Epstein's Chef · Sketchy Banks · Seriously, Oxygen?

Plus: A bunch of books to reserve or just order

Hello! I have returned from my bathroom floor (or, more accurately, the hall outside my bathroom, which is not big enough to comfortably lie down on)! Sarah is right, our budget document is bonkeroo, so I’m going to continue her tradition with a couple of roundups today. Lots of good stuff for your ears and eyes! — EB

But first, what’s with this series title, Oxygen? The Real Murders of Orange County is a Doctor Pimple Popper episode title (just trade “lipomas” for “murders”) level of cheese, a past-its-sell-by date reference to a show that — hold on to your butts — wasn’t new and wow since 2006.

And yet, it is a show that Oxygen announced in the year of our lord 2020 — a series about “the most horrific, sinful and salacious cases that rocked Southern California’s wealthy coastal community,” it said via press release. The trailer is here, and the show kicks off on November 8, which means that you can just let it pile up and binge it over Thanksgiving. That seems like the proper time to sit back and watch “when privilege leads to problems and greed leads to murder,” one supposes. — EB

As I’ve mentioned, my day job is at food and restaurant website Eater. So, the news that Adam Perry Lang, a celebrity restauranteur and the former personal chef for Jeffrey Epstein, is in talks with the feds about Epstein’s many crimes was big to me from both sides.

Buzzfeed reports that Lang would help sneak Epstein victim Virginia Roberts Giuffre food, but doesn’t implicate him in any of the disgraced financier’s crimes — but Lang’s role in the saga was brought to the forefront by the most recent episode of Broken: Jeffrey Epstein, in which podcast host Tara Palmeri and Giuffre attempt to track Lang down to hold “the various perpetrators that participated, enabled or looked the other way accountable,” Giuffre says in a note she wrote to the chef.

Eater LA runs down the efforts the pair make to track Lang down (they were not successful), and scored a statement with Lang’s team, which says rather pointedly that “We have absolutely always been available to the attorneys for the lawyers representing the victims — indeed, we reached out and spoke to one of them many months ago but although we invited a meeting with Adam in no uncertain terms, those attorneys have literally never gotten back to us (although we did hear from other counsel this week).” — EB

New podcasts! New podcasts! Here’s what to listen to, or to look forward to. — EB

  • Suspicious Activity: Inside the FinCEN Files: This new podcast from Buzzfeed is a five-part look at “how the most powerful banks in the world facilitate the worst of humanity.” It’s the in-your-ears version of a massive investigation by Buzzfeed, the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists, and hundreds of other news organizations, into leaked government docs that — as Axios puts is — “reveal how some of the world's biggest banks knowingly moved around the money of oligarchs, terrorists and criminals, with few consequences.” There’s a boatload of background reading (most of it published this past Sunday) on the case; you can find it here. Plus, the show host is Azeen Ghorayshi, who is a delightful person. Episode 1 is here.

  • Canary: The Washington Post Investigates: This seven-part investigation into “the intertwining stories of two women who came together after one of them publicly shared her story of sexual assault” launches on October 1, which is — shockingly — next week. It’s the Post’s first long-form investigative podcast, and the paper is offering an early listen to the show if you give them your email address.

  • Shots in the Back: Exhuming the 1970 Augusta Riot: Georgia Public Broadcasting launched this series about the demonstrations that followed “the suspicious death of Charles Oatman, an African American teenager held in the county jail” earlier this summer, but if you hop on it now, you can participate in a series of virtual events with host Niki Harris and some of the show’s guests, scheduled for 7 PM ET on September 28 and October 5. For more info on the events, go here.

  • One Click: We don’t have a release date for this podcast yet, but we know that it will exist because Deadline says so, noting that Elle Fanning is set to narrate the show. The podcast is based on Jessica Wapner’s Daily Beast report “The Deadly Internet Diet Drug That Cooks People Alive,” about “A chemical used in WWI-era artillery shells” that is “sold on the Internet as a diet pill and bodybuilding aid—with fatal results.” So, start with TDB’s story here, and set your alarm for “early 2021,” when the pod is expected to drop.

