Crypto · Vanity Fair · San Quentin

Plus: A "mommy blogger" on her role in shaping the child sex-trafficking narrative

A new podcast seeks to cover the mysterious death of a cryptocurrency millionaire. I feel like we talked about Vanity Fair’s great 2019 piece on the death of Quadriga founder Gerald Cotten, who — brace yourself for a bitcoin shocker — might have been a bit of an alleged scammer. Now Longform co-founder Aaron Lammer has turned the tale into a podcast called Exit Scam. The show launched Monday, and will run weekly through June 28.

Here’s the summary, via a press release:

Gerald Cotten died in 2018 while on a honeymoon trip to India. His customers were told that the $215 million they’d deposited on the exchange was lost forever — because Gerry had forgotten to leave behind his passwords.

But soon accountants discovered it wasn’t actually frozen. It was gone. The vaults had been emptied out 8 months before Cotten died.

And that’s not all: Not everyone believes Gerry is dead.

Lammer says he spent two years investigating the case, and the result is this eight-episode show. Those interested in subscribing can find a link to their platform of choice here. — EB


Writer Meg Conley has publicly reversed her stance on Operation Underground Railroad. Conley, a self-described “writer of a mommy blog” whose work has appeared in the Huffington Post and elsewhere, was a stay-at-home parent in 2014. That’s when Tim Ballard, a former Homeland Security special agent who founded independent anti-child trafficking operation Operation Underground Railroad, reached out to Conley via their mutual connections within their shared Mormon faith, and asked Conley to join him on a raid in the Dominican Republic.

Part of a proposed TV show to document Ballard’s strike force-style, paramilitary work, the raid “haunts me now,” Conley writes for Slate. This, even after penning a glowing report on the group and eventually participating in planning meetings for the organization. So, what changed her mind?

OUR centered Black and Latino children in its fundraising work but ignored requests from Black activists to change the organization’s name. At the same time, Ballard called an Operation Underground painting by Utah artist Jon McNaughton “an early Christmas present.” McNaughton, who had famously painted Barack Obama burning the Constitution in 2012, depicted Ballard, his wife, and other white people carrying Black and brown children rescued from trafficking along a literal railroad. Harriet Tubman stands to the side in reverence along their path.

Disillusioned and disturbed, I sought more understanding of the group’s place within the anti-trafficking world. I reached out to anti-trafficking experts. When I told an international anti-trafficking expert about the 2014 raid I attended, she immediately said, “Do you know how wrong all of that was?” The research, I learned, tells us our 2014 raid was most likely just another childhood trauma for those 26 kids. We made their lives worse.

But what she grasped in a moment, it took me years to understand. When Ballard called me into that house, he put me in harm’s way so that I could write a story about him. (Ballard did not respond to specific questions about the raid.) A condemnation of Ballard? Yes. But it’s a condemnation of me, too. I’d imagined myself the same way he did, or said he did—as a savior of these children. I tried to find meaning in my own life on the backs of exploited kids.

Conley’s essay is a really interesting account of how her eyes were opened to the allegedly problematic nature of OUR, and is really worth a read — especially since, she says, we can expect to see a lot more of Ballard and OUR coming across the true-crime airwaves in the coming months. She says that his book, Slave Stealers, will be developed as a TV show “and a new action movie about him, Sound of Freedom, is forthcoming.”

A look at IMDB confirms the latter claim: the movie doesn’t have a release date, but stars Jim Caviezel as Ballard…which might be a problem! As you might recall, Caviezel just made headlines for spouting egregious QAnon misinformation as fact while ostensibly promoting the movie at the COVID-denying, vaccine opposing “Health Freedom Summit” last month, an event that closed with a public mask burning. So, this is the audience the film’s creators want to attract, which hardly raises confidence in Ballard as a force for good. Sorry, Mira Sorvino and the rest of the cast, this one’s a pass from me. — EB


As usual, I am way behind on my magazine reading. That’s why I’m telling you about two March items now — I just read them last night! Both are from Vanity Fair, both are true crime-related, and both are worth your time. — EB

  • Peter Jackson and the Airplane Thief. The director of the Lord of the Rings/Hobbit blockbusters put much of his earnings into a “fantasy force” of historic airplanes. Curated by Eugene DeMarco, a pilot who shared Jackson’s passion for ancient military aircraft, their 14-year relationship ended in criminal court, with DeMarco the focus of six criminal charges, including the theft of a couple of Jackson’s planes for over $1 million in alleged profits.

