Edgar Awards Flashback: 1988 · Magritte

Plus: Everyone's in "The Staircase," the perils of gambling, and more

This Washington Post piece on Alexis Martin is difficult reading, but I recommend it — partly for that reason. Martin, now in her twenties, was 15 when she was locked up, and law enforcement had little interest in why she’d participated in the murder of Angelo Kerney, namely that she was a victim of sex trafficking.

Prosecutors knew Alexis wasn’t in the room when the shots were fired, maiming one man and killing another. They still charged her with murder and demanded that she be tried as an adult, saying she was the one who led the robbers into the house of Angelo Kerney.

But as her case moved through the criminal justice system, little attention was paid to how the 15-year-old girl knew the 36-year-old man in the first place. Or what witnesses said he was doing to her. Or why she called him “Dad.”

A judge said Alexis was “working” for Kerney’s “escort” business and sentenced her to decades in prison.

In the years between her arrest and her release in April of last year, the state of Ohio has put measures in place to ensure that teens like Martin don’t get ground up in the gears of a system that failed to protect them in the first place…in large part because Martin had had to endure textbook examples of how not to handle cases like her own, from the institutional bias to the inexperienced (if we’re being charitable) defense attorney to the nonstop victim-blaming of a child. Even a Kardashian couldn’t move the ball for Martin, who spent years in various juvenile and adult facilities, learning a trade, taking classes, hoping someone on the other side of the aisle would figure out she was a victim. Finally, the parole board voted to free her:

They recommended that she receive five years’ parole. But Gov. DeWine, a spokesman explained later, believed that to aid in the transition period and protect the public, released prisoners should remain on state supervision for the rest of the years they were originally sentenced to serve.

So Martin is on an ankle monitor…probably until 2034.

Jessica Contrera’s work is infuriating — the lengthy line-up of similar cases midway through the piece made me want to throw the entire penal code in the garbage — but crucial. Martin, now going by a different first name to symbolize the person she’s become and becoming, is still struggling in the ways so many people do in their post-carceral lives: trying to find decent employment, figuring out how to make new friends and romantic connections, having to ask permission weeks in advance to make plans most of us would just schedule on our phone calendars in two seconds. — SDB

For the next few weeks, we’ll be doing a look back at the 1988 Edgar Award nominees for Best Fact Crime. These titles, published in 1987, are an interesting lot: a classic, a couple of lesser known murder tales, an extremely relevant-for-2021 read on far-right extremism, and a heist saga. Let’s see how they hold up as summertime reading after 34 years!

We’ll start with The Dreams of Ada by Robert Mayer, which chronicles the investigation of the disappearance of 24-year-old Denice Haraway from her convenience store job outside Ada, Oklahoma in April 1984. Of the Edgar nominees for 1988, The Dreams of Ada has perhaps most permeated public consciousness via the 2006 publication of another book, John Grisham’s The Innocent Man: Murder and Injustice in a Small Town, and the similarly named 2018 Netflix docuseries. Grisham’s book, while not ostensibly about Haraway’s disappearance, shined a light on the questionable police and prosecutorial tactics afoot in Ada in the 1980s around the cases of two missing women.

In Mayer’s take, the investigation into Haraway’s disappearance quickly hones in on two local men: Tommy Ward and Karl Fontenot. Based on tips that Ward and Fontenot (kinda sorta) look like composite sketches of the men seen leaving the convenience store with Denice by witnesses, they become the only suspects. Their fate is sealed when they confess to kidnapping and murdering Denice on tape. There are problems with moving forward, of course — almost nothing in the confessions is proven reliable or true. And there’s no body, making it unclear if a murder has even occurred. It’s infuriating to read how investigators railroaded Ward and Fontenot. The knot I felt in my stomach was exacerbated by what we now know about the prevalence of false and coerced confessions. A steady internal refrain of “no, no, no” reverberated as Mayer writes about the faith Ward’s family (unfortunately, Fontenot has no familial support and is basically left to the whims of the state) held that things were going to work out because they simply had to.

