F. Lee Bailey · Edgars Flashback: The Pierre Hotel

Plus Dominick Dunne, disco, and a dark chapter in Kamloops

F. Lee Bailey has died. And, as predicted, his role in the OJ Simpson trial made the lede in his obituary — as did his disbarment 20 years ago, which is a bit more unexpected.

One of Bill James’s remarks on Bailey in Popular Crime was the first thing I thought of when I heard that Bailey had died:

F. Lee Bailey was involved in four of the most famous cases of the 20th century, and other very famous crimes as well, but four of the twenty most famous cases of the century. While many other lawyers had multiple associations with famous crimes, only one other lawyer — Darrow — is equally prominent in the most famous cases.

Looking back on it, it is my belief that Bailey helped to cause the system of justice to fail in all four cases. In the case of Sam Sheppard, Bailey cleared the name of a man who probably was involved in his wife’s murder. In the case of the Boston strangler, Bailey sold the entire nation on the story that Albert DeSalvo was the Boston Strangler, which he probably was not.

… Bailey’s defense of [Patty Hearst] allowed her to be convicted in 1976 and sentenced to 35 years in prison … [and] in the case of O.J. Simpson it was Bailey, not Johnnie Cochran, who set the N-word trap that turned the trial of O.J. Simpson into the trial of Mark Fuhrman, thus helping a murderer to walk free. (p. 241 of the paperback edition)

That it’s the first thing I thought of isn’t to say that I agree. A crazed media response contributed to the outcomes of all four of these cases; in all four of these cases, you can chalk Bailey’s actions up to a zealous defense. In the case of DeSalvo specifically, his client’s life depended on Bailey’s ability to sell that story, and while I concur that said story is not accurate, I would also assert that another commonality of these cases is that law enforcement bears the blame for various outcomes. Whether it’s linkage blindness or ineffective interviewing or inexperience with hostage psychology or, in the case of the OJ trial, decades of racist policing blowing up in the prosecution’s face, Bailey’s job is to exploit those weaknesses. And his ability to do that job, and brand it successfully, is why he was always in the mix on big cases, as distasteful as it might be to some. Maybe he did “help” the system to fail, but the conversation about Bailey’s role is worth something. — SDB

We’re back with another installment of our flashback to 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. Today the topic is The Man Who Robbed The Pierre: The Story of Bobby Comfort and the Biggest Hotel Robbery Ever, by Ira Berkow. The title pretty much telegraphs what you need to know, but I had never heard of Comfort or this infamous hotel robbery and am always up for a heist tale.

Comfort got an early criminal start, pilfering earnings from his dad’s gambling enterprise, then escalating to robbing residences and businesses in his hometown of Rochester, NY. When Comfort’s on the run after a prison escape, the seeds of the big heist to come are planted after a visit to the fancy Fontainebleau Hotel in Miami Beach.

Comfort develops a criminal partnership with Sammy Nalo, a seemingly perfect accomplice with no record and thus no prints on file (he’s also real good at disguises), and they begin an impressive run of hotel robberies in Manhattan. The most compelling elements of The Man Who Robbed The Pierre explore the methodology that went into these hotel heists. Recognizing that people are lulled into a false sense of security by luxury surroundings, Comfort and Nalo took advantage of this complacency. Their modus operandi was to surprise hotel clerks at gunpoint, round up everyone as hostages (taping over their eyes and mouths), and then force open the hotel safe-deposit boxes with crowbars, making away with cash and valuable jewelry. They were able to hit 25 hotels in the first year (including a hold-up of actress Sophia Loren in her hotel penthouse suite) while escaping police detection.

On January 2, 1972 (a date wisely chosen because the rich patrons of the hotel would have put their New Year’s Eve baubles back in the hotel safety deposit boxes by then), Comfort and his accomplices took over The Pierre Hotel (still operational at Fifth Avenue and 61st Streets). The heist didn’t go perfectly, but they still made away with millions of dollars’ worth of jewelry and cash. Comfort went back to Rochester to lay low, but when Nalo summoned him back to New York (he needed to turn around some of the hot items to pay off a debt to some seemingly scary people), things went downhill quickly. An informant tip led to Comfort and Nalo’s arrests.

The Man Who Robbed The Pierre works fine as a heist tale, but less so as a sympathetic portrayal of Bobby Comfort. The guy clearly wants to be perceived as a roguish romantic hero. Despite not ever physically hurting anyone during his long string of robberies, violence is never far under the surface. There’s a sort of shaming of the reader that seems to run through this book — like we’re dupes if we feel any sympathy for these rich people who drape themselves in millions of dollars in jewels. And the hotel employees taken hostage and traumatized? No one was physically hurt, so what’s the big deal? Berkow clearly collaborated very closely with Comfort, and it shades the overall telling of this story.