  • Dear Mrs. L’Engle. I suspect I’m not the only person who screamed “how did I not know this” as they read this account of the Wrinkle In Time author’s longstanding mail relationship with unjustly incarcerated Black Panther member Ron Irwin, who later converted to Islam and changed his name to Ahmad Rahman. Their written discussions of race and the criminal justice system are truly remarkable, and will leave you feeling even more respect for the fantasy author — as well as a stunning sense of loss regarding what Rahman could have contributed to the world, were he not imprisoned by our (still) racist system.


Attention, jail/COVID-19 nerds. First, hello friends, how nice to finally be with my people. Now, let’s get to it:

As you likely recall, the world-famous San Quentin State Prison gained a new level of infamy in 2020, when a shocking set of California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation decisions prompted an out-of-control outbreak of the then-novel coronavirus. Over 2,200 inmates were sickened and 28 died, CNN reports, prompting over $400,000 is OSHA-related fines for the facility.

According to a press release from the San Francisco Public Defender’s Office, a slew of law firms and defense attorneys have filed “habeas corpus” petitions against the prison, “alleging unlawful incarceration under the Eighth Amendment to the United States Constitution’s prohibition on cruel and unusual punishment.” As of Monday, May 17, evidentiary hearings that are “expected to last several weeks” will begin at the Marin County Superior Court…and we can all watch from home, as the proceedings will be livestreamed throughout.

I’m told that we can expect to hear not just from criminal justice experts and decisionmakers within the corrections system, but from doctors and epidemiologists who’ll explain how the virus spread across the prison population. This is especially of interest as Quentin has been pointed to by some as a functional model of how dangerous a policy of herd immunity (the plan proposed by the previous president, I’ll note) would have been for the nation.

According to the LA Times, “the disastrous situation unfolding at San Quentin State Prison over the last two months has become the latest of several cautionary tales that show how any effort to achieve herd immunity before a vaccine is available would come with enormous costs in terms of illness and death.” Even after 75 percent of the prison’s population was infected (the typical benchmark for herd immunity), new cases continued even after that, which suggests that the 75 percent number might not apply here. The prison’s case rate translates to “767 people dying out of every 100,000 persons. If that same rate occurred across California, that would translate to a staggering 300,000 deaths statewide — many times larger than California’s cumulative death toll of more than 10,400. Nationally, that would be equivalent to 2.5 million deaths.”

If you’re as interested in watching the hearings as I am, bookmark this page and keep an eye on it. According to a spokesperson from the SF Public Defender’s office, that’s where they’ll post the livestream link when it’s available. The hearing kicks off on May 17, at 9 AM PT. — EB


Wednesday on Best Evidence: Vincent Chin, perhaps?


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Kent State · Love After Lockup · The Frenchie Black Market

Plus a Leah Sottile longread and a Blake Bailey explainer

We teased that Lady Gaga dog-napping update repeatedly last week and didn’t come through — sorry about that! The AP reported a week ago that 1) five people face charges in the “violent theft” of the pop star’s pooches, and 2) the motive had nothing to do with Gaga, but rather with the value of her dogs’ breed. Kudos to the news org for the hed — “Prosecutors: Suspects tailed Lady Gaga’s dog walker” (hee, “tailed”) — and here’s a snip explaining why her Frenchies got nabbed:

Three men drove around the Hollywood area in late February, on the prowl for expensive French bulldogs to steal, prosecutors said. … The Lady Gaga connection was a coincidence, authorities have said. The motive was the value of the French bulldogs, a breed that can run into the thousands of dollars, and detectives do not believe the thieves knew the dogs belonged to the pop star.

A woman who, earlier in the investigation, was thought to have no ties to the crime and claimed to have found the pups tied to a pole is now charged as an accessory, as well as with receiving stolen property higher than $950 in value.

