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

19 August 2019

Robert Johnson and the Hell Hound


by Steve Liskow

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.







03 April 2019

To Catch A Map Thief


by Robert Lopresti

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


by Libby Cudmore

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?






07 March 2018

Write in Haste, Publish at Leisure


by Robert Lopresti

There were so many killings that year I had to look up his name.  It was Philando Castile.

He was a Black man in Minnesota, killed by a Latino cop moments after telling the man that he had a licensed handgun in the car. The police officer was acquitted.

The shooting happened on Wednesday, July 6, 2016. The next day someone put up a link to this (already existing) video in which a jolly cop and cheerful civilian explain how to safely inform a police officer that you are carrying a weapon.  Someone had added in the comments, approximately: "For best results, be White."

The next day I went to synagogue and the rabbi's sermon was about the killing. As I biked home I remembered that video.  The plot of a story burst into my brain.

I am usually  a slow writer.  Very slow.  It takes me months to write a first draft and then a couple of years to turn it into something publishable.

But I wrote the very short "Nobody Gets Killed" in two hours that Friday night.  I revised it the next day and sent it to a friend for editing.  By Monday it was on its way to Alfred Hitchcock Mystery Magazine, and you can find it in their current, March/April, issue.


I have said before that every piece of fiction involves two sides of the brain, the Miner, and the Jeweler.  Some people talk about conscious/unconscious mind, or left and right brain, but this metaphor is what works for me.  The Miner digs out the raw material and may do some of the work, but eventually he hands it off to the Jeweler who polishes it into something that is hopefully publishable.  Often when the Miner is running the show the writer has little conscious memory of the process.  "It's like I wasn't even there.  The words just flowed out."

A lot of the time my Miner comes up with only the bare idea and leaves the Jeweler to do everything else.  But "Nobody Gets Killed" was 90% Miner.  Doesn't mean it's a better or worse story for that, by the way.  You will have to read it and see what you think.

One more thing...  I have just had stories in three issues of Hitchcock in a row.  "The Chair Thief" was a short comic tale  of office politics, with an unexpected sting in its tail.   "Train Tracks" was a long historic semi-Western story of revenge and redemption.  And now "Nobody Gets Killed" is a brief ripped-from-the-headlines slice-of-life anecdote.  Hitchcock has purchased one more  but it is not yet scheduled; "A Bad Day for Algebra Tests" is a comic crime caper.

It would appear that I am having some difficulty establishing a consistent brand for myself.   But as long as Hitchcock keeps buying (I am up to thirty sales there) I guess I shouldn't complain.

By the way, I wrote another piece about writing "Nobody Gets Killed," and it appears on Trace Evidence, the AHMM blog.



04 December 2017

Old Dogs and New Sticks


by Steve Liskow

A few weeks ago, a woman who has acted in five or six plays with my wife (I directed one of them) invited me to her home because she had "something to show me." She mentioned "corruption," "graft," bootlegging" and murder, too. Your typical date, right? Naturally, I accepted.

A week later, I followed my GPS down a series of twisting back roads through woods and dales to her house, where I found her dining room table sagging under legal pads, file folders, photographs, and her laptop, which looked exhausted.

"Check this out." She showed me a Hartford Courant front page from 1921 (below) featuring FIVE different stories, all continued later in the paper, about Andrew J. Richardson and his son Andrew F. Richardson, who were arrested for bootlegging, auto theft, possible murder and a variety of other charges. some of the headlines were priceless. My personal favorite (bottom of upper right cluster) is "Mom Sobs While Sons Nabbed." They don't write 'em like that anymore.

Reading farther, I learned that Richardson pere and fils were detectives on the New Britain, Connecticut police force. In fact, Dad was the Chief of Detectives. Oops. And it gets even better. I looked up at my friend, Nancy Richardson Cardone.

"That's my great-grandfather," she said. "You think there's a book in here?"

