Hollywood & Crime · Ross Ulbrich · Homicide Hunter
Plus: Who the Hell is Hamish?, The Woman Who Wasn't There, and James Ellroy
The Hollywood & Crime podcast launched a new season on Rodney “The Dating Game Killer” Alcala last month. Reader Turner wondered (as it were) (because it’s a Wondery production, geddit? ...I’ll let myself out) if I’d listened to it, and basically did my job here for me, describing the premiere episode as “true to form, turgid and overwritten” but saying the case itself “is fascinating enough if it's reasonably digestible.”
I gave the first episode a spin (and so can you -- but H&C is a Luminary joint now, so the rest of the season is paywalled), and I...don’t have a ton to add to Turner’s assessment. Hollywood & Crime is a slick production, and hosts Tracy Pattin and Stephen Lang (yes, “that Stephen Lang, from Avatar”) do a professional job; the narration is clear and doesn’t italicize the uglier material. The Alcala-POV description of Alcala’s luring one of his young victims into his car is unsettling, but compelling. But my attention began to drift about 10 minutes in, as the podcast’s timeline began shifting between Alcala’s California crimes and his second life under a pseudonym in New York City, because I think the idea is to stay cagey about whether Alcala and this John Berger guy are the same person, but, you know, we all have Google and we’ve consumed true crime before, so just put the fireworks factory’s address in Maps and move things along.
But Alcala’s very long, very confusing and frustrating dance with law enforcement and the courts and corrections systems is really something -- put on trial several times for the same murders, he kept having convictions set aside thanks to improper introduction of evidence and the like, culminating in his interrogation of himself (using two different voices) in his 2010 trial; he sued the California corrections system for a slip-and-fall incident, and for failing to furnish a low-fat diet for him; and of course he went on The Dating Game, scoring a match with a “co-ed” who then refused to go on the proffered date because she found him odd -- and, while I wasn’t glued to the first episode, it did feel like Pattin and Lang were reading a book to me, a selling point for some listeners who prefer a weak-ties relationship with whatever they’re listening to so they can multi-task. (I will note that Lang’s occasional slip into a Christopher Walken-esque cadence is...interesting? Like, it’s probably not appropriate for this material, and yet I don’t hate it.)
But is it worth the price of a Luminary sub? Maybe not on its own, for this one sub-series, but Hollywood & Crime does get serious narrating talent (Timothy Olyphant, James Remar), and as of this writing, you can sign up for the free premium trial and listen to four of the six episodes to see if it’s for you...but it wouldn’t push me into giving them a credit-card number. It’s well done, but there’s so much other material like it that’s free...and not for nothing, but waiting some of these pods out to see if Luminary folds and you can hear them gratis is a thing some people are doing. If you’re a regular H&C listener; used to be one before it cost money; or you’re just debating whether to sign up for Luminary generally, let us know your thoughts by hitting reply to this email. -- SDB
This week’s The Blotter Presents podcast will cover Who the Hell is Hamish? and The Woman Who Wasn't There. The former is a podcast from The Australian on the case of Hamish Watson, a conman who last fall admitted that he’d swindled 15 people out of over $7 million in cash -- but whose sentencing has since been delayed to June of this year after his attorney claimed that a psychologist and psychiatrist determined that her client may have a “mental health disorder” that further testing might reveal to be autism. (Don’t @ me, that’s what they said.)
The con theme continues with The Woman Who Wasn't There, a 2012 documentary from Angelo J. Guglielmo Jr., a filmmaker whose specializes in 9/11, as his only other full-length work was 2008’s The Heart of Steel, a doc about volunteers who stepped up following the attacks. The Woman Who Wasn't There is kind of the opposite of that, as it covers Alicia Esteve Head, the former president of the World Trade Center Survivors' Network support group who -- as it turns out -- was actually in Barcelona on September 11, 2001, a fact revealed by the New York Times in 2007.
I’ll be Sarah’s guest on the podcast this week, so I’m not going to say too much more about either property, as I need to “save it for the pod,” as a former colleague used to say. If you want to follow along, you can catch up on Hamish here and stream WWWT for $3.99 on Amazon here. (Extra credit: On 9/11, I was on a plane between SFO and Denver, and when the attack happened we were diverted to Sacramento and returned to SF by bus. Sarah was in downtown New York when the planes hit the world Trade Center, and if somehow you haven’t ever read her account of the experience, stop what you’re doing and read it now.) -- EB
That’s Pattinson on the left and Ulbricht on the right. I stand by my recommendation.
Like almost every other reporter in San Francisco, when the feds sent a news release saying that they’d arrested a dangerous criminal in the city’s Glen Park library, I was like “for late fees?” You can practically see the raised and/or furrowed brow of reporters as they issued early briefs on the story, as crime writers used to covering straightforward property and violent crimes took a crash course in the dark web to detail the alleged crimes of Ross William Ulbricht, aka The Dread Pirate Roberts and alleged creator of the Silk Road illicit online marketplace.
Back in 2015 it was reported that tech journo Nick Bilton would pen a book on Ulbricht and had already struck a deal for the movie rights with 20th Century Fox. The book happened -- it’s called American Kingpin: The Epic Hunt for the Criminal Mastermind Behind the Silk Road, the film adaptation never manifested. But early Saturday, we got word of a different take on the tale, as Deadline reported that David Kushner’s Rolling Stone longread “Dead End on Silk Road: Internet Crime Kingpin Ross Ulbricht’s Big Fall” will be brought to the big screen by director Tiller Russell, who also directed the true crime documentary Operation Odessa.
When the Bilton film was announced, I proposed that if the film’s Ulbricht was to be a "Wrongly Accused and/or Swashbuckling Daredevil,” he should be played by Robert Pattinson, but if that he were to be a "Weak Nerd Who's Only Got Balls When He's Behind A Keyboard," I’d prefer Kyle Gallner. Well, I didn’t get either wish, as Ulbricht will be played by Dear Simon’s Nick Robinson. I guess if my choices were a guy who gets busted in the library or Batman, I’d pick the cowl over the laptop, too. -- EB
The next season of Homicide Hunter will be its last. The Investigation Discovery show has had a good run, with nine seasons of yarns from former Colorado Springs Police Department detective Joe Kenda. The retired cop famously served on the force for 23 years, during which he reportedly had a closure rate of 92 percent for the 387 homicide cases he worked. And yet, he said at IDCon this weekend, he’s run out of “TV-approved stories,” and will now develop a new project (details TBD) for the network. The final season of Homicide Hunter (which, I assume, bears no relation) will debut on ID some time this August. -- EB
On Saturday, the Guardian dropped their list of the 20 best true-crime shows ever. They don’t rank the list, which bums me out because I was kind of spoiling for a fight. And, of course, there’s nothing on this list that readers of this publication haven’t heard of -- but the next time a friend who seems open to true crime asks you for show recommendations, this is a great list to send their way as a gateway drug. -- EB
Speaking with The Economist, James Ellroy says he might finally be happy. In a lengthy interview with critic Leo Robson, the My Dark Places (among many others) author discusses his pretty intense meltdown in the early aughts -- “he would drive his car too fast, dribble, wear shit-stained trousers, and audibly masturbate while [his then wife’s] family was visiting” -- and eventual return to (relative) normalcy. -- EB
What is this thing? This should help.