The prime three suspects remained in jail with high bond as of the AP’s filing; everyone’s due back in court on this tomorrow, May 11. While you wait, here’s the AKC piece from March that accompanies the photo above, talking about how French bulldogs became the nation’s second most popular dog. Probably not a ton of mysteries therein (compact/good for city-dwellers; short hair; cute AF…can you tell I used to crap out content like this on the daily as a pets editor?) but if anyone can source those tights at non-Frenchie prices, I’m listening. — SDB


Another piece we ought to have surfaced way sooner: Leah Sottile’s piece from early March from Home Country News, “Did James Plymell need to die?” (Said piece comes with a content warning up top; I’ll add another one here for images of a deceased person, and an evocative description of his demise.) The subtitle, “How homelessness is criminalized in small cities and towns across the West,” suggests that before even reading Sottile’s article we can guess that no, Plymell did not need to die; and why Eve and I both kept stepping around the longread as a bleak and enraging look at how law enforcement continues to see every problem as requiring a forceful solution…despite the fact that it’s from Sottile, host and reporter of the outstanding Bundyville podcasts from OPB and Longreads.

Here’s a snip from Sottile’s timeline of the confrontation that ended his life — a very effective sequence, writing-wise, that underlines how needlessly and quickly situations involving cops and the “non-compliant” mentally ill get out of hand:

“You’re gonna get tased if you don’t get out of the car,” Schroff warned as she tugged at Plymell’s arm. She drew her Taser — a black device, shaped like a gun — and removed its barbs, preparing it for “drive-stun” mode, in which the device is pressed directly against the body for “pain compliance,” the use of painful stimulus to control an uncooperative person. Plymell yelled “OK! OK! OK! I’ll get out! I’ll get out!” He put his left foot on the ground just as Schroff pushed the Taser toward him. He flailed his arms, batting the device away.

At the moment Schroff’s Taser began to click, she had been at the scene for 42 seconds.

Go on your phone, go to the clock, and use the stopwatch to time out 42 seconds. It’s no time at all.

Certainly Sottile’s piece takes longer to read, and it isn’t a smile, but the textured quotes from friends and exes of Plymell’s; the flagrant, and efficient, dispensing-with of the investigation into his death by Albany, OR PD; the brief history of Taser technology; the photos of what Plymell left behind…it’s powerful stuff. — SDB


We also missed the fifty-first anniversary of the National Guard shootings at Kent State. (…We need another word for “anniversary” in the context of crimes and tragedies, the same way we swap out “birthday” when the person is no longer living. “Anniversary”’s suggested synonyms include “jubilee,” which, my point. “Commemoration”? “Remembrance”? Help a tired lady out here.)

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Reading over the History.com summary, it doesn’t seem like a lot’s changed in terms of “protest management,” eh what? Especially the bit at the end:

In 1974, at the end of a criminal investigation, a federal court dropped all charges levied against eight Ohio National Guardsmen for their role in the Kent State students’ deaths.

Waited a nice long time; let Watergate become an all-consuming distraction; absolve law enforcement of wrongdoing. …I will note, not exactly in the Guardsmen’s defense but as pertinent information (and probably not for the first time, so forgive the repetition in that event), that my father was a tank specialist in the Pennsylvania Guard during the back half of the sixties and a couple years in the seventies. Dave Sr. has always said that, after basic training, their periodic “drill” consisted almost entirely of riot-control exercises — conducted, absurdly, in some hayfield outside Harrisburg; as well, not for nothing, but this literally is his alibi for a couple of the Zodiac murders, so — because this was all the Guard was doing at that time, rolling into cities and cowing the angry citizenry. Dave Sr. has also consistently expressed relief at never getting called on to, in his words, “rattle into South Philly and threaten a bunch of other skinny 22-year-olds who weren’t as lucky as me.” The man’s unflappability is legend and I don’t think anyone, including him, thinks he’d have fired into a crowd even if ordered to. I’m not saying punishment shouldn’t have been handed down if the proof was there, but terrified kids weren’t in short supply on either side.

Annnnnyway: people tend to remember two things about the shootings, and one of them is Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young’s “Ohio,” which had the effect of keeping the pointless ugliness of the massacre alive for classic-rock-radio listeners to young to remember the actual events. Ultimate Classic Rock.com has a history of how the song came to be, and came to endure, though many of the elements will be familiar to readers of a certain age.

