Showing posts with label true crime. Show all posts
Showing posts with label true crime. Show all posts

17 September 2020

Why I Don't Read or Write True Crime, Part One


I don't read or write True Crime. At least not anymore. And not for a long time. Given the popularity of the genre, and the subject matter of this site, I do not expect this to be a popular opinion.

But bear with me. Let me explain.

I grew up in Spokane, Washington. During my early teens the city was terrorized by the "South Hill Rapist," a serial rapist who focused mostly on the aforementioned South Hill, an affluent walking suburb of the city. When he was finally caught and convicted, the South Hill Rapist turned out to be Frederick Harlan {"Kevin") Coe, the son of the managing editor of the one the city's two major newspapers, Gordon Coe. In a twist right out of a Hollywood movie, Coe Sr. was responsible for monitoring a tip line set up by his paper, The Spokane Daily Chronicle, intended to help find the rapist who turned out to be his own son.

By the time the Spokane police caught up with him, Kevin Coe had been running amok for the better part of three years, and brutally raped dozens of women. His parents were socially prominent, "pillars of the community," and his mother was also a whack-job (who first tried to give her son an absurd alibi, and then went to jail herself for trying to hire a hitman to kill both the presiding judge and the prosecutor in her son's court case), so his trial, where the brutality of his rapes was put on lurid display, was a regular media circus.

As such it is unsurprising that Coe's crimes, capture and subsequent trial attracted the attention of one of America's great True Crime writers, Jack Olsen. Olsen, who had famously written for publications from Sports Illustrated to Vanity Fair, and everything in between, spent eighteen months researching and writing a book about Coe, the critically acclaimed Son: A Psychopath and His Victims.

I was sixteen when Coe was caught and convicted, working my first real job, at a hospital which sat right at the foot of the South Hill. And my parents bought and read Son when it came out a couple of years later. And once they had finished it, I did too.

Olsen, a Washington state transplant who passed away on Bainbridge Island at the age of seventy-seven in 2002, was a hell of a writer. I was transfixed by Son, both recognizing and not recognizing the setting as my own hometown. This monster, Kevin Coe, drove the streets where I drove, ate where I ate, hung out in the parks I and my friends frequented, shopped where I shopped, and raped a whole bunch of innocent women along the South Hill's High Drive, where I dated a few girls and attended more than my share of parties.

It was not the start of a lifetime spent reading True Crime books though. And it wasn't until years later that I even gave much thought to the question of why. I found the story compelling. The setting, Spokane, was a place I thought I knew well, and yet I learned a lot about it I might have otherwise never learned, simply by reading Olsen's book. And, as I said above, Olsen could tell a story.

I just didn't find anything particularly compelling about the psychopath at the heart of the story. As I got older this proved to be the case with the relatively few other well-written, exhaustively researched True Crime books I read: Vincent Bugliosi's superb take on Charles Manson and his cult in Helter Skelter. A compelling account, and horrifying in the details of the things those hippies did on Manson's orders. And it's a story rendered all the more remarkable because it was written by the man who brought the whole lot of them to justice (Bugliosi prosecuted Manson and his followers for their killing spree). And yet Manson? A career petty criminal who never killed anyone himself, but somehow managed to convince others to kill for him. I was no more interested in him than I was in Coe.

The guy who prosecuted Manson and then wrote one hell of a book about it.

I started Ann Rule's classic The Stranger Beside Me, which dealt with her collegial relationship volunteering at a Puget Sound suicide hotline with eventually convicted and executed serial killer Ted Bundy, but didn't finish it. Something about the way Rule both documented her relationship with Bundy and also excused herself for profiting from that relationship, which she continued to cultivate for her own ends long after Bundy had been arrested and sentenced put me off. I just found it gross. All of these poor women who suffered at Bundy's hands, terrorized, tortured, and brutally murdered, and Ann Rule's giving the guy publishing advice while he's in jail awaiting sentencing on kidnapping charges. 

Did Rule have any inkling what Bundy had done? She mentions earlier in the book that she discussed with a police detective the possibility of Bundy being the killer the police were searching for who had identified himself as "Ted" to a potential victim at a popular Lake Washington park where another woman disappeared that same day. But after his kidnapping conviction she withheld opinion (at least for the time being), and even offered to co-write something about his experiences and split the profits with him.

I stopped reading not long after that.

And in this particular profit motive, Rule was something of a trailblazer. Nowadays you have popular podcasts such as "My Favorite Murder," which bills itself as a "true crime comedy" podcast, and boasts thousands of fans ("Murderinos," in the show's parlance). I thought it only fair to sample this podcast before mentioning it in this post, so I listened to a few of its episodes. Definitely not my thing.