This case also lays bare how the lack of money is a barrier to a good defense. Ward’s family struggles to scrape together the little cash they can to hire the only defense attorney in town who will take Tommy’s case, literally mortgaging against the family’s only asset as a future promise of payment. Karl has no support at all, and finds himself with an attorney appointed by the state who is eager to have him plead guilty.

One of the blurbs on the dust jacket of my copy of The Dreams of Ada draws comparisons to the work of Mailer and Capote, and I think that’s pretty apt. Mayer really digs into the history, culture, and class dynamics of Ada. While passages detailing the Rotary Club pancake fundraiser and church on Sunday seem a bit hackneyed, they are nevertheless effective in telegraphing what makes this town tick. Because Ada is a place where generations after generations of families tend to stay, the victim and the two individuals charged were well known to residents (including jury members), and passions ran high.

When The Dreams of Ada ends, both Ward and Fontenot had been granted new trials (and found guilty again, but with their sentences reduced from death to life in prison) and were working through the appeals process. A benefit to reading a book like this so many years after its publication is that it’s possible to track down developments in the case and see if time has righted wrongs. It’s a mixed bag on that front. Within the last couple of years, judges ordered the release of both Ward and Fontenot because of serious doubts about the reliability of witness testimony, but Ward remains in prison as of just a month ago. A dispiriting, but hopefully not permanent, cap on this true-crime classic. — Susan Howard

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Did a stolen Magritte painting indirectly fund a terrorist attack? Vanity Fair’s Joshua Hunt investigated; the result is a prototypical VF crime piece — process-y, propulsive, and fairly reeking of humid cobblestones and black tea. Here’s a snip from before it gets dark:

Brazen as it was, the robbery seemed to be the work of professionals—a daring, high-value heist carried out with speed and precision by men who knew how to handle weapons, how to deal effectively with hostages, and how quickly to expect a police response. They had also been clever about selecting their target. Magritte, whose surrealist paintings influenced the work of Ed Ruscha, Andy Warhol, and Jasper Johns, is a national treasure in Belgium, where a number of museums display his work. But the thieves had avoided larger, more secure metropolitan museums in favor of one exceptionally valuable painting from the artist’s former home, open only by appointment, leaving slim chance they would arrive to find it packed with more visitors than they could manage.

But it does get rather dark in the end. First, though, it takes the reader from a suspected ISIS cell in a poor Brussels neighborhood; to an art-crimes unit reduced to two guys, then one, then eliminated entirely; to an explainer on how “market rates” for ransoms are set when insurers would rather pay a “reward” for a stolen work than a claim costing 10-15 times as much; into the office of an insurance investigator who may have manipulated the situation for a commission; and finally to the horrible denouement in March of 2016. A fascinating, fast read that you won’t want to end…especially in the manner it does. — SDB

Great news: I’VE been cast in The Staircase! I’ll be originating the role of an out-of-focus heap of law books, and I’d just like to say how honored I am to be working with such a okay seriously: the list of people who are NOT in HBO Max’s take on l’affaire Peterson is shorter than the list of big names who ARE at this point, and as of yesterday we can add Game Of Thrones’s Sophie Turner to it. Turner is set to play one of Peterson’s adopted daughters. Our esteemed commenter sinnerforhire thinks there’s now no way this series “can live up to the hype,” though I’m not sure I agree; I felt the same apprehension about ACS: OJ, that it might devolve into a Snakes On A Plane sitch in the sense that the pitch became the shared cultural experience, but that series knocked it out of the park IMO, and I can also see it taking some artistic license with “known unknowns” the way The Act did. Let’s remember to check back on this prediction when the damn thing finally hits the airwaves.

…There’s another list to be made, by me, one of these days, of European actors cast as Southerners — I think producers’ conventional wisdom tells them a British accent “translates” well to Tar Heel country, rightly or not — and I’d forgotten ’til just now that this is not Firth’s first run at a stateside major case set in the south; I talked about his “cornpone accent” in West Memphis 3 docudrama Devil’s Knot back in Ep 100 of The Blotter Presents.

