Dropout (Dropout) · Silk Road · Nazis

Also: True crime loses a cult expert

The Dropout has had its first dropout. This one is a bummer: Kate McKinnon, who’d been set to star in the Hulu adaptation of popular true-crime podcast The Dropout, is leaving the project, Deadline reports. McKinnon was set to executive-produce the 6-10 episode series on the rise and fall of allegedly fraudulent blood-testing company Theranos, as well as play founder Elizabeth Holmes.

The show’s been planned for so long that it predates this publication, and was doubtlessly derailed by the pandemic, a phrase I write so regularly I should probably make a macro. The series is now set to begin production this summer, and casting is underway to replace McKinnon in the Holmes role.

Which of course poses the question…who would you cast? — EB

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Don’t take a trip down Silk Road. Ha ha! What an asshole lead sentence. But, seriously, I am trying to save you $6-10 bucks, so my glibness is more urgent than it seems.

I probably talk about the Silk Road case more than any of you might like, but I can’t help it — it literally came to a head in my library! If you’re looking for backstory, this Rolling Stone piece on the so-called eBay of crime should do it: the TL;DR is that a guy named Ross Ulbricht founded a dark web marketplace called the Silk Road, running it from a public wi-fi network in a public library in a residential area of SF. The rest, as they say, is the play.

I was pumped when I heard that a dramatic adaptation of the RS piece was planned, with Love, Simon’s Nick Robinson as Ulbricht, and Jason Clarke as the undercover DEA agent who brought Ulbricht down. The film dropped this past weekend without much fanfare, and is $6 to rent on Amazon. But, folks, it’s just not that good.

Which is too bad, because the director-writer, Tiller Russell, is having a whiz-bang year: He’s the guy behind Netflix’s Night Stalker: The Hunt for a Serial Killer. But here’s the thing: Silk Road isn’t about shoe leather and dentist’s office stakeouts and mayors who nearly blow an investigation. It’s about the internet, which mainly involves typing and looking at a screen.

It’s hard to make that cinematic, even when we’re talking about zillions of bucks in bitcoin enriching a Bay Area libertarian. This isn’t Heat, this isn’t Ocean’s 11, this isn’t even Hackers in terms of dramatic intensity. Lord knows, Robinson and Clarke both try — in fact, Clarke’s probably still flossing bits of scenery from between his molars, and Robinson does what he can with a fairly standard amoral-tech-bro role.

But unlike other moving-money-around-on-a-screen movies (Wolf of Wall Street or Boiler Room come to mind), the action feels flaccid, and dull — and that’s even with extra scenes of ostensible excitement added in (the movie opens with a title card that reads "This story is true — except for what we made up or changed”). The urge to pick up my phone and half-ass it was irresistible, even though I’d ponied up that $6.

If you really, really want a deeper dive on Ulbricht and the Silk Road than the RS story provides, grab a copy of Nick Bilton’s 2017 take on the case, American Kingpin. You can get it most places for $17 or less, and it provides a far more engrossing — and wholly factual — look at the story. — EB

Here’s a story that’s riper for adaptation. According to a press release sent by the U.S. Department of Justice this past weekend, Tennessee resident Friedrich Karl Berger is headed to Germany, after officials say they confirmed that the 95-year-old was a Nazi concentration camp guard.

The entire release is a pretty wild journey; here’s a snip:

In November 2020, the Board of Immigration Appeals upheld a Memphis, Tennessee, Immigration Judge’s Feb. 28, 2020, decision that Berger was removable under the 1978 Holtzman Amendment to the Immigration and Nationality Act because his “willing service as an armed guard of prisoners at a concentration camp where persecution took place” constituted assistance in Nazi-sponsored persecution. The court found that Berger served at a Neuengamme sub-camp near Meppen, Germany, and that the prisoners there included “Jews, Poles, Russians, Danes, Dutch, Latvians, French, Italians, and political opponents” of the Nazis. The largest groups of prisoners were Russian, Dutch and Polish civilians.

After a two-day trial in February 2020, the presiding judge issued an opinion finding that Meppen prisoners were held during the winter of 1945 in “atrocious” conditions and were exploited for outdoor forced labor, working “to the point of exhaustion and death.” The court further found, and Berger admitted, that he guarded prisoners to prevent them from escaping during their dawn-to-dusk workday, on their way to worksites and on their way back to the SS-run subcamp in the evening.

At the end of March 1945, as allied British and Canadian forces advanced, the Nazis abandoned Meppen. The court found that Berger helped guard the prisoners during their forcible evacuation to the Neuengamme main camp – a nearly two-week trip under inhumane conditions, which claimed the lives of some 70 prisoners. The decision also cited Berger’s admission that he never requested a transfer from concentration camp guard service and that he continues to receive a pension from Germany based on his employment in Germany, “including his wartime service.”

According to the DoJ, Berger is the “70th Nazi Persecutor Removed from the United States.” “Over the past 30 years,” the DoJ writes, “the Justice Department has won more cases against persons who participated in Nazi persecution than have the law enforcement authorities of all the other countries in the world combined.” An oddly competitive remark, one might argue! But maybe the DoJ’s way of reminding the world that we’re not all Nazis over here in the US. — EB

Cult expert Patricia Lynch has died. The New York Times has a nice obit they’ve clearly had queued up for a bit: the 82-year-old journalist has been diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease some years ago, which typically triggers a newsroom effort to get ahead of the inevitable.

A member of NBC Nightly News’s investigative unit since 1977, she was one of the first women to join that team. Her reporting on Jim Jones and the People’s Temple was so extensive that, even after she left NBC, she took to HuffPost, writing in 2007 about how NBC management quashed her reporting on the cult well before the massacre. Here’s a taste:

[New NBC Corporate president] Fred Silverman, I later learned, was so upset being stalked, the mass cult picketing, written death threats (that were sent to the FBI without me knowing about them), the Synanon rattlesnake attack, and cult followers reportedly getting into his apartment building and threatening him and his family that he let news management know my report shouldn’t air.

Instead, Congressman Ryan’s Jonestown trip in November would be covered as a news event by a California crew rather than as a more hard-hitting investigative report. I tried to reach the reporter. My calls were not returned. I felt like a pariah rather than a journalist who had unearthed an important story.

On November 13th, the NBC crew passed through our New York office en route to Guyana. Again, the reporter did not return my persistent calls. And then, what had been predicted in my spiked report, happened. On November 18th, 918 people — including hundreds of children and senior citizens — were murdered. Some committed suicide. Congressman Ryan, the NBC reporter and cameraman, a photographer and a Temple member who wanted to leave were assassinated on the airstrip by Jones’ enforcers, firing from a truck sent by their demented leader. Jones’ mass suicide was a massacre, unlike anything in American history.

I was told that the original footage was kept under lock and key by NBC’s law department and that a dub was bought by the FBI for its own investigation. We were given another set of dubs to edit for air. Only then was I put back on the story — because I knew the story and the people.

Despite that and other indignities, she stayed at the network until the mid-1990s. She eventually dedicated her life to animal welfare, calling out one shelter for euthanasia policies via a self-produced documentary. So, I’m not saying that the story of a journalist turned animal-rescue person resonates with me so hard I’m vibrating like a tuning fork right now, but, yeah. Anyway, that Times obit is quite a story of quite a life. — EB

Wednesday on Best Evidence: Martha Mitchell and an explosive rare-books case.

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