And then I mentioned in passing that I was writing about both True Crime and the current True Crime podcasting craze during a conversation with a friend and fellow writer who once harbored ambitions of writing within the genre (he has since moved on to other genres). His response was worth quoting, so here it is, with his permission:

I especially dislike the hybrid true-crime memoir. If I’m immersed in a compelling story of murder, I don’t want to see the storyteller run the camera on themselves and tell us all about their relationship problems or their ailing grandparents or their struggles to get into grad school unless they have a direct and compelling connection to the people, places and events of the murder story.  (And “she was my second cousin, two twins over, we hung out a couple times at summer camp” doesn’t cut it.) It is cognitively dissonant in the extreme; it is the bait-and-switch technique of a literary used-car salesman. “Murder, grief, loss, community impact ... but let’s talk about my ex-boyfriend for the next fifteen pages and then weave in the fact that I lived in the murder town for a few months.” Who decided there was an audience for that?

The comfort food of a literary non-snob
Now let me be clear: I have things I love to read that would likely make you laugh out loud. I am not above diving in to pure escapism strictly for escapism's sake. I am many things: but a literary snob is not one of them. And I'm not slagging people who like to read this stuff, or enjoy these podcasts. I just don't, and I figured if I was going to broadcast this opinion, I really ought to deeply examine why. 

When I was in college I took a philosophy class in which the professor had us read M. Scott Peck's People of the Lie, and Hannah Arendt's stunning Eichmann in Jerusalem wherein she explored the seeming ordinariness of fugitive Nazi bureaucrat Adolf Eichmann. Eichmann, an architect of Hitler's "Final Solution" (extermination of the Jews), had fled Nazi Germany shortly after the end of World War II, and successfully evaded capture in South America for nearly two decades until Israeli intelligence agents tracked him down and captured him outside Buenos Aires, Argentina in May, 1960. Then they smuggled him out of Argentina, to Jerusalem, where the Israeli government put him on trial for war crimes. For her portrait of Eichmann, who was soft-spoken, slightly built, balding, near-sighted, and possessed of the demeanor of a clerk, Arendt coined the phrase, "The banality of evil."

Which takes me full circle: Coe, Manson, Bundy.  A hundred naked meth addicts running from the police in a variety of episodes of "COPS." Banal, bland, uninteresting monsters, not worth giving a second glance or a moment's attention.

Why should their willingness to visit untold misery and pain on innocent people profit them in the slightest? What is it about their innate viciousness that renders them worth my time and attention? Again, if you find this sort of thing compelling, you want to know what makes serial killers tick, I can understand and respect that. It's just not my thing.

But that's only half of the reason why I don't read or write True Crime.

The other half I'll expand upon in my next post in a couple of weeks, when I talk about my day gig, and how it's brought me into close contact with a variety of criminals and their victims.

See you in two weeks.

19 August 2019

Robert Johnson and the Hell Hound


Last Friday, August 16, was the 42nd anniversary of Elvis Presley's death. It was also the 81st anniversary of the death of an even more important music figure. On the same date in 1938, Robert Johnson, often called the King of the Delta Blues, died after drinking a bottle of poisoned whiskey. The story could become a great true-crime book if I had the bent for the massive research necessary, but I don't. Johnson's saga has already fueled works in various genres anyway.

Born May 8, 1911, Johnson was the guitar hero around the Mississippi Delta, standing on a pinnacle with Charley Patton, Son House, and nobody else. He only recorded 29 songs over the course of two sessions, one in a San Antonio hotel room in November 1936 (22 tracks in two days) and a Dallas hotel room over a weekend the following June (20 more tracks). The recording logs say 17 more tracks were recorded, but nobody knows what happened to them. We have 42 surviving tracks, one or two takes of 29 iconic blues songs.

Columbia released a vinyl LP of 15 songs in 1961, and among the musicians who heard Johnson for the first time were Eric Clapton,
Eric Clapton, circa 1968
Keith Richards, Jimmy Page,
Jimmy Page with the Yardbirds
Brian Jones, and Mike Bloomfield.
Mike Bloomfield
That spark fanned the flame of the American blues revival and the British Invasion. An LP of the remaining songs appeared in 1970 and stoked the earlier frenzy. There have been three remastered CD sets of Johnson's work. The last two went platinum, the latter in less than a week.

