When will you be ready for pandemic-related true crime?

Hello, friends! We usually save our discussion thread for Fridays, but I had a wild schedule this week! So you’re getting the thread today, and a full issue tomorrow. — EB

As we approach a year in lockdown, I think we can agree that the pandemic has presented some unique opportunities for scams and crimes, from profiteering (remember that hand sanitizer bust?) to the bounty of vaccine schemes to heists enabled by mask regulations. And that’s just the small-time malfeasance we know about now. Just wait until the dust clears, and the investigations by officials and journalists really get going!

My prediction is that the virus will birth a whole cottage industry of COVID-related true-crime content. Are there crime narratives that rose in the pandemic that you’d like to see an adaptation of? If so, we want to hear them. But we also wonder…are we pandemic-ed out? Should savvy content creators move swiftly and get those yarns out now, while we’re all still stuck at home waiting for our vaccines to be administered/kick in? Or should they wait until we have a safer distance from the day-to-day COVID grind? What do you think?

View 12 comments →

Martha Mitchell · Murder Among The Mormons

Plus new books, and how the true-crime boom dilutes the prestige pool

“The premier True Crime writing team in America” has a podcast coming March 15. Not sure what it says about yours truly that I was only dimly aware of Casey Sherman and Dave Wedge’s work prior to receiving this email blast about MuddHouse Media’s upcoming Saints, Sinners & Serial Killers; maybe I just don’t travel in their demo. (The PR announcement led with The Last Days of John Lennon with James Patterson, and Hunting Whitey, which I have heard of — but Bulger is one of those cases where I had to decide after The Departed and one extremely confusing documentary that I’d reached my cap with it.) They’ve hit bestseller lists and had their works made into movies, so they’re Robert Kolker to someone, obviously.

In any event, after a flea-dip in the adjective vat, the release promised that SS&SK will “reveal shocking exclusive new information through powerful storytelling about many of America's most notorious crimes while also unveiling the twisted motives and methods behind startlingly disturbing stories listeners will hear for the first time.” And there’s a video trailer for the pod below, if you’d like a taste. — SDB

Coming from track records I’m more familiar with, Starz has picked up Gaslit, the anthology series adapted from the first season of the Slow Burn podcast. I mentioned it on Extra Hot Great today, and also mentioned that Starz is the best premium network nobody watches, an assertion I stand by (no offense, Showtime; you’re definitely bringing it in the crime-doc department the last couple of years too!). Starz’s PR team noted that

“Gaslit” is the newest title from Starz who recently launched its #TakeTheLead initiative, the company’s comprehensive effort to deepen its existing commitment to narratives by, about and for women and underrepresented audiences. 

Other things to know in case you’ve forgotten why this is a big score for Starz: Slow Burn S01 led with the “incredible untold story [of] Martha Mitchell’s historic role in Watergate” (that’s who Roberts is set to play); her co-stars include Sean Penn, and Mr. Robot and Search Party’s Robbie Pickering is show-running; Armie Hammer and Joel Edgerton, set to co-star as John Dean and G. Gordon Liddy, have exited due to “scheduling conflicts,” which is true for one of them.

No word on when this is even going to start filming, so I suspect we’re looking at early 2022 for Gaslit, but if, like me, you were like, “Hey, weren’t Harrelson and Theroux supposed to have already been in an HBO mini about Watergate?”, 1) you are correct, and 2) I found a background-actor casting call for The White House Plumbers. Looks like filming gets underway in a few months:

Filming will begin in May 2021 in the Hudson Valley area of NY (Kingston, Poughkeepsie, Newburgh, etc). Must be ok working around smoke and have natural-colored hair. Must be ok with possibly having your hair altered into a 1970s style.

And American Crime Story: Impeachment was also casting last month, so it looks like I just found my newest production-deets source/online rabbithole! — SDB

Another thing I mentioned on EHG: Exhibit B.! It’s my new shop: true crime, books and ephemera. I threw Extra Hot Great listeners a discount code, but you’re welcome to use it too — ExtraHot343 gets you 15% off. It’s good until Friday, if you want to hang out and see what inventory gets added in the meantime. (There’s a cache of Sam Sheppard books in the pipeline, FWIW.) — SDB

Running a used-book concern is not exactly shrinking my TBR pile as it is, and then here comes CrimeReads with its weekly new-books list to add to the stack. Relevant to our purposes:

  1. We Own This City: A True Story of Crime, Cops, and Corruption by Justin Fenton. The Baltimore Sun’s Fenton got a Pulitzer nom for his/the paper’s coverage of the riots following the death of Freddie Gray; We Own This City, his first book, is a “searing look” at Bodymore’s recent police-graft scandal.

