his taxes – not paying one cent. And in case you had any illusions about the new American character, he lays it out. “That makes me smart,” he says. 

Don’t tell that to the Jesuits at Georgetown who educated me for justice. They believe that faith requires fighting for what’s right, like Father Ignacio Ellacuría, the Spanish priest and professor. He was killed in El Salvador for criticizing a brutal military dictatorship, for working on behalf of the people. Was that smart? Not to a draft-dodging President who faked an injury so he could playboy around New York with his daddy’s money while others fought and died. You can almost hear him telling his buddies: “That makes me smart.” But our President was wrong about fighting for your country, and he’s wrong about paying your taxes. Free loading off people who pay taxes is stealing. Stealing makes you a thief. Stealing from your country makes you a traitor. We’re Americans, and that means something. We don’t cheat on our taxes because that’s not who we are. 

Or at least it’s not who we were. 

I am a coach myself. Sometimes I am so startled by this new American character that I send my players, and their parents, this quote from The Parents We Were Meant to Be, by Richard Weissbourd: 

There is a kind of beauty in being a moral person… We are moved by kindness, generosity, and integrity. As William Falkner said, “We as a species need a spirit capable of compassion, sacrifice, and endurance.” Too many of us are too aggressive about promoting our children’s achievements and too passive about their moral lives. We fail to see something that almost every generation of parents before us has seen clearly – that purposeful sustained cultivation is needed to promote morality. I’m talking about children who develop a sense of obligation to carry forward the highest principles of their ancestors and to protect future generations.

You sow a character, you sow a destiny. What destiny do we want? Corporate profits are at their highest levels ever recorded. Most of that profit has moved into a small number of the most massive companies. The total revenue for just the hundred biggest corporations has devoured the economy. These global apex corporations use their money to erect monopolistic barriers against competition in order to dominate smaller companies, employees, and consumers. They use their power to buy laws they want and to defeat laws they don’t. 

The killer corporation has no body to be imprisoned and no soul to be damned. These companies face no execution, no prison, and no serious financial penalty. The legal protection for these global apex corporations has expanded to the point that they enjoy a legal license to kill. 

It sounds crazy. I know it does. But only because you haven’t yet seen what I’ve seen. 

A lawyer who represented tobacco companies called me one day. I’m sure he has witnessed things I could not even imagine. He wanted me to know that he was quitting. “The greatest trick the devil ever pulled…” he said. And then trailed off. 

We don’t even know what’s out there, right now, hunting us.

The global apex corporations have captured the government, they control the rules of the game, and they now possess even the crown jewel of corporate power: the ability to commit crime without consequence. That explains the growing economic inequality in our country, the political paralysis, even the extremism, anger and despair sweeping over so many Americans. 

Our founders and the Americans who followed, especially during the Great Depression and after World War II, built a defensive wall protecting our democracy and our economy from capture – antitrust enforcement, labor protections, anti-corruption laws, along with criminal and civil corporate liability. This wall was just as important to our freedom – and just as fearsome – as our military might. But the global apex corporations, along with a few predatory billionaires, attacked and decimated the other bricks in the wall just as they did for corporate criminal and civil liability. 

As the wall crumbled, our economy crashed into a kind of warlord capitalism. Corporate profits hit the highest level ever recorded, and the wealthiest corporations devoured entire sectors of the economy, concentrating economic power. The global apex corporations used that power to capture the United States government, both political parties, and even the courts. Bills supported by almost all Americans – such as paid maternity leave and anti-corruption provisions—cannot pass, while unpopular corporate power initiatives – such as corporate subsidies and even a license to kill – quietly become law. Global apex corporations now control the rules of the game, which will allow them to enrich themselves further at our expense, in a cycle that will not stop until we understand the new reality, look past our cultural divisions even as our country convulses in crisis, and make common cause against the true threat to our republic. 

Will we?

This is a book of stories. Stories of courtroom battles, of bloody bodies and of families who sacrificed to get a glimpse of the truth. 

That truth was hard enough to get, and scary as hell. 

But what’s coming next is scarier still. Economic concentration always and everywhere flowers into true autocracy; where corporations have more than just the power to kill unnamed, unknown thousands, but also the power to target and kill specific individuals. America is further down this path than anyone seems to realize. It’s almost too late to save our democracy. Consider these stories a storm warning to America for what’s about to hit. 

Where I grew up, we all knew before we could read what it meant when they raised two red and black flags, one on top of the other. That’s a hurricane warning, for winds up to 110 miles per hour. Of course, we would ask about more powerful winds, about the Cat 5 monster storm. What does that flag look like? One of the old-timers would tell us kids about Betsy. “There are storms,” he said, “that can tear down everything you think you know.”

Turns out, there’s no flag for that.