What did Johnson give us? Well, Eric Clapton played "Ramblin' on my Mind" with John Mayall's Bluesbreakers after he left the Yardbirds. He still considers "Cross Road Blues" his trademark song since he recorded it live with Cream in 1968. That trio also covered "From Four Until Late." Elmore James had a 1951 hit with his slide version of "I Believe I'll Dust My Broom." Delaney and Bonnie and Johnnie Winter each recorded "Come on in My Kitchen." Led Zeppelin played "Traveling Riverside Blues" in their live sets. I first heard "Walkin' Blues" on a Paul Butterfield album (Mike Bloomfield played guitar), and the Grateful Dead often played it live. The Rolling Stones did a killer version of "Love in Vain," mostly when Mick Taylor was their slide maestro. The Charlatans covered "32-20" on an early LP, and I can't begin to count the artists who have performed "Sweet Home Chicago."

That's a pretty good showing for a man who died three months after turning 27.

We have only two existing photographs of Robert Johnson, and they both show him holding a guitar in his amazingly long fingers, which may account for his virtuosity.
Along with that skill, sometimes attributed to his selling his soul to the Devil at a crossroads, Johnson earned a reputation as a lover of both whiskey and women, not always single. He carried on publicly with ladies who wore another man's ring, and it caught up with him in July of 1937.

He and Dave "Honeyboy" Edwards were performing at the Three Forks Store & Jook House when someone sent up a bottle of scotch for Robert. Edwards noticed that the seal was broken and knocked it out of his friend's hand with the warning "Don't never take a drink when the seal's broke."
The Jook joint where Johnson probably drank the poisoned
bottle of scotch, served by a jealous husband.

Johnson didn't listen. Another bottle appeared shortly and he drank heavily while playing. By late in the evening, he was very ill and showed symptoms of what was probably arsenic poisoning. He was making time with the wife of the man who owned the roadhouse, and since rats were around, so was poison. Johnson suffered for several days and contracted pneumonia, passing away on August 16.

This was in Greenwood, Mississippi. the local white sheriff didn't give two hoots about some dead colored singer, and while there were many witnesses and people who knew the situation, nobody ever followed up. Johnson's death certificate doesn't even give a cause of death.
Johnson's death certificate. Notice that the right side is blank except for the notation "No Doctor."

Months later, John Hammond wanted Johnson to play at his Spirituals to Swing concert (Dedicated to Bessie Smith, who had also died recently) at Carnegie Hall. He sent Don Law, who supervised Johnson's recording sessions, to find him. Law eventually learned of Johnson's death, but found another musician to take Johnson's slot in the show and revive his own flagging career: Big Bill Broonzy.

Johnson's playing was the stuff of legend, and his life and songs have inspired novels, plays and films. Elijah Wald explores Johnson and the Delta blues in Escaping the Delta, which points out that blues wasn't even recognized as a separate genre until the 1930s.

David Sheffield's "Love in Vain" is a short story told from the point of view of the coroner examining the body of a dead blues singer. I first found it in an anthology called, fittingly, Delta Blues.

Sherman Alexie's early novel Reservation Blues is a whimsical tale of a man who picks up a black hitchhiker in Idaho and finds a guitar in his back seat after dropping the guy off. Johnson was the hitchhiker who faked his death to cheat the devil out of his soul. He leaves the guitar behind so he can't be tracked, but the magic instrument enables a group of Indians to form a rock band. I assigned the book as a summer reading text one year and encouraged the students to track down Johnson's recordings. It turned out there were two guitarists in the class. Those young men will never be the same.

Thunder Knocking on the Door, a play by Keith Glover, premiered at Yale Rep in the 1990s with Johnson's music front and center. The script is good and the acting was fine, but the loudest applause went to the blues band that made the songs come to life.

Then there's the forgettable film Crossroads. The premise is that an old black harp player knew Johnson and learned a thirtieth song from him that he never recorded. The script and acting don't do it justice. The best part of the film, no surprise, is the soundtrack, created and performed by Ry Cooder and a host of surviving blues legends including Blind Sonny Terry on harp. Cooder and Albert King performed the title song live on TV at (I think) the Grammies that year.

My own novel Dark Gonna Catch Me Here takes its title from a line in "Cross Road Blues." The whole line is "Sun goin' down, dark goin' catch me here/ I ain't got no woman to love and feel my care." When I heard the line for the first time, my reaction was, "What a great image!" Then I thought it could be a title. My cover designer loved it too, and started working before I even wrote the book. He said, "You better go darker than usual, because I am."

I did. By now, the book has probably sold dozens of copies.