If you, like me, have podcasts piled up like nuts because you’re not going anywhere anymore, then you might prefer a couple book ideas. Right? I am almost out of books (thank god Sarah’s latest came out Tuesday!) so this list is as much for me as it is for you. — EB

  • The Witness: This book dropped in the UK December of 2020, but the Kindle version was just made available in the U.S. It’s a well-reviewed book on a Dublin gangster who is known as the “youngest person in the history of the state” to go into witness protection.

  • The Devil’s Harvest: The full title is The Devil's Harvest: A Ruthless Killer, a Terrorized Community, and the Search for Justice in California's Central Valley, which leaves me little to expand upon: Jose Manuel Martínez seemed like a regular, California guy, but he was actually a cartel hitman. The New York Journal of Books gave it a glowing review, calling it “a must read for any true-crime aficionado and is a story that desperately needed to be told.” It’s not available via audiobook yet, and its Kindle version was on sale for $13.99 as of this writing.

  • Who’s Watching You?: When you send me a press release that says Don Johnson has written a true crime book, you bet I click “open.” But it’s not that Don Johnson — this Johnson is a first-time author whose wife, Ellen, was attacked and assaulted, escaping by jumping from a moving vehicle. This self-published tome is his tribute to his spouse (who died of cancer in 2018), and the importance DNA testing played in her case. Based on the excerpt I read, this might not be the most ambitious narrative in this roundup, but it’s clear that this book was a labor of love.

Thursday on Best Evidence: Make it the Olympics, but with crime.

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.

Des · Carole Baskin · Clark Rockefeller

Plus an award-winning PSA and a vintage John Wilkes Booth doc

Apologies for some email weirdness yesterday, although it’s possible we only see it on our end! If you didn’t get yesterday’s newsletter until close to cocktail hour ET, or you’ve had any other receipt issues, you can reach out to support at substack dot org and let them know — and yesterday’s edition is right here. — SDB

The crime

Dennis Nilsen killed at least twelve young men in London between 1978 and 1983, disposing of their bodies in late-night bonfires, under his floorboards, and down the drains. He wasn’t discovered until human remains blocked up a pipe in his apartment. He confessed immediately on being questioned, leaving police to try and discover the identity of the victims he’d left behind.

The story

A three-part miniseries from ITV, Des opens in 1983 when a call comes into the local police station from a plumber who thinks he’s found human remains. Two detectives take the call, look sideways at the drain, and then wait around for Dennis Nilsen (David Tennant) to get home from work. When they ask him where the body is, he tells them to look in his kitchen cupboard, before correcting them that it’s not one body, it’s “fifteen or sixteen.”

It was blocked plumbing, not dogged investigation or brilliant deduction, that caught Nilsen. He’d been preying on homeless men, picking them up at gay pubs and sometimes right off the street. Not all of his victims died, and at least one tried to report him, only to be ignored by police officers dismissing the incident as a “lover’s tiff gone wrong.”

Any property dealing with the Nilsen case has to address the three defining characteristics of his story. One is the gory details of the killings, including the suggestion of necrophilia. Another is how he got away with it for so long, when the police’s homophobia had created a blindspot so massive that twelve lives were lost. The third was that “Call me Des” Nilsen was notoriously boring. An unremarkable civil servant who didn’t stand out, he was desperately dull, prone to droning on about politics, his record collection, or the details of his crimes like the deadliest version of that windbag from Accounting you’d avoid at office parties.

Des is too squeamish to delve into the horrific details, and it takes pains to avoid becoming a psychological thriller or puzzle-piece procedural. There’s almost no suspense in the narrative, apart from the occasional logistical hurdle that DCI Peter Jay (Daniel Mays), the perpetually rumpled lead detective, runs into as he tries to piece together just what Nilsen did ahead of the trial. He is joined by Brian Masters (Jason Watkins), Nilsen’s self-appointed biographer, who claims he intends to write an entirely objective book about the murders.

Mostly, Jay and Masters take turns interviewing Nilsen, who will chat away about most topics — his tabloid headlines, pet dog, childhood memories — but is cagey on the subject of who his victims were, claiming to not remember any names, until suddenly he does.