  2. Confident Women: Swindlers, Grifters, and Shapeshifters of the Feminine Persuasion by Tori Telfer. Seems like “Feminine Persuasion” might have worked better before the colon, but I’m always up for a con-pendium irrespective of titling protocols.

And CrimeReads didn’t (yet) mention Elon Green’s Last Call, which I’ve been waiting for for what seems like ever and is just days away! Any books you’re haunting Bookshop.org/your library for this week? — SDB

How did I not realize that Murder Among The Mormons was about the Salamander case? It’s the year’s second project from Joe Berlinger — let’s hope it’s better/better received than Crime Scene — and it hits Netflix next week. Peep the trailer here:

I have turned my online writings upside down looking for my review of Salamander: The Story of the Mormon Forgery Murders, because I know I wrote one! No joy, but the writing is straight-down-the-middle crime reporting, unfussy prose and gives you a sense of time and place. That said, I am the daughter of a coin/currency collector and an ephemera nerd (now) by profession, so I understand that forgery drama isn’t everyone’s jam — but this case is a doozy. Check out this backgrounder from the Salt Lake Trib to see if it’s for you, and I’d recommend the book too. (And IIRC there’s another book, but I haven’t gotten to that one; recs appreciated there, as always!)

Alas, a fascinating topic doesn’t necessarily mean any given docuseries is going to do justice (as it were) to the material, as Jessica Cullen notes in her Slate piece from yesterday about the “dangerous crossroads” Netflix’s true-crime boom finds itself at currently. Cullen has many of the same questions about the self-styled web sleuths in Crime Scene that I had, and ties their uncredentialed investigations — and a docuseries director’s need to include them in order not to slow down the shoveling of content coal into the engine — to the true-crime boom’s imperiling of the genre’s recent climb out of the reputation basement. (Jesus with the mixed metaphors there…sorry!) Here’s a passage from the piece tracing the rise of the current boom back to The Staircase:

These shows were part of the movement that made true crime more accessible and attractive to a wider, perhaps more sophisticated, audience. With the help of Serial and its podcast descendants, a love of true crime became a respectable pastime, an accomplishment that Netflix’s recent productions risk undoing with their emphasis on dramatization and flare.

This is an exciting time to be a true crime fan, as we can be positively gluttonous with how much content there is to consume. But it’s worrying that Netflix feels the need to enable such questionable methods.

Cullen also talks about the “ethical quandaries” involved in true-crime “fandom,” and how we resolve those for ourselves; it’s an excellent read that asks the right questions without a lot of hand-wringing. — SDB

Coming up on Best Evidence: A return to Fall River, and my review of Tom O’Neill’s Manson book.

What is this thing? This should help. Follow Best Evidence @bestevidencefyi on Twitter and Instagram. You can also call or text us any time at 919-75-CRIME.

Dropout (Dropout) · Silk Road · Nazis

Also: True crime loses a cult expert

The Dropout has had its first dropout. This one is a bummer: Kate McKinnon, who’d been set to star in the Hulu adaptation of popular true-crime podcast The Dropout, is leaving the project, Deadline reports. McKinnon was set to executive-produce the 6-10 episode series on the rise and fall of allegedly fraudulent blood-testing company Theranos, as well as play founder Elizabeth Holmes.

The show’s been planned for so long that it predates this publication, and was doubtlessly derailed by the pandemic, a phrase I write so regularly I should probably make a macro. The series is now set to begin production this summer, and casting is underway to replace McKinnon in the Holmes role.

Which of course poses the question…who would you cast? — EB

Leave a comment

Don’t take a trip down Silk Road. Ha ha! What an asshole lead sentence. But, seriously, I am trying to save you $6-10 bucks, so my glibness is more urgent than it seems.