The other thing people tend to remember is John Filo’s Pulitzer-winning photograph. What they may not recall — I didn’t — is that the girl at its heart, Mary Ann Vecchio, was only 14. Last weekend, WaPo had a piece on Vecchio and “how her life turned out.” Vecchio had responded to truant officers’ threats in her hometown of Opa-locka, FL by hitting the open road “in her bare feet” three months prior to her date with “Kent State Pieta” destiny. Here’s a snip from Patricia McCormick’s piece about the immediate aftermath of the gunfire:

Mary Ann just remembers running. She didn’t know anyone at Kent State; she’d known [Jeffrey] Miller [whose body she’s kneeling next to in the photo] for only 25 minutes. But she saw National Guard troops herding students onto buses, so she followed in a daze. Some two hours later, when the bus arrived in Columbus, the soldiers told everyone to get off. Many of the students ran to waiting parents. Mary Ann stumbled around the streets of the city; she’d never even heard of Columbus.

Back on campus, students were yelling at John [Filo], calling him a pig, a vulture. John yelled back. “No one’s going to believe this happened,” he told them. “This,” he said, pointing to his camera, “is proof.”

Vecchio’s journey didn’t get any easier for a while — ratted to juvie authorities by an Indy Star reporter; called an agitator by her home state’s governor; exploited by her father via novelty t-shirt — and I wasn’t happy to be reminded how many Kent locals wished the Guardsmen had shot more protestors, but there’s uplift of a sort here too, and it’s an excellent read. — SDB


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If you find yourself only dimly aware of the allegations against Blake Bailey, Philip Roth biographer and cretin, Constance Grady of Vox pulled together a repository for you. (Full disclosure: Two days later, Grady published a oral history of the Crying Dawson GIF which turned out fantastic despite her having interviewed me extensively for it (heh), but while that is how I came to follow her on Twitter and to see the tweet above, that’s not why I’m linking to the Bailey thing.) The timeline Grady has built does indeed merit two variations on the word “exhausting,” as she takes us carefully through the publication of Bailey’s Roth bio; the lone voice of reviewing dissent; the accusations, the belated distancing, etc. and so on. It’s enragingly familiar, but if the bulk of the story had missed you so far and you weren’t sure where to catch up, this is the place. Here’s a snippet:

“These allegations are serious,” said Norton’s statement. “In light of them, we have decided to pause the shipping and promotion of Philip Roth: A Biography pending any further information that may emerge.”

Later the same day, the story took a new turn. The New York Times published an article detailing a new rape allegation against Bailey at the home of one of the paper’s own book critics — and evidence suggesting that Norton knew of that allegation several years ago.

I mean, I don’t know about y’all, but I just assume when these allegations surface that the publishers knew full well about them and didn’t give a shit, so I am saddened — but neither shocked nor stunned. Grady appears to concur in her kicker: “Of course. All of it is horrible. And, horribly, none of it is shocking.”

About a week after Grady’s piece, Slate’s Josh Levin, Susan Matthews, and Molly Olmstead dug deep on Bailey’s time at that New Orleans school and the behavior that, as so often happens, let “cool teacher” behavior disguise what is in retrospect very obvious grooming:

Our reporting has revealed a clear pattern. Time and again, Bailey would become deeply involved in his students’ personal lives. He’d flatter their intellects, or their looks, and win their devotion, only to abuse that loyalty as they became young women. Nearly everyone we spoke to said Mr. Bailey was one of the best teachers they’d ever had. They also described a man obsessed with getting deep inside his subjects’ psyches. That habit has paid off for Bailey as a biographer. It’s also been his tool of choice as a predator.

The piece snarks on biased “magnet” and “gifted” programs shortly thereafter, which is gratifying, if also depressing. — SDB


Speaking of “gratifying, if also depressing,” this is how I might describe the experience of watching Love After Lockup. I won’t repeat my pro-LAL screed from last year — er, one of them — but I will say that, while in many ways it’s exactly the over-edited garbage you’d expect, it’s also a useful document of carceral and post-carceral lives that refuses to judge the “carceral” parts of those lives.

Not that WE seems to understand that, because it refers to the show as viewers’ “guiltiest pleasure” in a new promo for a fourth season, dropped by the network yesterday on Twitter.

Unless that’s wordplay on “guilty” as in a verdict, which is both well above WE’s usual marketing product and exactly in their tackiness lane. Who cares! Point is, the show’s back in June, and I initially was like, sweet, plenty of time to tackle the handful of episodes I have backlogged…but June is in three weeks, ew.

In any event, my fellow LAL-watchers, I look forward to meeting this new crop of couples along with you (and to putting a few of the recent seasons’ sadburgers in the rearview). — SDB


This week in Best Evidence: Holmes’s bankroll, hot pursuits, and…Tom Arnold’s sister?