As Masters, a poor man’s Capote gone Limey, the show has Watkins scrunch up his face in distaste whenever he’s interviewing Nilsen. It’s intended to register disgust at Nilsen’s crimes, but on repeat it just looks as if he’s discovered that the pâté is off. While he’s the only queer character who warrants a full name, he doesn’t seem particularly interested in what Nilsen’s crimes have to do with being gay in Britain in the eighties. Instead he claims to be working on a “purely objective” analysis of the crimes, which is about as convincing as his stuffed-shirt outrage at Des’s rants.

Which leaves us with Des himself. David Tennant is wildly charismatic as well as being a good actor, good enough to spin some gold from a script bogged down with clichés. He even wrings some black comedy out of Nilsen’s Brocialist tangents on British imperialism (“The only house of horror I know is 24 Downing Street”). This has the unfortunate side effect of making his scenes the most interesting part of the series. Particularly unfortunate because, even as the show hand-waves away police incompetence and is reluctant to deal with the nitty-gritty of investigation, there’s not much space left for the people he killed. 

Nilsen’s victims mainly exist in the story to place obstacles in the way of the investigation. When Detective Jay talks to the survivor whose report was initially disbelieved by police, the scene is treated as a throwaway, as is the revelation that Nilsen was a former cop. Instead there’s some material on Jay’s own bad divorce, while the pictures of the identified bodies slowly build up on a pinboard in the office. When another survivor leaves the court after testifying, he’s faced with homophobic abuse, one the few times that the story acknowledges there might be systemic reasons Nilsen remained at large. But the narrative of Jay doing his best, while Masters overcomes his distaste long enough to write a bestseller, overrides any other interests.

Much like Masters claiming he won’t use adjectives to describe his subject, Des has too many middlebrow aspirations to try to paint its subject as the monster he claims to be. However, it lacks the imagination and empathy needed to make this more than just the story of a boring man who did appalling things. It doesn’t have the courage to tell us anything more than that. — Margaret Howie

Carole Baskin is getting her own show. She and her husband Howard — the current, living one — will be featured in an as-yet-unnamed unscripted property that focuses on the couple as they “work to expose, like never before, those who abuse and take advantage of various animals,” per a statement from the show’s production company, Thinkfactory Media. The show’s still in development, with the pitch process still ahead. Any predictions on where it ends up and what it’s called? Before you start guessing, a snippet of info that might inform your guesses:

The company has previously worked to bring other shows to networks, including, “Mama June: From Not to Hot,” “Gene Simmons Family Jewels” and “Dog and Beth: Fight of Their Lives.”

My prediction: it gets shopped around for a while, then packaged as a two-hour special that Animal Planet dumps in the middle of a holiday weekend. It’s possible Netflix could pick it up to keep it in the family, but that Nic Cage thing ended up at Amazon, so it seems like Netflix has gotten what it needed out of the story and is quitting while it’s ahead? But what I don’t know about how these decisions get made is a lot. Leave your prognostications for (Big) Cat Scratch Fever in the comments! — SDB

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It’s something of a “travel-size” edition this time around; Eve is sick, and the book I co-wrote with esteemed B.E. tipster Tara Ariano — which has nothing to do with crime, unless you count 1) stupid Brandon driving drunk in the first season and/or 2) all the outfits — is out today. Thanks for hanging in with us no matter what the length, and don’t forget, we’re here for your tips and requests! Call, or text, us at 919-75-CRIME.

A “harrowing” PSA won an Emmy for Outstanding Commercial of 2019. I didn’t realize that category existed, to tell you the truth, but last Saturday, the TAAS honored a PSA about school shootings by non-profit Sandy Hook Promise, Smuggler Productions, and BBDO New York. The PSA is below, and while the word “harrowing” is in quotation marks above, that’s because I’m quoting from Sandy Hook Promise’s press release; it isn’t quote harrowing, it’s legitimately harrowing, and may trigger some viewers. Please watch with care for yourselves.