I probably talk about the Silk Road case more than any of you might like, but I can’t help it — it literally came to a head in my library! If you’re looking for backstory, this Rolling Stone piece on the so-called eBay of crime should do it: the TL;DR is that a guy named Ross Ulbricht founded a dark web marketplace called the Silk Road, running it from a public wi-fi network in a public library in a residential area of SF. The rest, as they say, is the play.

I was pumped when I heard that a dramatic adaptation of the RS piece was planned, with Love, Simon’s Nick Robinson as Ulbricht, and Jason Clarke as the undercover DEA agent who brought Ulbricht down. The film dropped this past weekend without much fanfare, and is $6 to rent on Amazon. But, folks, it’s just not that good.

Which is too bad, because the director-writer, Tiller Russell, is having a whiz-bang year: He’s the guy behind Netflix’s Night Stalker: The Hunt for a Serial Killer. But here’s the thing: Silk Road isn’t about shoe leather and dentist’s office stakeouts and mayors who nearly blow an investigation. It’s about the internet, which mainly involves typing and looking at a screen.

It’s hard to make that cinematic, even when we’re talking about zillions of bucks in bitcoin enriching a Bay Area libertarian. This isn’t Heat, this isn’t Ocean’s 11, this isn’t even Hackers in terms of dramatic intensity. Lord knows, Robinson and Clarke both try — in fact, Clarke’s probably still flossing bits of scenery from between his molars, and Robinson does what he can with a fairly standard amoral-tech-bro role.

But unlike other moving-money-around-on-a-screen movies (Wolf of Wall Street or Boiler Room come to mind), the action feels flaccid, and dull — and that’s even with extra scenes of ostensible excitement added in (the movie opens with a title card that reads "This story is true — except for what we made up or changed”). The urge to pick up my phone and half-ass it was irresistible, even though I’d ponied up that $6.

If you really, really want a deeper dive on Ulbricht and the Silk Road than the RS story provides, grab a copy of Nick Bilton’s 2017 take on the case, American Kingpin. You can get it most places for $17 or less, and it provides a far more engrossing — and wholly factual — look at the story. — EB

Here’s a story that’s riper for adaptation. According to a press release sent by the U.S. Department of Justice this past weekend, Tennessee resident Friedrich Karl Berger is headed to Germany, after officials say they confirmed that the 95-year-old was a Nazi concentration camp guard.

The entire release is a pretty wild journey; here’s a snip:

In November 2020, the Board of Immigration Appeals upheld a Memphis, Tennessee, Immigration Judge’s Feb. 28, 2020, decision that Berger was removable under the 1978 Holtzman Amendment to the Immigration and Nationality Act because his “willing service as an armed guard of prisoners at a concentration camp where persecution took place” constituted assistance in Nazi-sponsored persecution. The court found that Berger served at a Neuengamme sub-camp near Meppen, Germany, and that the prisoners there included “Jews, Poles, Russians, Danes, Dutch, Latvians, French, Italians, and political opponents” of the Nazis. The largest groups of prisoners were Russian, Dutch and Polish civilians.

After a two-day trial in February 2020, the presiding judge issued an opinion finding that Meppen prisoners were held during the winter of 1945 in “atrocious” conditions and were exploited for outdoor forced labor, working “to the point of exhaustion and death.” The court further found, and Berger admitted, that he guarded prisoners to prevent them from escaping during their dawn-to-dusk workday, on their way to worksites and on their way back to the SS-run subcamp in the evening.

At the end of March 1945, as allied British and Canadian forces advanced, the Nazis abandoned Meppen. The court found that Berger helped guard the prisoners during their forcible evacuation to the Neuengamme main camp – a nearly two-week trip under inhumane conditions, which claimed the lives of some 70 prisoners. The decision also cited Berger’s admission that he never requested a transfer from concentration camp guard service and that he continues to receive a pension from Germany based on his employment in Germany, “including his wartime service.”

According to the DoJ, Berger is the “70th Nazi Persecutor Removed from the United States.” “Over the past 30 years,” the DoJ writes, “the Justice Department has won more cases against persons who participated in Nazi persecution than have the law enforcement authorities of all the other countries in the world combined.” An oddly competitive remark, one might argue! But maybe the DoJ’s way of reminding the world that we’re not all Nazis over here in the US. — EB

Cult expert Patricia Lynch has died. The New York Times has a nice obit they’ve clearly had queued up for a bit: the 82-year-old journalist has been diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease some years ago, which typically triggers a newsroom effort to get ahead of the inevitable.