Johnson has been dead three times longer than he lived, and he's still fertile ground for musicians. The songs are haunting and evocative and push guitarists to try the impossible. And his archetypal existence and lifestyle continue to inspire legends and stories. Someday, maybe someone will write the work that does him justice.







27 May 2019

Bob Dylan Crime Writer


Last Friday, Bob Dylan turned 78, so a bunch of my friends (Yes, I have friends; I pay them) got together to celebrate.

Jane, our hostess, with the whole motley crew
Everyone brought wine or pizza or dessert, and seven of us brought instruments. The hostess assembled a playlist of Bob Dylan songs to play in honor of the occasion, and she stipulated that we would play a few songs by The Byrds, too. I'm the only one of the invitees who has a 12-string, and never one to let good hubris go to waste, I tried to learn "8 Miles High."

I have four books of Dylan songs on a shelf with my other music.
One tome contains over 350 songs, about a quarter of his output. His Wikipedia bio lists 40 albums and CDs, not including collections, and I didn't count how many songs have been recorded or covered by other artists. I first became aware of him through Peter, Paul & Mary, who had the same manager in the early sixties.

Like most artists learning their craft, Dylan borrowed or stole lyrics from other work, some in the public domain, some not. So did Paul Simon, the Beatles, Led Zeppelin, and a host of others. Some blues lyrics show up so often I could fill in evening performing songs that use a few repeated lines.

Dylan's first album is traditional folk covers, one of which is "The House of the Rising Sun." He copied Dave Van Ronk's version, not long before Van Ronk planned to record the song himself on another label. Their relationship became strained. He kicked Phil Ochs out of his limousine in midtown Manhattan traffic after the latter told him one of his songs would never be a hit. In the 70s, Joan Baez wrote "Diamonds and Rust" as a kiss-off to the guy who dumped her after she helped him get his own foot in the Hootenanny door. Hey, Richard Wagner and Mozart made enemies, too. No one's perfect.
Me (left) with Paul McCarron and Paul Stevens, maybe the 2 best
musicians there. McCarron's wife is one of my former students

Dylan took a huge risk in the mid-sixties when he left folk behind and turned to electric instruments for his more personal and experimental songs. He was booed at the Newport Folk Festival, among other places. One of the "Bootleg" album collections captures his 1966 concert in Manchester, England, where his backing group is the musicians later called The Band. It's a tense affair with a hostile crowd, culminating in someone from the audience shouting "Judas!"

Dylan responds with a line from one of his own songs. "I don't believe you. You're a liar." Then he turns to the musicians and an open mic captures his command. "Play f#*%ing loud." They launch into their encore, "Like a Rolling Stone," and leave the stage in silence so thick you can chew it.

In the early 1980s, Dylan became a born-again Christian, having already explored his Jewish roots (His real name is Robert Allen Zimmerman) in earlier work. He has never stopped exploring his identity and his world--or ours. I've used his work for two of my own titles. Blood on the Tracks is one of my favorite albums, and it's the title of the first Woody Guthrie novel. Postcards of the Hanging, a line from "Desolation Row," became the title of one of my standalones.
Jim Roger and his wife, Dylan fans

Dylan's early protest songs told great stories, many of them true crime sagas. "The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll" recounts the case of a black server in a Baltimore club who was fatally beaten by a drunk wielding a cane. The wealthy white man served six months in jail (Sentence deferred so he could harvest his tobacco crop) and paid a $500 fine. Dylan's song showcases his trademark sarcasm, fueled with righteous rage.

"A Pawn in Their Game" is about the shooting of Medgar Evers. Both that song and "Who Killed Davey Moore?" about a boxer who died in the ring after suffering brain damage, use the common folk device of asking questions and having a series of people claim their innocence by passing the buck. Dylan revisited the genre a decade later in "Hurricane," about middleweight Ruben Carter, jailed for the shooting of a clerk during a liquor store hold-up.

My favorite crime song is made up, though. "Lily, Rosemary, and the Jack of Hearts" features overlapping plots and a cast of characters taken from Western lore to tell of an unfortunate love affair, an unhappy marriage, a bank robbery and murder in about nine minutes (Sixteen verses). The backing band on that song includes the musicians who dubbed the music for the film "Deliverance." If you don't know the song, it's worth checking out on Youtube.

Over the last several years, I've played 25 or 30 Dylan songs live and several titles still fill my list of possible story titles for when I need them.
Former Hartford police officer Jim Howard also plays harmonica

It's just a matter of time.