The last ten seconds made me shudder. Truly great work from the actors here; I can’t imagine how one directs children in a narrative like this one, or how children work with that direction so effectively. In any event, well done, albeit awful to watch, and you can find other shorts from SHP on their YouTube channel. — SDB

Been a while since I dipped into the Blotter blog archive, so here’s a review of Mark Seal’s book on Clark “Rockefeller.” Is this another VF article that should have stayed a “mere” longread?


The crime
Christian Gerhartsreiter, a.k.a. Christopher Chichester, a.k.a. Christopher Crowe, a.k.a. Clark Rockefeller…well, I suppose the sentence doesn't need a verb, does it. A German national who arrived in the States in the late '70s, posed as the exchange-student son of a wealthy "industrialist" (one of those words, like "tycoon," that you only seem to find in true-crime accounts or Welles films), and used a scam marriage as a green-card springboard into the upper echelons of California society, Gerhartsreiter has also posed as a financial-instruments salesman, an art expert, a baronet, and of course a Rockefeller.

He's none of those things, of course; he is, historically, quite gifted at sensing when the noose of lies is about to cut off his oxygen, and changing locales (and names and stories) ahead of the law. Eventually he put down roots, though. True, his relationship with his second wife, the almost incomprehensibly passive/willfully naïve Sandra Boss, consisted primarily of remora-ing her considerable executive income while implying to others that she benefited from his impressive inherited wealth. But it's their daughter, Reigh, and Gerhartsreiter's attempt to steal her out of a strict custody arrangement that likely led to his downfall. His feelings for Reigh may be the only true thing he's ever done -- and ironically, his nickname for her, "Snooks," is so flawlessly Upper-East-Side infantile that it may be his most credible work.

Gerhartsreiter is currently incarcerated thanks to a conviction on the kidnapping and related assault (of Reigh's court-appointed minder, during the escape). He's appealing that decision, and preparing to go on trial for murder this month, having allegedly killed and buried Jonathan Sohus, the son of one of his California patrons/exploitees, back in the eighties.

So: it's complicated. But: not for Gerhartsreiter, who is, as far as I know, still maintaining that his name is Clark Rockefeller.

The story (and he's stickin' to it)
Mark Seal's book is very very good. Gerhartsreiter ran enough cons, under enough names, in enough places, that an overview of his case even as of 2011 could have become a repetitive list -- or worse, verged into the melodramatic. The identity con man is sort of like baseball, now that I think about it: a captivating subject whose very allure can lead to sweaty prose if the temptation to metaphorize isn't tightly controlled.

Seal controls it, but his writing isn't dry. Everything is well organized; he doesn't use C-plus sources who don't add anything; the story is crisp and elegant, compulsively readable and authoritative. In non-fiction, the ability to get out of the story's way is a rare talent, and while Seal is not invisible in the text, he knows what he's doing.

He does run into a bit of trouble when he introduces the idea of the Big Lie. I hesitate to nitpick it, because the rest of the text is so well built, but I think that's why it stuck out to me. Very briefly, the Big Lie concept -- a key facet of Nazi propaganda -- states that a big lie has, per Hitler in Mein Kampf, a "force of credibility" that smaller lies do not. The more absurd or easily checkable a fib or a name-drop, the more likely human nature is to accept it as the truth, since who would make up something like that?

It's absolutely pertinent regarding Gerhartsreiter, whose audacious assumption of the eccentric-heir persona convinced actual heirs of his legitimacy for close to 30 years. I absolutely do not think Seal had any kind of agenda in mentioning it, except to address the reader's predictable wonderment at how Gerhartsreiter continued to get over with outrageous falsehoods.

