Bad Art Friend · Fat Leonard · Boston Strangler
And: Google strikes a deal with cops over googled victims
If you haven’t read “Who Is the Bad Art Friend?” yet, congratulations, that social media/information detox you’ve been on is a resounding success. The New York Times longread from true-crime author Bob Kolker (Lost Girls, Hidden Valley Road) is the crime-buff version of Erica Jong’s zipless fuck: it gives us everything we need to scratch that itch, but genuine pain or suffering is at a minimum.
I almost don’t want to tell you anything about the piece because its twists and turns come so unexpectedly, but I gotta give you something, right? Basically, this is a piece about where ownership of one’s story ends and inspiration begins — and if that line allegedly gets crossed, what laws might be broken.
That’s the clearcut true-crime angle, for sure, but there are also loads of smaller social crimes at play, from shitty writing-group backstabbing to Facebook virtue-signaling. And at its center, a rising fiction writer: Sonya Larson, whose website has been swiftly reformatted to help folks find her short story, “The Kindest,” which is the focus of Kolker’s NYT piece.
I have a feeling I had you at “shitty writing-group backstabbing,” but just in case, here’s a snip:
At the GrubStreet Muse conference in Boston, Dorland sensed something had shifted — not just with Larson but with various GrubStreet eminences, old friends and mentors of hers who also happened to be members of Larson’s writing group, the Chunky Monkeys. Barely anyone brought up what she’d done, even though everyone must have known she’d done it. “It was a little bit like, if you’ve been at a funeral and nobody wanted to talk about it — it just was strange to me,” she said. “I left that conference with this question: Do writers not care about my kidney donation? Which kind of confused me, because I thought I was in a community of service-oriented people.”
It didn’t take long for a clue to surface. On June 24, 2016, a Facebook friend of Dorland’s named Tom Meek commented on one of Dorland’s posts.
Sonya read a cool story about giving out a kidney. You came to my mind and I wondered if you were the source of inspiration?
Still impressed you did this.
Dorland was confused. A year earlier, Larson could hardly be bothered to talk about it. Now, at Trident bookstore in Boston, she’d apparently read from a new short story about that very subject. Meek had tagged Larson in his comment, so Dorland thought that Larson must have seen it. She waited for Larson to chime in — to say, “Oh, yes, I’d meant to tell you, Dawn!” or something like that — but there was nothing. Why would Sonya write about it, she wondered, and not tell her?
Reading this piece was one of the most enjoyable things I’ve done so far this week; I hope you agree. Here it is. — EB
Hey! Here are three more podcasts to try, because you can’t ever have enough backlogged content to plow through (or can you?). — EB
Billion Dollar Whale author Tom Wright hosts this podcast on the Fat Leonard national-security breach, in which a Navy contractor (the titular Leonard) "exploited the intelligence for illicit profit, brazenly ordering his moles to redirect aircraft carriers to ports he controlled in Southeast Asia so he could more easily bilk the Navy for fuel, tugboats, barges, food, water and sewage removal,” per the Washington Post’s 2016 coverage of the case.
Speaking with the Federal News Network, Wright really sells the pod, saying that he had unrestricted on-the-record access to Leonard because the contractor had “Navy officers at his beck and call because obviously he would ply them with prostitutes and fine wine and dinners and Cohiba cigars and Dom Perignon, and all of this. And he was constantly in this world where he was living in a $130 million mansion in Singapore with 20 luxury cars, and he’s living this sort of Wolf of Wall Street life. And then suddenly he’s arrested in a sting in 2013 for his involvement in all this corruption. And then he’s he’s lonely and craving that attention.” Fat Leonard’s only two episodes in at the time of this writing, so an easy catch-up.
The Fault Line: Dying for a Fight
The Fault Line’s first season covered George W, Bush and Tony Blair’s 2001 decision to invade Iraq — arguably a criminal act, but not the true crime we typically trade in here. The second season is more centered in our lane: It’s about the still-unsolved slaying of Portland-based anti-fascist Sean Kealiher, whose mother says police aren’t bothering to solve the case die to Kealiher’s involvement in groups like Occupy Portland. From the Portland Mercury:
According to Laura, Sean had been on PPB’s radar since he was 15, when he was arrested during an Occupy Portland demonstration. Court records show two citations (failure to follow pedestrian laws and failure to pay transit fare) and one arrest (interfering with a police officer) on Kealiher’s record between 2014 and 2015. Laura said she believed police knew and disliked her son because of his involvement in demonstrations.