I poked around to see if I could find any new information on this case. Both Comfort and Nalo died in the 1980s. Interestingly, this New York Post article from 2016 points at Mafia involvement, a topic that isn’t explored at all in the book. Not surprising, I guess, given the input of Comfort in its writing. I’m hard pressed to recommend this one — wait for the inevitable movie or Netflix series that hopefully concerns itself with more than just Bobby Comfort’s hero’s journey. — Susan Howard

Impeachment: American Crime Story has a premiere date at last — and under the circumstances, it’s pretty soon! And I noted in this space just a few weeks ago that I:ACS hadn’t started principal shooting, so I wish them all the best in getting everything done and dusted by September 7, the FX drop date for this installment. (Not least because it puts pressure on the White-House-plumbers project to get rolling, and I’m eagerly anticipating that one as well.) — SDB

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We’ve seen a ton of coverage and material — finally — of the Tulsa Race Massacre in recent weeks; I’d love your recs, if you have them, for the best of the TV documentaries,

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and in the meantime here’s a piece from Victor Luckerson at NewYorker.com about the women who preserved the story of the Massacre down the generations. Luckerson’s prose is perfect for the subject, unvarnished but still evoking the cedar-y/smoky smell of old pages stored under folded linens.

Here’s a snip in which Luckerson describes Mary E. Jones Parrish’s Events of the Tulsa Disaster, which

challenged many of the false narratives that Tulsa city officials had spread about the massacre. The planes that circled above Greenwood, the authorities claimed, were used only for reconnaissance. Parrish and her sources said that they witnessed men with rifles climb aboard the aircraft and fire down on Greenwood residents. The white-owned newspapers cast the massacre as an aberration caused by supposedly mounting lawlessness in the city. Parrish said that the violence fit a broad pattern, and she connected it to recent attacks on Black communities in Chicago and Washington, D.C., during the Red Summer of 1919. She also proposed policy solutions that might help prevent such disastrous events in the future, including the passage of a federal anti-lynching measure. 

Not an easy read, mind you, but sometimes we have to take heart from the story of the story, and from its tireless caretakers, yesterday and today. Luckerson has a newsletter, about neglected Black history, called Run it Back, and I subscribed right away. — SDB

It’s not a cheery edition today, as the next noteworthy read is from the Vancouver Sun: “Why so many children died at Indian residential schools.” The grimmest part is that we…know why, but Tristin Hopper’s matter-of-fact list of horrifying statistics and first-hand accounts is powerful. In this snip, a survivor of the Kamloops school remembers what became of classmates who fell ill:

As a child, Chief Harvey McLeod of the Upper Nicola Band attended Kamloops Indian Residential School. He told CTV this week that when schoolmates disappeared, they were simply never spoken of again. “I just remember that they were here one day and they were gone the next,” he said.

One of the most painful tasks of Canada’s seven-year Truth and Reconciliation Commission was an attempt to quantify the sheer number of Indigenous children who died at an Indian Residential School.

The commission ultimately determined that at least 3,200 children died while a student at a Residential School; one in every 50 students enrolled during the program’s nearly 120-year existence.

From there, Hopper’s piece records the proportions of the dead who were buried unnamed, or with first names only; that parents often were not told of their children’s deaths, or the circumstances; and that remains were not returned to families. This is the bit where I nearly melted from rage:

“It is not the practice of the Department to send bodies of Indians by rail excepting under very exceptional circumstances,” read a response from the Department of Indian Affairs, adding that it was “an expenditure which the Department does not feel warranted in authorizing.”

Disease transmission, while understood, was unchecked, because nobody cared. Death-trap construction of school buildings was the rule, not the exception, because nobody cared.

A merciless accounting of a vile shame. — SDB

A couple of crime “anniversaries” of note, from the History Channel’s On This Day newsletter…the first one will do little to lighten the mood in here, as it’s on this day in 2002 that Michael Skakel was convicted of the murder of Martha Moxley, decades after it occurred. Whatever you think of the disposition of the case, it’s noteworthy for genre students —

(“…‘Students’?” Yeah, I know, but I despise phrasings like “true-crime fans or “true-crime buffs,” like, it’s not baseball cards, or it shouldn’t be. So I’m trying to find other words that signify an interest in the genre without crossing over into fight songs ’n’ face-painting. Suggestions welcome

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and in the interim I’m-a give “students” a try.)

…Where was I? Right: the Moxley case is significant for students of true crime because of just how many bold-type names got tangled up in it over the years. This isn’t surprising, given the accused’s Kennedy connection, but then you end up with RFK Jr. suing Dominick Dunne, a TV movie starring Elliot Stabler as Mark Fuhrman…here’s my vintage write-up of the latter. As for the former, digging into the Vanity Fair archives for Dunne’s coverage of anything is time well spent — for whatever reason, a lot of the noxious fumes created by his name-dropping have burned away over the years, at least for me, and I can enjoy the clubby tone and appreciate his skill set for what it was — and for the Moxley murder, you can start here and then let the invisible windows on your browser bloom like dandelions.

The building that used to house 2001 Odyssey — one of the only “facts” in Nik Cohn’s legendary NYMag piece. It’s now Bamboo Garden Restaurant. (Best Evidence East Coast HQ just out of frame, bottom left.)

But the real lighter fare today is “the Saturday Night Fever piece,” which appeared in the June 7, 1976 issue of New York. The original piece, largely fabricated by author Nik Cohn, touched off such a cultural earthquake that it has its own Wikipedia page, and while making up a dance-club scene doesn’t sink to the level of a crime, you could argue that the mainstreaming of disco led in turn to the backlash against disco, and that that verged into hate-crime territory thanks to disco’s celebration of queer spaces and dancers of color. — SDB

This week on Best Evidence: Judge Judy, how not to make a true-crime podcast, cyber-ransom negotiations, and much more.

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