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.

What Crimes Help You Connect With Your Mom?

No, I’m not Oxygening* you. But here’s a story: A couple weeks after my dad died in 2018, my brother (Brooklyn) and I (San Francisco) were still in Indiana at my mom’s, eating dinner. I don’t recall what we were talking about when she revealed that in 1961 she and some friends had spent an evening with a pair of notorious spree killers, and that one of those friends was their last victim. Maybe an hour or so after dinner, after the dishes were washed and my brother and I were safely buried in our phones, she came back with a photo of her and her friends (including the victim) outside the restaurant where they’d worked.

That revelation helped put so much of my teenaged years in perspective. My mom was so strict and so protective, I had to work to get into trouble. But learning about this brush she had with the worst of the world back when she was a teen, herself, I suddenly understood.

Of course, I’m not the only person who’s had crime impact my relationship with my mom, for good or for ill. I have one friend, for example, sho says the thing that’s saved her relationship with her (Facebook-believing, red-state) mom is the ability to change the subject to the latest Netflix true crime property. Another tells me that she never really talked to her mother-in-law until Scott Peterson’s retrial hearings started heating up, and that they’ve found a way to connect by rehashing the case.

What about you? Is your interest in true crime something that allows you to bridge a gap with a maternal figure in your life, or make an existing bond stronger? I told you my story, now you tell me yours. — EB

*it’s true, finding a crassly questionable marketing hook for true-crime content is now “Oxygening,” tell your friends

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For Real This Time: Blow · Bezos · Candy Montgomery

Plus: Holmes in court

Sorry about that, folks! A network error at Substack meant that an unfinished draft of today’s issue (basically, what I had done before their servers crapped themselves or whatever) went to you instead of the full issue. So I’m sending this again, with my apologies. Thank you for your patience! — EB


Is Candy Montgomery the hottest figure in true crime? The Texas housewife who killed her neighbor with an ax back in 1980 spawned a quickly-published book called Evidence of Love: A True Story of Passion and Death in the Suburbs, which was eventually adapted into the Barbara Hershey-starring A Killing in a Small Town, a CBS TV movie that aired in 1990. (The case was also the subject of a 1984 two-parter from Texas Monthly; you can catch up on it here and here.

But that was it, for 30 or so years…until last year, when Hulu announced a show called Candy about the case. This time, Elisabeth Moss would play Montgomery, working with The Act’s Robin Veith with Nick Antosca.

And now there’s a competing Candy project, this one with Elizabeth Olsen in the Candy role. Deadline reports that this time, David E. Kelley will pen the script, and Nicole Kidman is producing another limited Montgomery series for HBO Max.

And get this shady press-release comment from production studio Lionsgate Television Group chair Kevin Beggs: “We cannot imagine a more perfect artist to play the leading role of Candy than Elizabeth Olsen…Her talent, charisma and energy can bewitch audiences like no other.” Kevin, what are you saying about Elisabeth Moss and Barbara Hershey (who won that year’s Outstanding Lead Actress — Miniseries or a Movie Emmy for her work as Candy BTW)?

We don’t have release dates for either show quite yet, so it’s unclear if Hulu or HBO will drop their show first. Please don’t unsubscribe if I end this item by saying “looks like there’ll be plenty of Candy for everyone.” — EB


George Jung has died. The 78-year-old former cocaine smuggler’s death was announced on his Instagram page (a sentence that was just as strange to type as it must be to read). According to TMZ, Jung had been in home hospice care for several days, after his liver and kidneys began to fail.

Jung’s career working for Pablo Escobar was chronicled in Bruce Porter’s book Blow: How a Small-Town Boy Made $100 Million with the Medellín Cocaine Cartel and Lost It All. That book was adapted into the 2001 movie Blow, stills from which I took to a hair salon to replicate Jung/Depp’s highlights. What can I say, it was the early ’00s.

The film was clearly important to Jung, or at least, to his survivors: following his death his Twitter account published a quote from the movie, “May the wind always be at your back and the sun upon your face, and the winds of destiny carry you aloft to dance with the stars.” — EB


Fans and foes of Jeff Bezos will all find something to enjoy in this longread on his blackmail fight. As you might recall, back in early 2019 the Amazon founder penned a Medium post accusing National Enquirer publisher American Media Inc. of a complicated conspiracy to embarrass him that (as the NYT put it) “brought together international intrigue, White House politics, nude photos and amorous text messages.”