But Seal attributes the theory to Goebbels, who merely paraphrased it; misspells Goebbels's name; and calls him a "German propaganda minister." Gerhartsreiter is German, so citing the Big Idea concept is tricky in that way, because you don't want to collapse one German's personality-disordered aspirations to the American upper class with Nazi (not German) strategies for retailing racial superiority to a mass audience. As I said, that clearly isn't Seal's intent, and I have misspelled "Gerhartsreiter" four different ways already just writing this review; these things happen. I mention it because the rest of the book has such a strong ear for itself and its story that that passage gave me a twitch…and there's probably a longer semantic discussion here that, frankly, I am vastly underqualified to participate in, so let's get back to the praise in 3, 2…

Until Gerhartsreiter's murder trial gets underway (in, I believe, 10 days from this writing), Seal's book is the standard. (And one of the few books converted from a Vanity Fair article that justifies its expansion.) Various true-crime shows have covered the case(s), and it's the subject of a TV movie from a couple years back starring Eric "Will & Grace" McCormack and Sherry "ER" Stringfield that got mildly positive notice. I'll write up the film if I can track it down, but if you want one shot at the case, pick up the Seal. With that one minor exception that probably wouldn't bother anyone else anyway, The Man in the Rockefeller Suit is a fast, commanding read, and a good example of why the true-crime genre could stand to get more respect. — SDB, 2/4/13

And here’s another archival piece, this one from Previously.TV, which I think exhausts at last my collection of John Wilkes Boothiana? You’ll find reviews of a couple of books on Booth in the archives; this one’s about a History Channel special on the manhunt for Booth following Lincoln’s murder.


Compelling Subject


Don't care about the Lincoln assassination/think coverage of it is uniformly portentous and lachrymose? Valid opinion, and you can take a break. I myself am...not preoccupied, but...nagged at, I guess, by how such a floridly annoying drama queen and his Keystone Bigotz operation managed to change the course of American history by murdering one of our secular saints. So I was cautiously psyched for The Hunt For John Wilkes Booth.

I also find manhunts interesting, manhunts and the prison breaks that tend to inspire them. The art in "escape artist," the ice water in the veins -- I just think that process-y stuff is neat.

A+ C.V.


Surprisingly solid. It's based on Michael Kauffman's American Brutus, which I quite liked, and written/directed by Tom Jennings, who has produced Frontlines, various Lost Tapes TV docus, True Crime With Aphrodite Joneses, and a Biography on...Satan. Hee.

And the talking-head lineup is pretty strong as well, although one does get the sense at this late date in TV history that you don't even have to say the entire word "documentary" before Doris Kearns Goodwin is settling happily into the makeup chair. "Wait, it's about the Japanese bottled-water industry? ...Fuggit, I can give you a coupla grafs. Roll tape."

Doin' Your Homework


Relative to most documentaries and specials of History Channel provenance, The Hunt moves along nicely, not too repetitive at the ad breaks, not too much hand-holding about the basic facts. I always appreciate it when a documentary assumes my interest in the subject implies a certain depth of knowledge, and doesn't do a Wiki review of the basics.

On the contrary, The Hunt is studded with facts I didn't already have, and while I wish they'd gone into some of them more -- and been more withering about Booth, who really put the "ass" in "assassin" -- it's not dry or laborious.

Great Depression


In the sense that many of us wonder how things might have turned out if Lincoln hadn't been killed -- or even hadn't had a man many consider the worst president in the nation's history succeeding him -- it's sad, especially when you factor in what became of poor high-strung Mrs. Lincoln. But this is not fresh grief.

It's An Outrage!


The black-humored joy I derive from teasing my thespian husband with Booth's entire actor-bullshit existence aside? See above. It was tragic, but it was a very long time ago.

(On a side note, and this doesn't rise to the level of an outrage, but I don't think I knew that "sic semper tyrannis" was "and remains" Virginia's official motto. I don't want to tell the Commonwealth its business, but doesn't that seem like something you want to change? Is that not burnt beyond saving, that phrase? And if Booth didn't ruin it for everyone, didn't goddamn Timothy McVeigh?)

Intrusive Filmmaker Agenda


None that I could discern, unless it was to pack in as much new intel about that fortnight in American public life as possible, in which case, sustained.

Exclusive Footage/Materials


Not that I could see, or that the docu alludes to. Hat tip for postponing my annoyance at seeing the same half-dozen woodcuts of Booth and his vainglorious mustache until the second half, I guess.