A member of NBC Nightly News’s investigative unit since 1977, she was one of the first women to join that team. Her reporting on Jim Jones and the People’s Temple was so extensive that, even after she left NBC, she took to HuffPost, writing in 2007 about how NBC management quashed her reporting on the cult well before the massacre. Here’s a taste:

[New NBC Corporate president] Fred Silverman, I later learned, was so upset being stalked, the mass cult picketing, written death threats (that were sent to the FBI without me knowing about them), the Synanon rattlesnake attack, and cult followers reportedly getting into his apartment building and threatening him and his family that he let news management know my report shouldn’t air.

Instead, Congressman Ryan’s Jonestown trip in November would be covered as a news event by a California crew rather than as a more hard-hitting investigative report. I tried to reach the reporter. My calls were not returned. I felt like a pariah rather than a journalist who had unearthed an important story.

On November 13th, the NBC crew passed through our New York office en route to Guyana. Again, the reporter did not return my persistent calls. And then, what had been predicted in my spiked report, happened. On November 18th, 918 people — including hundreds of children and senior citizens — were murdered. Some committed suicide. Congressman Ryan, the NBC reporter and cameraman, a photographer and a Temple member who wanted to leave were assassinated on the airstrip by Jones’ enforcers, firing from a truck sent by their demented leader. Jones’ mass suicide was a massacre, unlike anything in American history.

I was told that the original footage was kept under lock and key by NBC’s law department and that a dub was bought by the FBI for its own investigation. We were given another set of dubs to edit for air. Only then was I put back on the story — because I knew the story and the people.

Despite that and other indignities, she stayed at the network until the mid-1990s. She eventually dedicated her life to animal welfare, calling out one shelter for euthanasia policies via a self-produced documentary. So, I’m not saying that the story of a journalist turned animal-rescue person resonates with me so hard I’m vibrating like a tuning fork right now, but, yeah. Anyway, that Times obit is quite a story of quite a life. — EB

Wednesday on Best Evidence: Martha Mitchell and an explosive rare-books case.

What is this thing? This should help. Follow Best Evidence @bestevidencefyi on Twitter and Instagram. You can also call or text us any time at 919-75-CRIME.

Fred Hampton · John Wayne Gacy · Stolen

Plus a heist-iversary and a Gay/Lewinsky convo

It’s the 15th anniversary of the Securitas depot heist. Kent Online has a good explainer on the case:

In the early hours of February 22, 2006, a Wednesday, seven masked men brandishing guns burst into Securitas Cash Management Ltd’s building in Vale Road, tied up 14 staff members and in just over an hour stole £53m belonging to the Bank of England.

The gang left almost £154m behind as they could not fit any more into their seven-and-a-half tonne lorry.

And you can read more on Wikipedia about the aftermath — but said aftermath doesn’t seem to include a podcast or docuseries (or even a scripted take, which it seems ripe for). If I’ve overlooked such a property, alert me immediately! — SDB

Leave a comment

I’d also love a little help figuring out what exactly the upcoming Secrets of a Psychopath is about. Uh, besides the literal facts literally kept hidden by a remorseless imitation of a fully-functioning human. The three-parter is hitting Sundance Now next month, and kept popping up in my saved Google searches at the end of last week, but I can’t seem to get much further than the parodically vague bullet on Futon Critic, which says the mini

recounts the facts behind the most complex and surprising murder to come before the courts in Irish criminal history. The true crime series takes the viewer through the many coincidences, twists and turns of the investigation, uncovering an obsessive and unconventional relationship which ultimately ended in tragedy.

This truly is every single docuseries in the sector, guys — with the exception of the Irish aspect, so maybe give us ignorant Yanks a name? (“Narrator: ‘They didn’t.’”) If you’ve got guesses, I’m listening.