An awful lot has happened since then, and I kind of forgot about this whole thing! But not Brad Stone, Bloomberg’s senior executive editor for global technology. His book, Amazon Unbound: Jeff Bezos and the Invention of a Global Empire, drops on May 11 (but is available for preorder on Amazon now, ha ha). Early reviews make it sound like a pretty standard “how a company grew to monolith status and its founder got rich” tale, but an excerpt on the blackmail story reads more like true crime. Here’s a snip:

Chief Content Officer Dylan Howard, was a short and stout 36-year-old Australian and an acid-penned chronicler of the hypocrisies and indiscretions of American celebrities. The journalistic force behind such tabloid supernovas as Mel Gibson’s antisemitic rants and Arnold Schwarzenegger’s love child, Howard was protective of his work and combative toward rivals. When the Post aggressively covered AMI’s catch-and-kill problems, Howard told reporters to look into its wealthy owner’s personal life.

One possible line of inquiry, according to an email that went out to AMI staff in late summer, was to examine Bezos’ relationship with the family of his biological father, Ted Jorgensen, and why the CEO hadn’t contacted them when Jorgensen was dying in 2015.

The next day, Monday, Sept. 10, Michael Sanchez wrote an email to Andrea Simpson, an L.A.-based reporter for AMI. Sanchez and Simpson were close friends. He regularly sent her news about his clients, and they had once gotten tattoos together on a whim. (His, on his forearm, read Je suis la tempête: “I am the storm.”) In the email, Sanchez said he had a hot tip for Simpson. A friend, he wrote, worked for a “Bill Gates type” who was married and having an affair with “a B-list married actress.” The friend, Sanchez wrote, had compromising photos of the couple but wanted a six-figure payout for the scoop. Sanchez claimed to be working as the middleman.

The whole story is fascinating, from how Bezos was allegedly sold out by his girlfriend’s brother, to the revelation’s impact on Amazon’s stock, to how Bezos took control of the situation, is gripping. And Bloomberg has helpfully pulled this dish for us, publishing a lengthy excerpt of, really, the only part of the book I’m interested in. So pour yourself a cup of Amazon Basics java and read that excerpt here. — EB


Elizabeth Holmes appeared in court this week, for the first time since the pandemic. Just in case one crassly thought her pregnancy was a defense ploy, we have photos that strongly suggest otherwise — she’s due in July, and her look reflects that.

The subject of this week’s hearing was a “Theranos database that … would show that the inaccurate blood testing central to the alleged crimes was extremely rare,” reporter Ethan Baron writes for the Bay Area News Group. Her defense says that the lack of that database — which Theranos reportedly destroyed — makes for a “gaping hole in the government’s case,” which sure does make you wonder why Theranos destroyed it! Anyway, no big decisions came down this week, and the trial is still set for this fall, after Holmes gives birth. — EB


Friday on Best Evidence: We’ll see!


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Unsolved Mysteries · Opioids In Baseball · The Sons Of Sam

Plus the Peabody nominations and a classic longread

Little did I know when I suggested the topic for an episode of Extra Extra Hot Great that Season 5, Episode 22 of The Golden Girls would contain a true-crime element! And no, I don’t mean Dorothy’s six-mile schmatte. The A plot is Dorothy reuniting with an old lover played by Jerry Orbach — which is, given the players, a bit of a dud, not least because it doesn’t tie in to the B plot, a PSA about Sophia and Blanche getting taken in by a pigeon-drop con. (You can watch the episode here; Orbie’s not the only name in the guest-star credits.) That Rose is the one who has to explain the process-y part, versus getting taken in by it, is a little weird, and then the episode misses an opportunity to parallel the con bit by making Orbach’s character a love fraudster, but: later seasons, amirite?

Fast forward to yesterday, which I mostly spent lounging and rewatching stuff I didn’t really need to rewatch but that I could nap in front of. What did I happen to pick? Unsolved Mysteries: Original Flavor, Season 4, Episode 5 — which ends with Josephine White, a legendary pigeon-dropper! I’ve dropped the ep below, but it’s also on Amazon Prime (though they’ve shunted the show to IMDbTV, which means ads). Skip to 34:30 for the relevant segment…

(The version of the scam here differs somewhat from the one in GG, which you’ll probably recognize from the opening sequence of The Sting.) An update segment notes that White finally got a goodly amount of time in the joint for a check scam in Connecticut, and while she’s likely out by now, the pigeon drop lives on even during COVID times. — SDB


And Unsolved Mysteries is still helping solve crimes. In this case, though, it wasn’t viewers who came in with the tip, but rather UM producers, whose query to Kenner, LA police about the 2010 deaths of Hermania Ellsworth and Charles Davis led to a case review; an arrest; and a possible solution to a second double murder, of a couple (above) who lived on the block where the murders took place, and may have witnessed something.

