Body Brokers · Unsolved Murders · Murder at the Cottage

Plus: Sammy the Bull's podcast has arrived

Just in time for yet another weekend where you declare “I’ve watched everything,” Body Brokers is available to stream. Look, I’ll tell you right now: this movie is not perfect but it’s just engaging enough to put on when you’re looking for a story with true-crime roots but a dramatic flair.

The film sort of came and went this past February, and you can see why a pandemic and Trump-PTSDed world passed it up — while the screenplay is one built out of whole cloth by director John Swab, it owes a great debt to real investigative reporting like this All Things Considered segment from 2017, which details how many “sober homes” are money-making scams that fail to treat any sort of substance use disorder (SUD). If I recall February correctly, I was still reeling from the raid on the Capitol and worried that I’d never be vaccinated. A “guess what, a lot of rehab facilities actually want to make patients worse” movie might have been more than I could have stood back then.

Swab, himself, has SUD, and told the Observer that he witnessed rehabilitation scams first-hand, and says that he “was introduced to some brokers, treatment center owners and a lot of people who were, frankly, criminals, and ironically were really excited to share their story about what they were doing.” The end result is sort of like if The Big Short or The Wolf of Wall Street was about opioids, right down to regular voiced-over montages from — perhaps improbably — Frank Grillo, the terrifyingly fit-for-anyone-let-alone-a-55-fucking-year-old-man you might know best as the Hydra guy who tells Captain America that this “isn’t personal.”

I like Grillo, and I like a lot of the other cast: we’re talking Michael Kenneth Williams (yes, that’s Omar Little), Melissa Leo (Homicide: Life on the Street), and Jessica Rothe (Happy Death Day). And the story really moves, as we watch how the rehab scam works from this eyes of an Ohio couple who commit crimes to generate enough income to buy crack or heroin until they’re paid to “get clean.” Guess what? They don’t.

Of course, none of these people are real figures, and this film isn’t based on an actual case — so I’m sort of straining the limits of true crime when I talk about the movie here. What makes it fair game for me is how studiously it details how these ill-intended rehab scams work…so studiously, in fact, that when it takes a sudden swerve toward a more traditional they-know-too-much-style thriller, you might feel a little whiplashy.

And it’s true that the information on how these scam sober houses work has been out there for a while, so it’s not really like Swab is cracking a case wide open. But I do believe that there’s room in the true-crime genre for fictional tales that do a really excellent job of explaining how a complicated, real-life criminal enterprise works — and this movie does a great job of that.

The highest compliment I can pay it, maybe, is that if I were teaching a classroom unit on how Big Rehab works (I guess for Psych 101? IS that when they tell you about SUDs?) to a class of restless college freshmen just there to fulfill a core class requirement, I’d feel just fine about assigning them this film to watch. And if I were a middle-aged person, which I am, I’d also feel fine about saying “man oh man, whatever Frank Grillo does to keep those arms looking like that must be a hell of a lot of work.” Body Brokers is on Prime and Apple TV for a $4.99 rental; if you’re feeling stingy and aren’t worried about HD, it’s $3.99 on YouTube. — EB

Sammy “the Bull” Gravano’s podcast dropped, and we didn’t even notice. Sorry, everyone! Back in August, I wrote a little thing about how the man known as “gangland’s biggest rat” was planning a podcast to be released only on YouTube, so I subscribed to the channel…and only realized now that it was later deleted. Instead, the former Gambino crime family underboss (or, more likely, his “director,” a guy named James Carroll) decided to use normal podcast distribution techniques to launch the show last December.

They’ve been churning out episodes ever since, 30-45 minute shows that are mainly Gravano telling stories from his life. And while Gravano’s life is truly an unusual one, your patience with the format might wane if you’re not intensely interested in the Scorsese-flavored era of organized crime. I am interested just enough to listen to it while I’m pickling onions or baking bread, but I feel like I’d start skipping around if Sammy was my sole diversion during a long road trip, say. — EB

The first trailer for Murder at the Cottage: The Search for Justice for Sophie just dropped. I wrote about this so long ago that I’d nearly forgotten about it, and I’m sure you did, too. So I’m going to self-plagiarize and call it recycling since it’s Earth Day.

The director of My Left Foot has been working on a true-crime doc for the last five years. Filmmaker Jim Sheridan tells the Irish Mirror that he’s racked up 400 hours of footage for a doc on the death of Sophie Toscan du Plantier, a French television producer who was found beaten to death just outside her home in 1996.

