David France · The Third Rainbow Girl · Lauren Boebert
Plus: Some of the most adaptable stories from early 2021
As part of her ongoing series on award-recognized true crime, Susan Howard returns to Best Evidence for a look at The Third Rainbow Girl.
Once again we are diving into the Mystery Writers of America’s Edgar Award nominees and assessing whether the 2021 nominees for Best Fact Crime are worth adding to your reading list.
We’ll continue our look at the nominees with The Third Rainbow Girl: The Long Life of a Double Murder in Appalachia by Emma Copley Eisenberg.
In the summer of 1980, the bodies of hitchhikers Vicki Durian and Nancy Santomero were found in a clearing in Pocahontas County, West Virginia. The two were on their way to the Rainbow Gathering, an annual festival that drew a crowd of ecologically minded, back-to-the land types to the Monongahela National Forest for a week of utopian living.
Soon an explanation for the murders takes root that would hold for years: this was a hicks vs. hippies thing where a group of unruly, heavy-drinking locals’ cruelty found a target in the two victims. In 1982, the local man who would become the center of the investigation, Jacob Beard, first falls under suspicion after he places a call to Durian’s family in Iowa apologizing for Vicki’s murder happening in his home county. Law enforcement look at a network of Beard’s friends and co-workers (who come to be known as “relevant necessary people”) for various levels of involvement, culminating in the arrest of seven local men a dozen years after the murders. Ultimately, Beard goes to trial despite the lack of any physical evidence and the shifting testimony of two witnesses. Initially found guilty, Beard is granted a new trial and acquitted in 2000.
While the law and order team Eisenberg introduces us to, state trooper Robert Alkrie and county prosecutor Walt Weiford, remain convinced of Beard’s guilt, another possibility emerges when virulently racist serial killer Joseph Paul Franklin confesses to the Rainbow murders. The Third Rainbow Girl opens with a catalog of sixteen “True Things,” but as Eisenberg notes, this is a case where there’s hardly anything everyone agrees on.
The Third Rainbow Girl is an atypical true crime book: part investigation, part memoir, part historic and cultural history of this particular slice of Appalachia. On a personal note, I was shocked and intrigued to find the teeny tiny — I’m talking population 272 — town that my mother was born and raised in show up on the map in the book’s first pages. Eisenberg writes about this part of the country with crispness, capturing how West Virginia is out of reach for most. We make shortcuts and boil its people and natural beauty down to an admirable ruggedness or a deviance outside the norm.
Eisenberg ends up in Pocahontas County first for a summer job in college, then as a VISTA volunteer, at a program for high-school-aged girls in the region. She falls in with her own group of locals, and goes through the type of self-discovery that will be familiar to those of us who moved to an unfamiliar place after college and weren’t quite sure what we were doing there. Eisenberg seems to really value the clan she finds, but she’s also aware that she’s “being for other people.” She finds herself drawn to the Rainbow case after hearing about it directly from a member of her writing group who discovered the bodies decades before.
The Third Rainbow Girl weaves these various threads together admirably, though I found myself struggling at times with some inconsistencies in the delivery. Eisenberg is a fantastic writer and I was particularly moved by the humanity she demonstrates to all the victims in this book: Durian and Santomero of course, but also the titular Third Rainbow Girl, Liz Johndrow, who was traveling with them but broke away before they reached West Virginia. This an ambitious and admirable debut and I’ve continued to seek out Eisenberg’s writing since first coming across this title. Here’s hoping she continues to work in the genre as hers is a voice that elevates it. — Susan Howard
Want to hear about all of the nominated books directly from the writers? The Raven Book Store is hosting what looks to be a very interesting virtual event on April 6 at 9pm ET/8pm CT featuring all five of the nominated Best Fact Crime authors! Click for more information and to register.
We love having folks like Susan pitch in at Best Evidence. The more voices at Best Evidence, the better — otherwise you’ll be stuck with Sarah and me just bouncing DB Cooper and crime real-estate stories off each other all day. No one wants that! Your paid subscription allows us to work with freelancers like Susan, even though we still don’t pay them as much as we wish we could. Every member we sign on helps make BE better, by helping us diversify the critical voices you get in your inbox every day.
Speaking of Sarah…today is her birthday! She already has a subscription to Best Evidence, ha ha, but I’ll bet there’s someone else on your gift list who’d love a sub.
You can hang out with David France for free. One of the things I’d like to keep after the pandemic (besides to-go cocktails) are online author events, which let people from around the world enjoy events that used to entertain only a small audience. Here’s one example, which Margaret Howie pointed out to us: filmmaker, author, and journalist David France (The Life And Death of Marsha P. Johnson*) will have a chat with the British Film Institute’s Brian Robinson about his career and work, and we can all watch it, even if we’re not in the UK.