But here’s an interesting snip from KIRO 7’s coverage:

Authorities said cold case homicide Detective Nick Engler, who was assigned the Ellsworth-Davis case, reviewed investigative reports, lab results, phone records and witness statements.

“Detective Engler was able to connect [Dernell] Nelson to the Kenner homicide by DNA and additional circumstantial evidence,” the police statement read.

The police statement, which I read in its entirety on Facebook, does NOT explain why, if they’d developed Nelson as a suspect from the jump and if they had DNA, this took over ten years to take off the board, but what do I know, I’m just an English major. At least it finally happened. — SDB


The May bonus-review poll results are in…and it’s a tie! Happily, I’m intrigued by both films — An American Crime (a vague title that might have you confused with the TV series; this is the 2007 based on the Sylvia Likens case, starring Catherine Keener, Elliot Page, and a gazillion other names…like, FRANCO is in this thing); and Who Killed Little Gregory?. And anyone can vote for these, but only paid subscribers can read the reviews, so if you absolutely must know what I think of Bradley Whitford’s performance as a prosecutor…


Free to all: my review of The Sons Of Sam: Descent Into Darkness for Primetimer. If you saw this one and were like, “Berkowitz, I don’t think I can do anoth— wait, satanic cults now? Forget it,” so was I, at first. BUT it’s directed by Joshua Zeman, in whom I always trust; Paul Giamatti is the voice of truth-seeker Maury Terry; and it ends up becoming a comment on true-crime journalism, and what one talking-head interviewee calls the “golden shovel” some reporters get — the one that lets them keep digging, always down another level, always juuuust a few scoops away from the grand unifying piece of evidence and the one true answer. Here’s a snip:

…I think questioning official stories is not just okay but vital to fixing a broken criminal-justice system. I can absolutely believe that the Son Of Sam investigation was compromised for the sake of "optics," sweeping a sketchy search warrant under the rug, and/or calming a nervous NYC populace. But another side effect of consuming a lot of true crime is that the phrase "satanic cult" tends to immediately slam a door in my head. To be fair, today we have the benefit of a hindsight that Terry didn't when it comes to how likely it is that Devil-worshipping played a role in any given case — i.e., not very likely — but you really can't overestimate how prone inexperienced or merely frustrated investigators were to grasping at the satanic straw 30 or 40 years ago.

It’s a handsomely made and compelling four hours, all of which dropped on Netflix overnight; I recommend it highly. — SDB


The Peabody Awards announced their 2021 nominees yesterday. It’s probably extremely uncharitable of me to hope out loud that their vetting process has tightened up since the Caliphate imbroglio, but I can only be what I am.

Anyway, relevant properties for our purposes include documentaries Athlete A, Atlanta’s Missing & Murdered, Belly of the Beast, and Time; podcast Unfinished: Deep South; and news stories on Breonna Taylor, George Floyd, and “needless deaths in Minnesota jails.”

And…also Ted Lasso and I May Destroy You! Lots I need to catch up on here, though with Karina Longworth dropping a new season of You Must Remember This, I don’t know when I’ll get to any of it… — SDB


You’re probably accustomed to thinking that drugs in baseball means steroids, period, but does the death of Anaheim Angels pitcher Tyler Skaggs almost two years ago suggest that the sport — like the rest of the country — has an opioid problem? I confess it’s not a possibility I’d given much thought; these are, after all, pro athletes, and this particular breed of self-destruction seems a little off-brand. But at the same time, I became a baseball fan in the ’80s, of a team with Dwight Gooden on it, and even non-fans probably know what a Steve Howe reference means…not to mention that opioids are painkillers. I’m not naive, but there’s so much other baseball stuff to rant about.

Nathan Fenno’s grim L.A. Times longread from last week digs into the Skaggs tragedy, including the fall from grace of Eric Kay, the Angels communications director who’s headed to the courtroom this summer to face charges for procuring the fentanyl and oxycodone that led to Skaggs’s OD-ing.