(Thanks to Maureen McFarland for the pix of the whole group and me with the Pauls)

03 April 2019

To Catch A Map Thief


Back in 2008 I wrote at Criminal Brief (here and here) about a massive theft that my library experienced.  I retired last year but I was invited to come back and talk about it in February.  The Map Collection had just moved to a new, more accessible, space in the Libraries and I was sort of a guinea pig, being the first speaker in the new space.  Everything worked out (and we will filled the area). The talk was videoed and you can see watch it by clicking here.



And here are the answers to the movie quotations quiz from last time.

POPCORN PROVERBS 4


Remember you're old. - Warren Lipka (Evan Peters) American Animals

You said to me this is a family secret, and you gave it up to me, boom just like that. You spill the secret family recipe today, maybe you spill a little something about me tomorrow, hm? -Whitey Bulger (Johnny Depp) Black Mass

-Aren't you worried?
-Would it help?  -James Donovan (Tom Hanks) / Rudolph Abel (Mark Rylance) Bridge of Spies

When they send for you, you go in alive, you come out dead, and it's your best friend that does it. -Lefty (Al Pacino) Donnie Brasco


-You can't give back what you've taken from me.
-OK, then... Plan B, why don't we just kill each other?  -Sean Archer (Nicholas Cage)/ Castor Troy (John Travolta)  Face/Off

-I didn't kill my wife!
-I don't care! -Dr. Richard Kimble (Harrison Ford / Samuel Gerard (Tommy Lee Jones The Fugitive

-In this family, we do not solve our problems by hitting people!
-No, in this family, we shoot them! - Tom Stall (Viggo Mortensen) / Jack Stall (Ashton Holmes) A History of Violence

The competitor is our friend and the customer is our enemy.  - Mark Whitacre (Matt Damon) The Informant!




How did you ever rob a bank? When you robbed banks, did you forget where your car was then too? No wonder you went to jail. -Melanie (Brigit Finda) Jackie Brown

It takes more than a few firecrackers to kill Danny Greene!  - Danny Greene (Ray Stevenson ) Kill the Irishman

Men would pay $200 for me, and here you are turning down a freebie. You could get a perfectly good dishwasher for that. -Bree Daniel (Jane Fonda) Klute

A man abandoned his family and wrote his son a story. He wouldn't be the first to cloak his cowardice in a flag of sacrifice. -Sherlock Holmes (Ian McKellen) Mr. Holmes

You can add Sebastian's name to my list of playmates. - Alicia (Ingrid Bergman) Notorious


-There's a ninety-five pound Chinese man with a hundred sixty million dollars behind this door.
-Let's get him out.  - Danny (George Clooney) / Linus (Matt Damon) Ocean's Eleven

We should all be clowns, Milly. -Jim Wormold (Alec Guinness) Our Man in Havana

You get four guys all fighting over who's gonna be Mr. Black, but they don't know each other, so nobody wants to back down. No way. I pick. You're Mr. Pink. Be thankful you're not Mr. Yellow. -Joe (Lawrence Tierney) Reservoir Dogs


- I am a moral outcast.
-  Well, it's always nice to meet a writer.  -Dante (Klaus Maria Brandauer) / Barley Scott Blair (Sean Connery) The Russia House

Frank, let's face it. Who can trust a cop who don't take money? -Tom Keough (Jack Kehoe) Serpico


-Looks like trouble. -Looks like Christmas.  -Nancy Callahan (Jessica Alba) / Marv (Mickey Rourke) Sin City 2: A Dame to Die For


If it takes a village to raise a child, it takes a village to abuse one. -Mitchell Garabedian (Stanley Tucci) Spotlight



- I read where you were shot five times in the tabloids.

- It's not true.  He didn't come anywhere near my tabloids.  - Nora Charles (Myrna Loy)/Nick Charles (William Powell)/  The Thin Man.


To protect the sheep you have to catch the wolves and it takes a wolf to catch a wolf.  -Alonzo (Denzel Washington) Training Day

-Not everyone loves us, Rex. -Save the punditry for someone whose paid to have an opinion.
-I'm cool with censorship, I know the American people love that.