After his death, Laura said she was suspicious of officers pressing her for information about Sean’s associates and groups he was involved in at the time of his death.
“But I continued to talk with them and check in,” she said.
Meanwhile, Laura’s house had become a target of right-wing vandalism, purportedly because of Sean’s association with anti-fascist activism. She says her house, where she lives with her two other children, was egged after his death, and people would occasionally drive by her home and yell offensive things about Sean from their cars. When she asked PPB what to do about the harassment, Laura said she was told to “expect it to get worse,” and offered information about counseling.
Investigative journalist Sergio Olmos hosts the show, which has one episode available when I wrote this item Tuesday night. — EB
Keira Knightley will star in a new movie about the Boston Strangler. Deadline reports that the film, which is inventively monikered Boston Strangler, will be written and directed by Matt Ruskin, who has not been involved with any projects I’ve ever heard of (have you?).
But though the movie is named after the notorious 1960s era serial killer, it’s actually about Loretta McLaughlin, the late Boston Globe editorial page editor (her obituary is amazing) who connected the murders and broke the story while working as a reporter at the Record American newspaper.
Her “Boston Strangler Recalled” piece, penned when (does math) she was a spring chicken of 64 (she lived to be 90) is a must read for anyone interested in the case, a classic old school newspaper recounting of Albert DeSalvo’s crimes.
So, obviously, that’s who Knightley is playing, and I can’t fault the film’s producers for going with the big name for the title instead of the reporter. What I can cock a brow at is the pitch that the film will depict how McLaughlin “challenged the sexism of the early 1960s to report on the city’s most notorious serial killer and worked tirelessly to keep women informed.”
I don’t know how seriously I can take the skills of a white male writer/director — no matter how well-meaning — who just scored a cool gig despite a slim CV to accurately depict what women face now, let alone in a 1960s newsroom on the crime beat. One might wonder if a woman or other member of a historically marginalized group might be better suited to tell the Strangler story from McLaughlin’s angle. Some days, the 1960s don’t feel that far away at all. — EB
Thomas Brewster @iblametomSCOOP - In 2019, the government told Google to provide data on anyone who searched for the name of a kidnapping and sexual abuse victim, her phone number, address and her mother’s name. We’ve seen “keyword warrants” before, but this is the broadest yet. https://t.co/mZzOaxL23e
Forbes dropped a firecracker of a story this week that I’m worried will be overshadowed in the tech malfeasance journalism world by Facebook’s latest fuckery. It’s headlined “Government Secretly Orders Google To Identify Anyone Who Searched A Sexual Assault Victim’s Name, Address And Telephone Number,” which is a pretty solid description of what’s to come.
The piece from security, surveillance and privacy reporter Thomas Brewster is based on “accidentally unsealed” court documents, and reveals that “the U.S. government is secretly ordering Google to provide data on anyone typing in certain search terms,” especially those involving crime victims. Uh oh, writes the woman with the true-crime analysis newsletter who googles 15-20 victim names a week. Here’s a snip:
Before this latest case, only two keyword warrants had been made public. One revealed in 2020 asked for anyone who had searched for the address of an arson victim who was a witness in the government’s racketeering case against singer R Kelly. Another, detailed in 2017, revealed that a Minnesota judge signed off on a warrant asking Google to provide information on anyone who searched a fraud victim’s name from within the city of Edina, where the crime took place.
While Google deals with thousands of such orders every year, the keyword warrant is one of the more contentious. In many cases, the government will already have a specific Google account that they want information on and have proof it’s linked to a crime. But search term orders are effectively fishing expeditions, hoping to ensnare possible suspects whose identities the government does not know. It’s not dissimilar to so-called geofence warrants, where investigators ask Google to provide information on anyone within the location of a crime scene at a given time.
At the time of this writing, the story was still unfolding, with reps of privacy groups like the Electronic Frontier Foundation digging up more information on broad keyword dragnets served on Microsoft and Yahoo as well. For the latest on the story, keep an eye on the bottom of the piece and on Brewster’s twitter. — EB
Thursday on Best Evidence: Suspect, Jessica Biel, and the Pandora Papers.