This past May, French authorities convicted an English journalist named Ian Bailey in the slaying, but Bailey remains free as he lives in Ireland, a country that has refused repeated extradition requests. Sheridan appears to believe that things aren’t as clear cut as all that, saying, “There wasn’t any real investigation done... apart from Ian as a suspect” and that “People have an opinion of Ian already so what we are doing is just presenting the evidence as it is and let the public make their own minds up.”

Bailey is apparently a prominent voice in the film, telling the Mirror, “I can’t really discuss the case but I have been co-operating with Jim from the start.” A finish or distribution date on the doc has yet to be announced, but it’s already secured a distribution deal with London production company Studio Soho.

So, here’s what’s changed since then: Now the project is a five-part series, available to subscribers of the UK TV network Sky later this year. And Sheridan has decided to appear in and narrate the series himself. What hasn’t changed are the details of the case: no new evidence or leads have been announced since we first covered the property in 2019, so as far as Sheridan is concerned, du Plantier’s death remains officially unsolved. — EB

As we continue to process the verdict in the Derek Chauvin murder trial, two journalism trade pubs are looking at how reporters can do better. Well, I hope every media outlet is — especially those who base their coverage solely off press releases from police departments (see above, and yes, broadcast, I’m talking to you. But not just you). But of all the meta-coverage of how the death of George Floyd has been told and sold, these two items are the most insightful.

  • Jelani Cobb on the killing of Daunte Wright, the Derek Chauvin trial, and how to tell the whole story [CJR] New Yorker staff writer Jelani Cobb has been in Minneapolis for the weeks of the trial, and tells Columbia Journalism Review editor and publisher Kyle Pope how he believes reporters should work to “ contextualize so many deaths.” This is an episode of CJR’s The Kicker podcast, and it was recorded before the verdict was announced, but Cobb’s observations on how journalists approach police-framed narratives remain evergreen.

  • Being skeptical of sources is a journalist’s job — but it doesn’t always happen when those sources are the police [Nieman Lab] Researcher and professor Dani Kilgo has dedicated her career to examining “the interaction among social movements, social media, and journalism.” And writing for the Nieman Foundation for Journalism at Harvard University, she specifically calls out the journalistic “tendency to go with the ‘police said’ narrative without outwardly questioning if it is right,” using coverage of the Adam Toledo case as an example. It’s an eye-opening take, and one that will change how you read police blotter-style content forever.

Sarah, why did I wait so long to read this great piece on unsolved murders? SDB dropped this Texas Observer longread in our budget months ago, and I didn’t rouse myself to read it until today — and once I did I was so pumped about it I knew I had to drop it into Best Evidence ASAP.

According to this report from Lise Olsen (a veteran investigative reporter whose Death and Doubt series was adapted as part of The Wrong Man), there’s a national “backlog of more than 250,000 unsolved murder cases,” a number that increases by about 6,000 every year. In a report from last June, the National Institute of Justice (NIJ) said that the nation faces a “cold case crisis,” and estimates that there are about 2,000 serial killers presently active and unimpeded by law enforcement across the US. Here’s a snip:

The backlog of cold murder cases keeps growing nationwide because police departments, including in Dallas, are solving a lower percentage of homicide cases than ever before, according to statistics from the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI). In prior decades, police in urban centers often solved as much as 70 percent of murder cases, according to the FBI’s Uniform Crime Reports. But by the 2000s, many metro departments regularly solved, or “cleared,” 60 percent or less of cases. Clearance rates refer to the numbers of cases cleared by arrests, deaths of suspects, or other means compared with the total number of murders reported in the same calendar year. Homicide clearance rates have continued to fall in the 2010s.

In 2019, four Texas cities—Houston, Arlington, Killeen, and Lubbock—cleared 40 percent or less of reported homicides, according to the latest FBI statistics. These dismal results have provoked an audit in Houston and anger from victims’ relatives, some of whom say detectives never contacted them.

Police in Dallas reported a clearance rate of just 54 percent in 2019. After 40 homicides were reported in May of that year, the highest monthly body count since the 1990s, local advocates requested more detectives and increased oversight. Instead, Governor Greg Abbott dispatched Texas Department of Public Safety (DPS) troopers, who conducted 12,500 traffic stops in seven weeks—an effort that advocates viewed as unnecessary harassment rather than real help.

It’s a chilling look at how police departments use their resources — and how that public-facing deployment may allow an unprecedented number of killers to go free. Give it a read here. — EB

Friday on Best Evidence: We’ll be talking about something!

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