"How much material do you have?" I congratulated myself for not drooling.

She held up a flash drive. "About 200 files."

She gave me a copy of that flash drive and we discussed options. Eventually, I convinced her that the best bet is to find a traditional publisher because she has pictures and other documents from the side of the family her relatives never discussed when she was growing up. She went to Ancestry.com and it turns out she is a brilliant researcher. If Robert Mueller needs someone to flesh out his investigation team, I know where he should look.

I've looked through the files. A lot of them have family value--birth certificates, death certificates, marriage licenses and an autopsy report (yes, really!)--but most of them provide little or no narrative. Nancy knew a few great anecdotes, but they may not even be relevant. I told her that if we can find enough material to produce a coherent story, it's probably going to take three to five years. Since it looks like I would do the writing, I told her I've never tried nonfiction and this could take away two of my few strengths: dialogue and interviewing people. After all, the events took place nearly a century ago, so none of the major players will sit down to chat.

Another downside is that I've never put together a nonfiction proposal. I've started researching that, too, and it looks like a cross between a marketing plan and my Master's thesis. Fortunately, I can write within rigid constraints. As an English teacher, I could sling jargon with the worst of them and still be somewhat coherent (yes, I know that's a sin). I've also written grant proposals, the literary equivalent of jumping through progressively smaller flaming hoops while pounding nails into your forehead. I never want to write another one.

The project has some bright spots, too. I taught in New Britain, scene of the crime, for over thirty years and have former students in city government and on the police force. Maybe someone will remember what a brilliant, funny, and generous guy I was and open a few doors. The gang operated out of several sites, but one was a farm in Newington (where I now live), between New Britain and Hartford. Without even knowing it, I drove past that farm on my way to New Britain High School for years. If we need more pictures, that farm is still there.

New Britain was one of the most prosperous towns in the Northeast a century ago (ever heard of Stanley Hardware or Fafnir Bearing?) and has an industrial museum that I highly recommend if you're ever in the area. They have fascinating exhibits and even more fascinating people who can tell you all about them.

Last week, I tracked down a former colleague who used to do genealogy for clients back before the Internet was a twinkle in Al Gore's eye. He suggested several other possible sources of information.

I know, I could use whatever we find as the basis for a novel, but I'd still have to research the story anyway, and there's more competition (Dennis Lehane's The Given Day comes to mind instantly). If the information is there, nonfiction seems like a better choice even if it does feel like learning to play guitar again...left-handed.

What do you think? Does this sound like a good story? Would you read it? And how old do you have to be before you can learn new tricks?

28 August 2017

Now It Gets Personal


by Steve Liskow

Two weeks ago, I discussed Connecticut crimes that span our country's history. Several were grim "firsts," and they prove that you don't have to set a crime story in the Big Apple or LA.

But when people ask--as they invariably do--"Where do you get your ideas?" I have answers that hit closer to home. Postcards of the Hanging grew from a crime in the town where I attended high school half a century ago, but today I want to talk about other crimes that shocked Connecticut. I know or knew people who were involved in all of these, and even though I changed every possible detail, two of them have inspired novels...so far.

It's probably an urban legend, but New Britain, CT claims to have more package stores (liquor stores to you tourists) per capita than any other city in the United States. On October 19, 1974, Ed Blake felt ill and closed his Brookside Package Store early for the first time anyone could remember. It probably saved his life.

Two career thugs decided that holding up a New Britski packy would mean good money on a Saturday night. When they found their target closed, they went next door to the Donna Lee Bakery, where a customer called one of them by name. The men could have turned around and walked away, but instead they forced all six workers and patrons into the back room and shot them. They raided the cash register and fled, gaining less than twenty-five dollars for their efforts.

Passersby noticed their car and license plate, and police tracked them down within hours. They served long terms in Somers, Connecticut's maximum security penitentiary (one died of cancer a few years ago), but it didn't bring back the victims. One was the cousin of my assistant principal. Two others had a son in my junior English class. Ed Blake's son was a former student, too.