-Angie Jones (Zoe Saldana) / Rex Brooks (Sigourney Weaver) Vantage Point


I do favors for people and in return, they give me gifts. So, what can I do for you? -Matt Scudder (Liam Neeson) A Walk Among The Tombstones



-Man, I get so mad I want to fight the whole world.  You got any idea what that feels like?
-I do.  I decided to fight the feeling instead.  Cause I figured the world would win. - Chip (Martin Sensmeier) / Cory Lambert (Jeremy Renner) Wind River




10 November 2018

The Journalist Detective


Libby Cudmore
Maybe I should have known something was waiting for me when I was inspired to wear a button-down shirt and suspenders into my office. I was having writer’s block on my novel and a bad feeling when I took a pass over to the state police website in search of a story. Kassirer’s car had been found abandoned in the parking lot next to the Troop-C police barracks in the West End of Oneonta, five days after he was last seen by his family as he left his father’s funeral in Irondequoit, three days after he’d been reported missing by his employer, a drug rehab center in Brattleboro, Vermont, four days after he’d texted them to let them know he would be in the next day.

A bad feeling, sure, but I had to know where it was going to lead. I went into full detective mode. I called the Irondquoit police, who told me that he had last been seen checking out of a Binghamton hotel on the morning of Oct. 23, and that the last cell phone ping came from Oneonta, not far from where his car was located, at just before 4:30 a.m.

Meaning he checked out of his hotel at 3:30 a.m. The mystery deepened.
*
Out of curiosity, I did a Google Maps search of the area where the cell phone ping had been picked up. I saw a small path that lead into the ravine, near where his car was found. My heart sank. That’s where they’ll find him, I thought. I tried to ignore the feeling. Friends and family pleaded on Facebook for him to come home. That night, Ian and I drove out to Binghamton to buy Halloween supplies. I wondered if he’d gone into the nearby river or wandered into the woods. He wouldn’t be the first one. I lamented his disappearance and hoped he was okay.
*
The next day, a loose-lipped policeman in Massachusetts told me that a friend had picked up a ping from his cell phone in Rochester later that evening, meaning he got nearly 200 miles away from where his car was found, back towards where he had been. The police had searched his apartment and all they found in his room was a pile of blankets where a bed should be. His roommate was out of town, but someone was feeding the cat.

We went to press that night with no sign of him. I went to bed that night hoping that he would turn up in a hospital or rehab center, a man who just needed to get away from it all for a few days. But I’ve been at this business long enough to know that it’s so rarely the case.
*
My boss jokes, darkly, about my uncanny ability to read between the lines of press releases, an understanding of crime and human behavior honed from an adulthood of reading and writing mysteries.  On Wednesday, as I was getting ready for the Halloween parade, I got a call from Aga that his body had been located in “heavy brush” down the hill behind where he had parked.

Just as I had suspected.

But how did he get there? And why? I’ve written here before that being a journalist has all the questions of a private detective, with none of the release that come with the solving of a case. I can make the calls, but in the end, I have to just wait for the phone to ring and write down what is said on the other end of the line.

The autopsy proved inconclusive, but that the death was not being ruled “suspicious.” That means they don’t think he was murdered and there were no indications of suicide. Toxicology reports and additional testing take time.

Maybe I’ll have an answer for you next month.

Or maybe another case.

30 July 2018

A Tiny Little Foot


We have a special treat today. Jim Thomsen, a newspaper reporter and editor for more than twenty years, has been an independent editor of book manuscripts since 2010. His short crime fiction has been published in West Coast Crime Wave, Shotgun Honey, Pulp Modern and Switchblade. He is based in his hometown of Bainbridge Island, Washington. Learn more about him at jimthomsencreative.com  

I should point out that this piece is about true crime and includes language and deeds you would not find in, say, a cozy novel. - Robert Lopresti

A TINY LITTLE FOOT

by Jim Thomsen

On June 28, 2018, a disgruntled reader walked into the newsroom of the Capital Gazette newspaper in Annapolis, Maryland and shot several people, killing five. That evening, the survivors pushed aside their shock and grief because, as one reporter put it, there was no other choice. As he put it: “We are putting out a damn newspaper.”

That quote brought back to mind an incident that happened almost twenty years before, one with strong echoes of that tragedy. One to which I bore painfully intimate witness. This essay is adapted from a Facebook post.

August 20, 1998, just before nine a.m. on a sunny Thursday morning. I'm a reporter at the Bainbridge Island Review. Our offices are on the ground floor of a two-story building on Winslow Way West, at the edge of the excruciatingly touristy downtown, the sort of place where you can walk off the ferry from Seattle and buy a chunk of lacquered driftwood for $225 in any of a half-dozen shops. It’s my hometown. I love it and despise it in almost equal measure, which is a useful tension for a newspaper reporter to work from.

Most mornings, as I pulled into the parking lot in my battered pickup, I greeted Marge Williams, a retired city councilwoman and the building’s owner. I almost always saw her outside her second-floor apartment, tending to her plants and flowerbeds, or toting a tray of baked treats to the reception desk. But not this morning.

