I was up early Jan. 1, 2017. I wanted to start the New Year off right, that is, writing. Also, I had trouble sleeping. I blamed the champagne.
As such, I was the first person in Upstate New York to see the press release from Doug Brenner, the Oneonta Police Lieutenant who was set to be named Interim Chief that Thursday, stating that Joshua Underwood had been arrested for bludgeoning his boyfriend, Mark Morrison, to death with a 25 pound weight after a fight just after the dawn of the New Year.
It was 8 a.m. “Doug,” I groaned when I called him for details. “You have got to be kidding me.”
“Tell me about it,” he said in a voice I would soon get very familiar with.
I got a sinking feeling that this was a harbinger of things to come. And I was right. Jesus Christ, I was right. In 2017, I covered five homicides – including one with two victims – and two attempted murders. To put that in perspective, from Dec. 2009, when I started working for the Freeman’s Journal/Hometown Oneonta, until Dec. 31, 2016, I’d covered a total of three murders, and my boss covered one. Three of them were murder/suicides, so there’s no trial to follow up on. The other, Michael Buck, was charged with the shooting death of his father in 2013 and plead guilty.
The Underwood case was big news. And we thought it had died down, until June, when I found myself talking to a Sheriff’s Deputy outside a ramshackle scattering of sheds and campers that served as a domicile for Perry Webb, Arthur Bellinger and Scott Littlefield—until Webb stomped Bellinger’s head to a pulp and nearly caused the same fatality to Littlefield. Webb was found incompetent to stand trial in Nov. and remains hospitalized.
Then came August, when the battered body of 11 year old JacelynO’Connor was retrieved from a trailer in Norwich, where her half-brother’s father, James Brower, and his boyfriend, Tobias Rundstrom-Wooding allegedly raped and smothered her. Once you’ve covered the rape and murder of an 11 year old girl, well, all other crimes pale a little in comparison. By Christmas, when 23 year old Kevin Perry was accused of shooting his parents in their trailer in Laurens, I was almost bored with murder.
(Almost. I’m only human, after all, and nothing can beat the thrill of covering a big case.)
But reporting on crime made me a better crime writer because it made me respect what murder does to families. What it does to a community. That these crimes don’t exist in a vacuum, they aren’t forgotten with a tilt of a fedora or a witty remark. Gone was any hardboiled pastiche and in its place was a better understanding of how police solve a case, the methodical detailing that goes into small-town crime fighting. I talked on and off the record with detectives, investigators and our bulldog of DA, who tried and convicted CaseyCallahan, finally charged last year with the 2001 murder of his wife, Lizzy Welsh.
The best crime writing isn’t about the blood splatters at the scene or a gun with a muzzle still warm from a bullet. The best crime writing is about the people involved, how it affects them, how it ripples outward. Because it changes you. I’m just a bystander and I know that I’m changed. I think about Jacelyn almost every day. I’m never going to not know what I read in those files, the details I couldn’t print because they were just too brutal.
But even the darkest, most brutal writings need to have a human heart involved or they’re just a fedora on a page, a bunch of gaudy patter that means nothing.
New Year’s Day 2018 dawned quiet. I was still up too early, but my inbox was empty of press releases, and remained empty. The next day, I texted Doug Brenner, who was officially appointed as Police Chief last May. We made it through the first day, I wrote.
We did, he wrote back. Happy New Year.