Per the BFI website, the discussion will be at 11 AM PT/2 PM ET on Wednesday March 24 (where the BFI is located, it’ll be 6 PM), and will stream live on YouTube here or Facebook here. There’s no need to RSVP or anything, just hit one of those links at the proper time and you’re in. You can see all the details here. — EB
*As you might recall, TLADoMPJ faced no small amount of controversy when it landed on Netflix in 2017. Given that the conversation on who should be telling whose stories is more urgent than ever, this could be a very interesting discussion!
Early 2021 has blessed us with a bounty of highly adaptable-feeling crime stories. I’m going to run some of them down here, propose a medium for the message, and wait for 1) you to present an even better idea (as you always do) in the comments or by calling 919-75-CRIME or 2) some big true-crime producer to call me up and let me run with it. Honestly, I’d be happy with either option. Let’s get into it. — EB
Infamous serial stowaway Marilyn Hartman is revealing her secrets. Hartman, who’s been busted for sneaking onto planes across the country, spilled her beans to WBBM, and was arrested yet again just two days later, the New York Times reports. Ideal adaptation: Feature-length dramatic take helmed by Steven Soderbergh, with Tyne Daly as Hartman.
Teen Twitter hacker heads to jail. Remember when every famous person’s Twitter got locked down last summer? That was 17-year-old Graham Ivan Clark’s doing, as he cracked the social network and infiltrated the accounts of big names like Joe Biden, Barack Obama, Elon Musk, Kanye West, Bill Gates, Jeff Bezos, Mike Bloomberg, Warren Buffet, Floyd Mayweather, Kim Kardashian, Apple, Uber, and many others, in an effort to accumulate bitcoin. The Tampa Bay Times reports that he took a three-year plea deal, and will spend his time at “a state prison designated for young adults.” Ideal adaptation: Longform report in Wired that reeeeally digs into how some high-school kid could have basically started Armageddon because he read some Twitter staffers’ LinkedIn pages.
Man sues Hertz over receipt that cleared him of murder. Herbert Alford spent five years in jail, even though he had evidence that he was at a Hertz counter when the shooting he was convicted of took place. As someone who just tossed a load of receipts, the AP coverage of the case chills me to the bone. Ideal adaptation: Where’s Starlee Kine these days? The thoughtful approach she took with her Mystery Show podcast seems ideal for the twists and turns of this case (why did investigators focus on Alford instead of finding the real suspect? Why doesn’t Hertz keep records of who’s renting cars from them and when?), perhaps over a tight 5-6 audio episode arc.
Fact-checking Lauren Boebert's story about a man getting beaten to death outside her restaurant. Colorado Rep. Lauren Boebert has for years been telling a story about a crime she was adjacent to as a reason to oppose gun control. But according to CNN, Boebert’s account of the case is bunk. Ideal adaptation: A ripped-from-the-headlines take on The Good Fight, in which our heroine, Diane Lockhart, must bite back her disgust and take Senator Loreen Gobert (Gigi Gorgeous Getty) on as a client in an effort to sue an organization that honored Gobert with a “Lying Liars Who Lie” award for defamation.
Don Peters, coach of groundbreaking 1984 Olympic team, faces sexual abuse lawsuit. The Orange County Register reports that Peters was banned from his longtime career as a gymnastics coach after a 2011 Register investigation uncovered at least three women who accused him of sexual misconduct. One of those women is suing Peters and SCATS, his Huntington Beach and USA Gymnastics-member club that has churned out a multitude of gymnastics stars. Ideal adaptation: The problem here is that the gymnastics abuse scandal is so far-reaching, it’s hard not to scope creep any project. But I’m going to go with Athlete A’s Bonni Cohen and Jon Shenk, for a multi-episode documentary series for ESPN with a specific focus on the culture of SCATS — my assumption is that the lawsuit will open up a ton of new information via discovery, making for new, TV-worthy revelations.
Founders of California fecal matter-testing company indicted. Zachary Schulz Apte and Jessica Sunshine Richman founded a company called uBiome, with the promise of better living through analysis of their stool. Federal prosecutors say it was a scam, and the pair were just indicted on “conspiracy to commit securities fraud, conspiracy to commit health care fraud and money laundering,” the AP reports. In other words, it’s Theranos but poop. Ideal adaptation: Hey, Sheelah Kolhatkar (Black Edge), I found you a book to write. (Until she takes up my challenge, read the indictment, which is LOL funny, and not just because it’s about butt stuff.)
Prosecutor: Man Accused of 1 Murder Says He Really Killed 16. Sean Lannon admitted that he beat Michael Dabkowski to death and was jailed, but while awaiting adjudication announced that he’s killed 16 other people, including his ex-wife. The entire story is quite odd, and the AP’s coverage of it leaves me with more questions than answers. Ideal Adaptation: This one feels like a podcast to me, too, one where each episode is devoted to separating fact from fiction for each of Lannon’s claims. I’m totally drawing a blank on who we want for this — we need someone who’s deliberate without boring us with dead ends. Any ideas? Give us a ring at 919-75-CRIME with your thoughts or
Tuesday on Best Evidence: Sarah may be a year older, but she’s still too young to believe in Dr. Phil.