I walk inside to find our publisher, Chris Allen, staring at a damp red stain on the ceiling above the newsroom. Below Marge's bedroom. We think at first it might be spilled paint — after all, the building was a dark red in color and for the last week, Steve Phillips, a longtime islander and local handyman, had been pressure-washing and repainting the exterior. But it doesn’t look like that, quite.

"I don't think that's paint," Chris says.

"Maybe we should check with Marge," I say.

Chris frowns. "Maybe we should check ON Marge."

So we go upstairs. We knock. No answer. The door's unlocked. We go in. Nobody in the living room or kitchen. That left the rooms in back, including the bedroom. Chris tells me to wait as she goes down the hall. A few minutes later she returns, looking hollowed out and sick. She'd found Marge. Not in her bed. But wrapped in her bedding. Everything mummified from view except for —

"A foot," she says to me. "A tiny little foot."

*****

Things happen fast. Cops, everywhere. I didn’t know Bainbridge Island had so many cops. Flashing lights. Bursts of radio chatter and static. Miles of yellow crime-scene tape. I stand on the sidewalk with my colleagues, notebook in hand, all but forgotten. We're in little clusters, murmuring, eyes fixed on some invisible middle distance. Doug Crist pulls up as close as he can get, motions me over. He's in charge that week, as Editor Jack Swanson's on vacation. "What's going on?" he asks.

"Somebody murdered Marge," I say.

"Oh," he says.

And I understand, in that moment, why, when Paul McCartney was told about John Lennon's murder, he said, "It's a drag."

At moments like these, 99.99999 percent of you is somewhere else.

*****

Things happen fast. A couple of hours later, we're in nearby offices belonging to local PR guy/movie theater owner Jeff Brein, who's graciously given us space to work. We've managed a few notebooks, pens, computers, stuff from our own office, before Police Chief John Sutton politely, even apologetically, kicks us out. Jack, who's been vacationing at home, comes in, takes over. We watch from the parking lot as Seattle TV cameras set up at the edge of the perimeter.

We huddle up: Jack, Doug, Chris, education reporter Pat Andrews, photographer Ryan Schierling, I forget who else. Me.

We agree right off on a few things:

One, we’ve got a job to do. No losing our shit till later. Much later.

Two, it’s OUR story. It’s a Bainbridge Island story. It doesn’t belong to The Seattle Times or the Seattle P-I or the Kitsap Sun, the daily in Bremerton, an hour away. It doesn’t belong to KOMO-TV, or KING, or KIRO, or Q-13. Or anybody else. It belongs to the Bainbridge Island Review, a twice-weekly with a circulation of about 10,000. We don’t talk to the interlopers, we don’t make their jobs easier, we don’t act like eager freshman frat pledges for their fucking journalism farm team. Fuck them.

We plot out avenues of attack, and get to it. But first we meet individually with the cops and give our statements. Mine takes more than an hour.

*****
John Sutton is a smart cop, and beyond that, he’s a community cop. He gets it. That night, late, he lets us back into our offices once, I soon learn, he clears me as a suspect. He sits down with us and says, “OK, you guys, and you alone. What do you want to know?”

Why was I a suspect? I ask. Because, he says, I was at the newsroom late the night before, working, and then puttering around so I could listen to the Mariners beat the Blue Jays in extra innings. I later went to a friend’s house, and she verifies when I arrived and when I left.

We move on to questions about the autopsy, and it’s then that I learn that I missed the murder by two hours, three at most. It’s then that I wonder for the first of roughly 48,023 times what I would have done, or not done, had I been there when the killer started up the stairs. Always.

John patiently answers all our questions as best as he can, way past midnight.

Once we learn that Steve Phillips was arrested with a bloody golf club in his trunk, our Bainbridge-ness kicks into fifth gear. Steve’s estranged wife is a childhood classmate of mine. She agrees to talk to me, tells me about Steve, whose half-brother JayDee Phillips, a childhood classmate and occasional pal, was one of the island’s last murder victims, nine years before. She tells me about years of anger and abuse that go back at least that long. Jack gets some great stuff on Marge’s background; Doug, Pat, everyone does heroic work. And, as we learn the next day, paying loose attention to the TV stations and the other papers, mostly exclusive work. Chris gives us everything we need to function, and above her, Sound Publishing President Elio Agostini pledges every possible resource.