Leave a comment

We do have a premiere date for SoaP — March 23 — and just two days later comes a John Wayne Gacy project at Peacock, John Wayne Gacy: Devil In Disguise. No guesswork involved there (and partial credit for not going with clown wordplay in the title). Brought to us by NBC News as well as the guy who produced Amanda Knox for Netflix, Devil In Disguise is going to work the never-before-seen angle…and there’s another angle hinted at in the brief:

It tells the story of Gacy through his own words, those who were forever changed by his unspeakable deeds and those who believe that the full truth about the case remains concealed to this day, according to Peacock. It features a multi-hour interview with Gacy himself from prison, most of which has never been seen, as well as exclusive audio and video interviews, including with one of his closest confidantes and his second ex-wife. The series follows the investigation of Gacy and poses new questions about what may have happened and who else may have been involved.

I don’t know the case well, I admit, so maybe this is a legit angle on it, but…are they trying to imply that the clown was framed? And is that a valid direction, or just cynical coverage-mongering?

You can probably imagine which category I think the artwork falls into; sigh. The trailer is below. — SDB

Again, that hits the NBC streamer March 25. — SDB

Connie Walker, creator of well-regarded podcast Missing and Murdered, has a new podcast dropping March 1 — Stolen: The Search for Jermain. Walker produced Missing and Murdered for the CBC, but Stolen is her first project for Gimlet Media,

ous woman, Jermain Charlo, in Montana, who was out one evening at a bar in Missoula and never made it home. Over the course of eight episodes, Walker is on the ground in real time tracking down leads through the dense mountains of the Flathead Reservation, all while examining what it means to be an Indigenous woman in America, as Jermain was. 

The demographic is eagerly anticipating this one, based on what I’m seeing on Twitter; you can check out the trailer below. — SDB

The big premiere in true crime last night was Allen vs. Farrow, which I highly recommend — but I also recommend Showtime’s three-part docuseries on Daniel “Tekashi 6ix9ine” Hernandez. Supervillain: The Making of Tekashi 6ix9ine is sometimes a little tricksy and may not entirely know what its strengths are — but it’s extremely watchable, as I noted in my Primetimer review:

Perhaps it's not fair to hold Supervillain to the case timeline expectations of a traditional true crime doc. Supervillain's larger focus is on image-making in hip-hop and what happens when social media, the need for gangster "authenticity," and the Trumpian concept that there's no such thing as negative attention combine (and combust). In fact, the dearth of law-enforcement talking-head interviews is rather refreshing. But viewers who go into the docuseries expecting a more conventional approach may not enjoy the ways Gill chooses to illustrate that focus.

Those ways include a chemistry-lab/doll-construction animation framework narrated, with many swears, by Giancarlo Esposito. If this sounds either corny or compelling…it’s both. Give it a look. — SDB

If you’d like more behind-the-scenes process-y intel on Allen vs. Farrow, Vanity Fair has a piece on the filming of the limited series, why Mia Farrow is still afraid of Woody Allen(’s lawyers), and more. The filmmakers talk about what sets the series apart from previous coverage; here’s a snippet:

Ziering said she and Dick were inspired to make Allen v. Farrow after talking to Dylan and realizing “how much there was in her story that we’d never heard before.”

“There’s an incredible amount of cover-up behind what you think you know about the Woody Allen, Mia Farrow, and Dylan Farrow story,” said Dick. “That was one of the things we set out to uncover and make public, really…. Woody Allen has been able to present this as saying he was cleared in two investigations. And once you dig into the truth behind those investigations, in one case there’s very strong evidence of cover-up. And in the other investigation, there’s a lot of questions, which we ask in the film.”

Elsewhere in VF, Monica Lewinsky interviews Roxane Gay on “writing trauma” on the heels of Gay’s essay for Scribd, “Writing Into the Wound.” That piece “describes Gay’s experience attempting to write about being gang-raped at age 12” as those attempts evolved over time; in the interview, Lewinsky and Gay discuss fat-shaming, media “callousness,” and how writers should confront the trauma of others in a way that’s effective but compassionate. It’s something I think about a lot, reviewing true-crime properties and now running a bookshop that’s entirely in the genre — yes, I have my jobs to do, assessing the watchability of a docuseries, reselling Ann Rule compendia, but always trying to keep in mind that these are people’s lives. With Lewinsky at the questioning helm, that’s easy to do — and the exchange is sometimes even funny!

You wrote in the essay, “How do we write about the traumatic experiences of others without transgressing their boundaries or privacy?"