And there’s a list to be made by someone ranking Amy Ryan’s true-crime projects. (Ryan is not in The Staircase — YET — but did play Firth’s character’s wife in Devil’s Knot, among others.) Is that someone you? Scroll down to our contact info and pitch us! (Or just let us know if this should be a recurring feature — I do keep a running list of potential rankees a la Peter Sarsgaard — and if so, whom we should tackle.) — SDB

Via our esteemed colleague Margaret Howie comes a Cosmo UK piece from March of this year on a 24-year-old who stole tens of thousands thanks to a gambling addiction. Author Kate Hollowood is focused more broadly on the gambling industry’s 1) increased focus on women as a “customer base” and 2) failure to pay anything but lip service to the idea that said industry is exploiting vulnerable demographics. The article also includes pro-active links to support for readers who think they might have or develop a gambling problem.

Gambling’s role in the wider culture is one I’ve had on my mind a great deal lately; here in the States, ads for online sportsbooks have nearly taken over in-game advertising during live baseball — and a handful of regional networks have rebranded from, like, Fox Sports 6 to the Bally’s Regional Payday Loan Dystopia. (Joking! Satire! Don’t sue me, Bally’s!) You don’t have to know fuck-all about baseball to know that the sport has made a self-righteous spectacle out of excluding Pete Rose, who literally has the most hits of all time, from its Hall of Fame. You probably know, even if only vaguely, who Shoeless Joe is. That this is occurring in and around a sport whose gatekeepers perch on such very high horses indeed on questions like steroid use…I mean, I’m a “slap an asterisk where his head would be on the plaque and let ’im in already” guy, so the hypocrisy — especially from ESPN commentators, glibly blathering about unwritten rules while a literal line ticker is unspooling under them onscreen — is galling.

But the real story, for our purposes anyway, is probably yet to unfold, an alarm another esteemed colleague, Craig Calcaterra, has sounded numerous times since the beginning of the 2021 season. Major League Baseball clearly has no problem tweaking itself to provide a more gambling-friendly “product,” and I have numerous rants about Manfredball on tap which I will spare you, but Calcaterra’s point is that, when you have this much money on the line on the corporate side, and this kind of addiction-prone behavior being retailed, you will see felonies. You will see officials compromised, you will see games thrown, you will see even more players getting dinged for banned substances and drugs of abuse, you’ll see blackmail…it will get bad. It will not take long, either.

This wolf has been at the door since time immemorial. Inviting it in, naming it “Fanduel,” and letting it eat from a dog bowl doesn’t make it a dog. — SDB

Thanks for picking my June bonus review topic — the Missing on 9/11 podcast. The pod debuted last week, and unpacks the September 10, 2001 (or WAS it?) disappearance of Dr. Sneha Anne Philip, whose case has haunted me on and off since I read Mark Fass’s feature on it 15 years ago in New York. Here’s where it grabs me every time I read it:

Sneha was supposed to call when she stayed out late, and she hadn’t. Again. [Sneha’s husband, Ron Lieberman] petted Figa and Kali and went to bed. He had to leave for work by 6:30 A.M.

When his alarm clock went off Tuesday morning, Sneha still wasn’t home. Ron was irritated, though still not particularly worried. Perhaps she’d spent the night at Annu’s place a few blocks away or ended up in the West Village with her brother John—she did that sometimes. Resolving to talk to Sneha once more about her habit of staying out all night without checking in, he sleepily made his way to the Bowling Green subway station, where he caught an uptown 5 train in time for his 8 A.M. meeting at Jacobi in the Bronx.

It’s not that Philip stayed out all night and didn’t call, “Again.”; it’s not how I run the game, but it seemed to have worked for them…it’s how easy it still is in this city, in this life, to bob under the surface and never come up. How much space there still is in between noticings — never mind on that particular day, on which I received countless emails and phone calls expressing relief that I was safely in Toronto and out of harm’s way, when in fact I’d not only returned to Manhattan for a work thing but was downtown that morning. And how do you begin to investigate a possible homicide that maybe took place, but maybe didn’t, the day before 9/11? I mean, how many times have you wondered in the middle of a vintage true-crime longread why you’d never heard of the case it’s about, only to clock the pub date as, like, July 27 of 2001?

Anyway, I’m intrigued by this one, and I’ll report back at month’s end! — SDB

Thursday on Best Evidence: YouTubers and amateur blundering. (That’s two different stories, heh.)

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