Friday afternoon, after stretching press deadline as far as possible, we put the Saturday edition of the Review to bed. Then we keep reporting. There are press conferences. Prosecutorial maneuvers. People who hug me in Town & Country and have something to share, sometimes something worth chasing. We keep chasing. We’re too tired to stop.

*****

Somewhere around 7 p.m., someone in the newsroom says to knock it off. It’s time to give ourselves a break. We did it. We kicked the living shit out of the story sixteen ways from Sunday. We did it. Now it’s time to stop looking at the stain on the ceiling and grieve our friend Marge. And drink. Drink heavily. We take over an outdoor table at the Harbour Public House, or maybe it was Doc’s Marina Grill. There’s fifteen or so of us. We’re grubby, weary, not especially articulate.

But we toast to Marge, and we toast to ourselves. We had a damn newspaper to put out, and by God, we put out a damn newspaper.

A few months later, Steve Phillips was convicted of aggravated, premeditated first-degree murder and sentenced to life with no possibility of parole. I testified at his trial. It turned out that he finished the painting job, drank and gambled it away at the tribal casino just across the bridge from the north end of Bainbridge Island, and decided in that state that he hadn’t been paid enough. He drove back to Marge’s apartment, angrily confronted her in the middle of the night, and when she refused to give him more money, he beat her to death with a golf club.

I stayed on at the Review for another year, then moved on to other papers and other places. I finished my newspaper career with a long run as the night news editor at the Kitsap Sun, the paper I helped misdirect during the pursuit of the Marge Williams story. I have no regrets about that. That’s what a good newspaper person does, and I hope I was a good newspaper person. Or at least one who got out the damn newspaper every night. No matter what.

30 May 2018

Wake-Up Call


by Robert Lopresti

I bicycle to work most mornings, on one of the busiest streets in my small city. At one point there is a highway overpass and sometimes apparently homeless people stand there with signs, begging for money from the people leaving the Interstate.  Usually this is not a problem, except that sometimes they leave piles of trash.

This morning,  I saw what appeared to be such a gentleman.  He was bald, in his thirties, and wearing a leather jacket.  He carried a black plastic trash bag which appeared to be stuffed with something the size of an exercise ball.

He was in the vicinity of a couple I had seen before, a woman walking her daughter to the elementary school.  The bald man was trying to talk to the mother and she was trying very hard to ignore him as they approached a traffic light.

I watched this and thought: Oh, crap.  Because if it got worse I was going to have to get involved.  I haven't been in a physical altercation in about fifty years, and my win-loss record back then was not great.

Now the mother and daughter were waiting for the red light to turn.  I was on the other side of the intersection, also waiting.

The  bald man turned and walked away.  Good.

And then he was back, talking over the woman's shoulder.  The light changed.  I thought: If he follows them I will have to interfere, right in the middle of the street.

But he turned and walked off.  Was he influenced by my presence?  I doubt it.  I don't know if he even saw me.

Riding the rest of the way to work I wondered what I would have done if action had proven necessary.  My thought at the time was to go straight into a verbal confrontation but I now think the better choice would have been a system I have heard about several times in recent years: Ignore the aggressor and come up to the victim with a big smile, acting like you know them.  "Hey there!  Can I walk with you to school?"

If it happens (again) I'll try that.

But let's consider a couple of other options.  I had a cell phone with me.  When I saw what was shaping up I should have pulled the phone out, started the phone app (whoever uses that?) and dialed 9-1-1.  Then if I felt I had to step into the scene I could have hit SEND.

You don't have to speak, by the way.  If you dial 9-1-1 and say nothing the cops will trace your phone and come to see what's going on.  At least they do here.  (Don't ask me how I know; that's another story.)

I checked.  It takes me fifteen seconds from reaching for the phone to being ready to hit SEND.  Next time, and may there never be one, I'll go do that first.

Now let's talk about guns.  I don't own one.  Never have.  But it occurred to me to wonder, what would have happened if I had had one with me this morning?

I certainly would have thought about getting it out.  Or at least getting it ready.  Knowing human nature (at least my human nature) as well as I do, I think I would have seen this as an opportunity to get my money's worth out of the gun, not by shooting it, but by attempting to scare the man off.

If I did that I figure one of four things would have happened.

1.  I would have shot the guy, which would have been bad.

2.  I would have dropped the gun, which would have been, at best, embarrassing.

3.  He would have taken the gun away from me (see comments above on my record with physical confrontations,) which would have been at best embarrassing and at worst tragic.

4.  He could have decided to walk away, which would have been good.

And that means the best result that could have occurred from showing a gun was the same as what happened without one.  Your mileage may vary.

So, that was my morning.  How was yours?