That’s a question I think that we are always going to have to grapple with, but I always think we have to err on the side of respecting other people and their lives and not putting words or experiences into their mouths that they have not shared. I don’t ever want to suppose that I know anything about someone who’s experienced trauma, if I haven’t asked them about it directly. We see all kinds of speculation. You’re very familiar with this. The media will invent stories, whole cloth.

According to the tabloids, I had an alien child once, you know?

Oh, I did not realize. How are they doing?

Wonderful. I’m getting the tax credit.

Lucky! Yeah. It’s wild to see what writers can do.

It’s a really good discussion about the mechanics of writing “from emotion,” too, and the things that reviewers and interviewers miss by fixating on garbage-y details, and how it’s not helpful to minimize one’s own experiences even as one tries to keep perspective. Like Allen vs. Farrow, it’s tough but worthwhile. — SDB

We have really good discussions around here, too — thanks to you guys! Know someone who’d enjoy joining in? Give ’em a shout, we’d love to have them.


If you’re looking for an explainer on the demise of Fred Hampton before settling down with Judas and the Black Messiah, WaPo has you covered. Robert Mitchell’s “The secret FBI informant who betrayed Black Panther leader Fred Hampton” opens with Jeffrey Haas — one of the lawyers suing Chicago, Cook County, and the federal government on behalf of family members and survivors of the December 1969 raid during which Fred Hampton and Mark Clark died — realizing that the William O’Neal “with the disarming smile and casual attitude” was a double agent. The piece goes on to untangle various conspiracy threads, all of which are all too believable to this correspondent (granted, I am in the middle of not one but two books steeped in COINTELPRO machinations — not to mention the deathbed confession of a former NYPD officer regarding his stated role in entrapping the security guards of Malcolm X prior to the latter’s assassination).

I’m looking forward to watching Judas, though per my esteemed colleague Odie Henderson’s review at RogerEbert.com, it may saddle one of my favorite actors, LaKeith Stanfield, with clunky dialogue — and take its eye off the ball somewhat:

We also spend too much time within the FBI. Despite the excellent cinematography by Sean Bobbitt and the editing by Kristan Sprague, these sequences are not as interesting as anything featuring the Black Panthers and their goals. As “MLK/FBI” showed, J. Edgar Hoover took an active role in trying to squash any type of Black attempt to force the country to provide equality and reckon with its racial and economic sins. Here, Hoover is played by Martin Sheen under so much makeup he looks like a melted candle, and he gets the film’s worst scene, stopping the momentum cold with dialogue that references the Korean War, protecting one’s family and the possibilities of Mitchell’s eight-month-old daughter dating a Black man. Plemons looks as flabbergasted as the audience feels.

Oof. If you’ve already seen it, leave us your recs in the comments; if you haven’t, HBO Max subscribers can find it there. — SDB

Tuesday on Best Evidence: Cult journos, 83-year-old parolees, and more.

What is this thing? This should help. Follow Best Evidence @bestevidencefyi on Twitter and Instagram. You can also call or text us any time at 919-75-CRIME.

Should We Be Mad At Ryan Murphy?

“Fuck Ryan Murphy for making Richard Ramirez into a horror chic character,” a friend texted me last weekend. He was bingeing American Horror Story and had just gotten to the 1984 season, which features Ramirez as a figure of anti-heroic fun. “Murphy had to know that there are still people suffering from his spree.”

Coincidentally, the text arrived while I was watching Netflix’s Night Stalker: The Hunt for a Serial Killer (which Sarah recently reviewed). I had just finished listening to Anastasia Hronas describe how Ramirez assaulted her for hours when she was only six years old. She is not the only child he harmed, nor was she the only victim of his — from rape, or beating, or shooting, or a combination thereof.

It made me wonder how San Franciscans reacted when Armistead Maupin made Jim Jones an arguably romantic figure in his 1982 book Further Tales of the City, just a few years after the 1978 Jonestown Massacre. Maupin lived in San Francisco, where the book is set, and knew that the city was still reeling from the tragedy. If there had been an internet back then, oh, boy.

Is there an ethical statute of limitations on when a crime or killer can be adapted in ways beyond the straightforward? Is it as simple as thinking “are there still folks around who might be harmed by this”? Or is all fair when it comes to crime and fiction? I haven’t made my mind up myself, and can’t wait to hear what you think. — EB

Leave a comment

View 17 comments →

Loading more posts…