I've never used that story. You don't always gain insight by trying to analyze a horrific event. Evil is simply banal and stupid, and sometimes it comes down to unfortunate people being in the wrong place at the wrong time.

Several years later, Pulaski High School became a middle school and I transferred to New Britain High School, alma mater of two Connecticut governors, Thomas Meskill and Abraham Ribicoff.

By the early nineties, NBHS, designed for 1600 students in 1973, had an enrollment of 2800. It also had turf wars between the Latin Kings, Los Solidos, and 20 Luv, all of whom wanted to control drug sales in the area. The President of the Latin Kings, Miguel deJesus, was no scholar but he caused no trouble in my fifth period comp & lit class, aside from doing no work. Other teachers had less luck with him, and his guidance counselor told me they were less sociopathic than I was.

On November 4, 1993, a car dropped Miguel off at the Mill Street entrance, directly below my classroom's window (circled in red).



He came early to be readmitted after a ten-day suspension for fighting. As he approached the double doors, a stolen car pulled into the driveway and a man wearing a hoodie put a handgun against the back of Miguel's head and shot him six times (the black circle on the picture). Dozens of witnesses saw the car, which was later found abandoned, but it took nearly two years of detective work before the shooter and driver were caught. Two members of rival gangs died in the next week, and police barely managed to contain an all-out gang war. Miguel was the first of three gang members I lost over the next three years.

Run Straight Down changed every detail, but it grew from that shooting. I focus on the teachers who had to go back into the building the next day and make it safe for the kids...when we all knew damn well that everything was broken.

After retiring from teaching, I read newspapers to the blind for several years, but in summer of 2007, a federal trial took place in Hartford without a word about it appearing in print. The jury eventually convicted Dennis Paris, alias "Rahmyti," of assault, drug trafficking, extortion...and over 2500 counts of trafficking under-aged girls along the Berlin Turnpike.
Raymond Bechard's book about the case includes transcripts in which the women are asked over and over if Paris knew they were between 14 and 17 while he forced them into as may as ten liaisons a day. They said "yes" over 300 times. The case convinced the federal government to rewrite the existing law so that if the person was underage, it didn't matter whether the trafficker knew that or not.

The Berlin Turnpike had been notorious for decades (I live less than a quarter-mile from the highway), and I revising Cherry Bomb when I bumped into Bechard at a signing and discovered that his girlfriend was a cousin of one of my former teaching colleagues (and another sister who had been a student). Through him, I got to do a phone interview with one of the "witnesses" to clarify details of prostitution from the woman's perspective.

Dennis Paris's defense counsel was Jeremiah Donovan. His trial was in session when two men invaded the Cheshire home of Dr. William Petit, a case I mentioned two weeks ago. Donovan later defended one of those men, too.

In March of 1998, disgruntled worker Matthew Beck, on leave for emotional problems, returned to the CT Lottery headquarters in Newington, armed with two handguns and a knife. He killed four workers. Lottery President Otho Brown lured Beck away from the building to give other workers a chance to take cover and call for help before Beck trapped him in a fenced-in parking lot. Survivors called Brown the hero who saved their lives.

Others weren't so lucky. Beck shot Linda Blogoslawski Mlynarczyk, formerly the first female mayor of New Britain, in her office. New Britain had a 21% Polish population, third in the nation at that time, and Linda literally walked through neighborhoods knocking on doors to talk with residents. She met her soon-to-be husband Peter when he helped her run her campaign. Over 1000 mourners attended the woman's funeral during a cold heavy rainstorm, the same day Mlynarczyk's farewell to his wife appeared on the front page of the Hartford Courant. It hurt like hell when I realized he now wrote even more eloquently than he had years before...as another student in my class.

Playwright Marsha Norman advises writers to write about the things in your life that still hurt, that still feel unfair and make you angry.

I've got mine.