Talking Heads


Jokes aside, Goodwin does know what she's on about. I also liked John Clark a great deal; he's a retired Marshal, brought on to talk about the logistical side of the manhunt, and the idea that manhunts really haven't changed a whole lot in the intervening generations.

Further Research


What did happen to Boston Corbett, the man who shot Booth at the barn; lost his mind; then disappeared from a sanitarium? (There's a book from 2015; anyone read it?) Why wasn't the president's valet, Charles Forbes, called to testify? Why does the documentary ignore the fact, mentioned by literally every other commentator on the assassination plot, that David Herold suffered from obvious developmental delays, a defense that was attempted on his behalf? What became of the mobs who hunted down and beat/killed people who even looked like Booth in the days after Lincoln's murder?

So many follow-up questions, which is the sign of a well-built 90 minutes. — SDB, 1/13/16

Wednesday on Best Evidence: A clean bill of health for my esteemed publisher, one hopes — and perhaps a review round-up!

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.

RBG · The Emmys · Alcatraz · Huisentruit

Plus Bill Kurtis, an Italian cycling avenger, "Coded Bias," and British imports.

A lot happens on a weekend, and the Best Evidence story-budget Google doc looks like a Carrie Mathison crazy wall right now, so let’s clear it off with a bunch of quick hits! — SDB

Bad Educationwon an Emmy for Outstanding Television Movie! Also pleased to see Leah Remini picked one up for Scientology and the Aftermath…and maybe a little relieved Tiger King got shut out in the doc categories? (McMillion$ should have gotten more love, IMO.) Toni Collette didn’t win for Unbelievable, either, which is okay with me, because the nominations that project didn’t get kind of were the story there. A complete list of winners — almost uniformly from stuff I don’t watch, but Julia Garner was really great in S01 of Dirty Johnis here.

The New York Times has a primer on Ruth Bader Ginsberg content online and where to watch/read it.

If you’d rather return to a simpler time unfettered by mourning, the original Cold Case Files with Bill Kurtis has landed on Netflix.

Our esteemed colleague Joe Reid boiled down all of the NXIVM/Hollywood connections in The Vow for Primetimer.

Another docu I talked about in TBP 147, Coded Bias, is set for theatrical release in November. If you watched Netflix’s The Social Dilemma, you should check this one out too. Here’s a synopsis from the film’s release-announcement email:

Coded Bias reveals the groundbreaking research of MIT researcher Joy Buolamwini, proving that facial recognition algorithms have the power to disseminate racial bias at scale.  In June 2020, IBM, Amazon, and Microsoft said they would pause the sale of facial recognition to police. In a pivotal moment for racial equality, and a decisive moment for how big tech will yield power, Coded Bias is a trailblazing film for public understanding and engagement with the algorithms that impact us all.

Watch a trailer here.

Don’t ask* what wikihole spat me out at Outside Magazine’s features section, but 1) bless said wikihole, because Outside’s longreads made Jon Krakauer a household name and are consistently compelling, even for an indoorsy sort like me; and 2) how can you resist “Vigilante Justice on a Bike”?

“Enh.” Okay, but what about this:

Coronavirus hasn't stopped Italian heartthrob and two-wheeled avenger Vittorio Brumotti from righting society's wrongs. The cyclist has delighted audiences with his TV news segment "100% Brumotti," shaming people for parking in handicapped spaces and taking on no less than the Mafia.

Or the show Brumotti files reports for, which Outside’s Tom Vanderbilt describes as “The Daily Show, but with a muppet-like mascot and dancing showgirls”?

* I was looking for this, the article version of a book by Jon Billman I’m in the middle of and really enjoying; it’s not filed under “true crime,” strictly speaking, but there is crime in it and I’ll review it when I’m finished

Your paid subscriptions really help us with paywalls and book purchases, and they get you extras. Times are tight, but if you’ve got $5, we’d be honored. If you don’t, we’re still glad to see you.

Reelz has a handful of true-crime premieres coming in October, most of which look like reheated C-minus hash that gestures at centering victims (Ted Bundy: The Survivors) or focuses creepily on false closure from confrontation (Green River Killer: I Met My Sister’s Killer). I would like to check out The Battle Of Alcatraz, a special that tells the story of the 1946 uprising at, and ensuing military siege of, “The Rock.” More information on all of these properties — plus a Clint Eastwood doc and some British-royals material — is right here.