And it sure as hell sounds like Skaggs isn’t an outlier; his death, perhaps, but the contact with this particular class of drug?

Kay’s trial has been repeatedly delayed, including because one of his attorneys contracted COVID-19. The trial is now scheduled to start Aug. 16. Among the cache of evidence are 24,000 pages of records — including from law enforcement, telephones, finances and medical care — plus 185 gigabytes of email files. The evidence also includes interviews with witnesses who are “professional athletes and/or otherwise affiliated with Major League Baseball in various capacities,” and “sensitive information related to other investigations.”

Skaggs’s family is still considering a lawsuit, presumably for wrongful death, and officials said the DEA’s investigation is still active, so even more could come out about how endemic the problem is or isn’t in MLB.

Hat tip to Craig Calcaterra, whose excellent Cup Of Coffee newsletter alerted me to the story yesterday, and who reported a piece on opioids in baseball for NBC Sports in October of 2019. The six baseball insiders Calcaterra talked to included former players, former front-office guys, and an agent, and it doesn’t sound like Skaggs’s using was either a rarity or a surprise. As to why MLB and/or teams haven’t addressed it more forcefully,

[an “industry source”] suggested that this is less about teams blatantly ignoring opioid addiction as much as it was about them not truly grasping its seriousness or knowing where, specifically, to draw the line on illegal drug use. Part of what blurs those lines: the Joint Drug Agreement makes no distinctions between the various “Drugs of Abuse” it lists, despite the fact that there is a pretty big difference between the drugs that are banned.

The industry source, the agent and a second former front office executive with whom I spoke told me that marijuana — which, at least as far as the JDA is concerned, is placed on the same level as opioids as a “Drug of Abuse” — is ubiquitous in Major League Baseball. 

Later in the piece, the agent “was critical” of the resources available to players who might struggle with addiction or benefit from a diversion-type set-up short of an official report-and-rehab proceeding. Most of Calcaterra’s sources “are pessimistic that the league will take the tragedy that befell Skaggs [in 2019] to heart and truly learn from past mistakes as opposed to hoping that the matter blows over.” Without delivering a stemwinder on the fact that MLB appears at the moment to be run by people who actively dislike the sport, and are more concerned with merchandising and not getting sued than with the sanctity of the game and the safety of its players…I’d have to agree. Why try to confront a problem that might make a union shop steward yell at you when you can fuck up free baseball by putting a runner on second like everyone’s eight years old? — SDB


I don’t know how I got this far in this line of critical work without having actually read Buzz Bissinger’s Vanity Fair piece about Stephen Glass, but I have now closed that gap, and in the event that you also need to do so, here it is. And here’s a snip, in case Bissinger’s name conjures only 1) spending sprees at leather stores or 2) Bissinger ripping a spluttering strip off Will Leitch, because all we used to know about him is that he could write…which is what everyone thought about Glass for a while:

He was hardly the first to make up stories. Janet Cooke had done it in 1980 in a Pulitzer Prize–winning piece for The Washington Post. Nik Cohn, 21 years after the fact, blithely admitted to having made up most of the New York story that inspired the film Saturday Night Fever. More recently, Boston Globe columnist Patricia Smith was fired for making up parts of her columns. But none of these journalists approached the sheer calculation of Glass’s deceptions. He is the perfect expression of his time and place: an era is cresting in Washington; it is a time when fact and fiction are blurred not only by writers eager to score but also by presidents and their attorneys, spinmeisters and special prosecutors. From one perspective, Stephen Glass was a master parodist of his city’s shifting truths.

Okay, the word “spinmeisters” dates this a bit, but the piece is excellent. I also went down a Google rabbithole seeing what Glass has gotten up to in the last quarter century. Did you know that the committees of bar examiners in not one but TWO states have refused to certify his bar-exam results based on “moral fitness” tests — and that, in California, this resulted in a lengthy appeals battle, which Glass lost? (Does this seem to anyone else like BBWAA voters sniffily pointing to the Baseball Hall Of Fame morals clause vis-a-vis guys like Roger Clemens when guys like Cap Anson — whom I once described as “patrolling the color barrier with a caulking gun” — have been in for decades?) — SDB


Thursday on Best Evidence: Elizabeths Olsen and Holmes.


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