A&E’s Real Crime blog’s latest is an overview of the disappearance of Jodi Huisentruit, an Iowa news anchor who vanished 25 years ago. I’ve only got passing familiarity with the case, but clicking around this morning brought me to a podcast from the folks at FindJodi.com, a site devoted to working the case and keeping it active. Any of you readers familiar with the site; the podcast; or other longreads about the case?

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HBO Max set a premiere date for import The Murders atWhite House Farm, which will hit the service on November 24. The dramatization of a 30-year-old true-crime investigation into the murder of three generations of a single family “at their isolated farm,” and the various surviving family members on whom suspicion fell. I talked early this year about having high hopes for this one, as it’s produced by the company that made The Missing.

…All of that was “— SDB,” by the way. What’s EB got for you tomorrow? I’m guessing some Baskin and some Epstein, but you just never know.

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.

Friday Open Thread: Morally Indefensible and A Wilderness Of Error

In which we once again confront due process, journalistic ethics, and sociopathy

I powered through the six available episodes of Morally Indefensible, the companion podcast to the upcoming FX limited series A Wilderness Of Error — which I am looking forward to despite despising the book (and despite my man D’Addario’s dismissive review for Variety), because part of what put me off about the book is that it felt like an adapted documentary pitch. I was not looking forward to Morally Indefensible; I expected it would be well made (it’s hosted and produced by Marc “The Jinx” Smerling), but that the title comes from the very first line of Janet Malcolm’s anti-McGinniss broadside The Journalist And The Murderer did not seem to position it as a property that shared my stance on the case.

I was right about the first part. It’s paced well and professionally made, albeit with some intrusive ads in the back three (and some source materials the podcast seems content to imply were hard-won, but are from a widely available Inside Edition special we covered on The Blotter Presents). The access to case figures who are still living — McGinniss’s widow; PIs hired by defense counsel; the great Dick Cavett — is excellent. It’s always a pleasure to hear Jim Blackburn’s tar-dipped accent, too. Morally Indefensible scores a few points off my conception of the case, and reminded me of bits of evidence I’d forgotten (or may never have known).

And I was wrong about the second part. Its mission statement — did McGinniss portray a “vicious murderer,” or be-tray an innocent man? — is the very root of why we’re all still interested in the murders of Colette, Kimberly, and Kristin MacDonald 50 years later, but also really frustrating in that it seems like thinking adults can hold both ideas in our heads at the same time. Well, not exactly, because the idea that MacDonald is innocent is laughable IMO…but can’t it be that you actually can con a con, and McGinniss did, classlessly but still within bounds? Morally Indefensible gets at a lot of McGinniss’s dodgy interpersonal behavior, including some weaselly “well actually”-ing he did during the lawsuit brought against him by MacDonald; I’m not saying he was a great, trustworthy guy. I’m saying, much like several of Truman Capote’s friends said after the “La Cote Basque” debacle, that writers write, and it’s foolish to think they’ll change for you.

We’d love to hear from you guys what you think about any MacDonald materials: Malcolm’s book, Fatal Vision, Final Vision, Morally Indefensible, you name it. Have you listened to the podcast? Are you stoked for the miniseries? Do you kind of wish MacDonald himself would just give it up already?

Happy Face · American Murder · Big Brother

Plus: true crime schadenfreude

Robert and Michelle King, who most of us know as the folks behind The Good Wife and The Good Fight, will adapt Happy Face for CBS All Access. The Kings have always had a ripped-from-the-headlines deal with their shows (as you might recall, the season finale of Fight was about Jeffrey Epstein), but this is their first foray into full-on true crime.

Happy Face, the podcast they’re adapting, is that How Stuff Works show about Melissa Moore, whose dad was the notorious Happy Face killer. Variety reports that the show is part of the Kings’ overall CBS All Access (that’s the network’s streaming platform) deal, which means that by the time the show hits a screen near you, it’ll be on Paramount Plus. So far, we don’t have any production information on the Happy Face series, nor do we have an anticipated release date. Something to look forward to, I guess. — EB

Netflix just dropped a trailer for American Murder: The Family Next Door. I’ve gone on record as saying that I hate the Watts case — there’s something about Chris Watts’ admitted slaying of his wife and kids that gets under my skin, and not in a good way. So, I don’t have plans to watch this Netflix documentary on the homicides when it drops…but I did find the trailer well-constructed and compelling.

In its log line, Netflix describes the show as a way to “experience a gripping and immersive examination of the disintegration of a marriage,” which, I’d characterize a father killing his two kids as something more serious than the goings on in, say, Marriage Story, but maybe the streaming service doesn’t want to give the ending away? People who are mad that I gave the ending away in the second line of this item (and everyone else) can catch the doc on September 30. — EB

I almost closed the tab on this Deadline item on a vaguely described true-crime show. Raw, the production company behind true-crime juggernaut Don’t F*ck With Cats has signed a docuseries deal with, of all networks, TNT. “As with many of Raw’s documentaries and series, there’s an element of mystery about the subject matter,” TV editor Peter White writes, as I hover over that little tab-closing “x.” But then I moved my mouse away at this: “Deadline understands that this project involves schadenfreude and people that have everything to lose and ties in with some of the Hollywood movies that TNT airs.”

OKAY WHAT DOES THAT MEAN. TNT airs all sorts of movies; I mean, look at this roster. And then with the schadenfreude? What does this even mean? Please, speculate away. — EB

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Two recent stories raise significant questions about the tech we take for granted as part of many true crime narratives. It’s interesting: so many true-crime narratives make innovations in surveillance tech sound like a wonderful idea (for example, when Serial’s first season got into the cell phone tower weeds, I was right there thinking “well, we need to track those pings more precisely, then!”), but when viewed outside a gripping narrative, they feel like another sign of the dystopia. Read these, and let me know if you agree:

  • A crime reporting app shifts to tracking COVID-19, raising privacy questions” [CNet] // Los Angeles mayor Mayor Eric Garcetti and public health director Dr. Barbara Ferrer just told all 10 million of the folks who live in their region to download the controversial crime-tracking app Citizen, saying that it will help slow the spread of COVID-19. “The company's privacy policy also said that your location data could be shared with government agencies, without clarifying which agencies those could be,” reporter Alfred Ng writes.

  • It’s Time for a Reckoning About This Foundational Piece of Police Technology” [Slate] // “Criminal intelligence databases may seem unobjectionable in an era of facial recognition and predictive policing. But they are deeply flawed, too,” write reporters Rashida Richardson and Amba Kak. These databases, which are often the cornerstone of the true-crime-beloved practice of profiling, “are heavily influenced by politics and public sentiments, and their composition and use often reflect the prerogatives and biases of law enforcement agencies.”

If you like that kind of crime and tech stuff, I hope you have some free time on Friday. The Tech, Law & Security Program at American University Washington College of Law is hosting an online discussion on Friday, September 18 from 12-1 PM ET. The topic is Power, Policing, & Tech, and participants are three leading experts on police surveillance technologies: UC Davis law prof Elizabeth Joh, Rutgers Law School fellow Rashida Richardson, and Andrew Ferguson, who wrote The Rise of Big Data Policing: Surveillance, Race, and the Future of Law Enforcement.

Here’s their pitch:

Body cams were supposed to be the answer to police abuse. Yet, as the George Floyd killing—along with many other incidents of police brutality—have made clear, video surveillance does not eliminate deadly uses of force. Meanwhile, police are deploying an array of surveillance technologies—from facial-recognition to predictive-policing tools—almost entirely free from regulation or legislative control. Questions about the role of technology loom large. Is it too naive to still believe, despite the abundance of evidence to the contrary, that technology can be deployed in a manner that makes policing more effective and more accountable—or is it inevitably a tool of oppression?

If all that sounds good to you, you can RSVP for this free online event here. — EB

Friday on Best Evidence: Aw, we’ll figure it out.

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