Night Stalker · Toobin and Gatsby · Mary Scott's Cold Case
Plus "Hustlers," Toby Ball, and a BBC watchlist round-up
On the ninth day of Best Evidence, my Google gave to me…the Mary Scott case, which just got cracked this fall thanks to preserved DNA. Scott, who was working as a dancer at a club (under the stage name “Lucky,” poor kid), was found murdered in her San Diego apartment in November of 1969. From the New York Times:
The case went cold for half a century.
But on Tuesday, the San Diego Police Department announced that with the help of forensic genealogy, a suspect had been identified. On Oct. 24, John Jeffrey Sipos, 75, was arrested in Schnecksville, Pa., in the murder of Ms. Scott, the police said.
… The case is one of the latest to benefit from advances in DNA and genetic genealogy, which have given new momentum to dormant murder files in the United States, helping investigators track down suspects and families find justice.
The first high-profile case to be cracked with genetic genealogy, which relies on identifying DNA collected at a crime scene by searching for the perpetrator’s relatives in genealogy databases, was that of Joseph James DeAngelo, also known as the Golden State Killer, who was arrested in Sacramento in 2018.
The Times also foregrounds Scott’s family, specifically her sister Rosalie, Scott’s last living relative. She’s relieved the focus of headlines around the case can finally move on from the reductive “Go-go Dancer Found Dead” she and her relatives had to live with for decades.
This is a relatively recent case, so there aren’t many deep dives into it, although I’d love to see a feature or limited series unpacking forensic genealogy. (The Times had a piece last April on the forensic-genealogy cases that do get solved, but after perpetrators have died.)
If you’d like a longer look at ladies-dancing-related cases, ninesomes and otherwise, Susan Howard suggested Dancing With Death, on the case of “Marjorie Orbin … a former Las Vegas showgirl who murdered her jewelry salesman husband.” The book was the first by the late true-crime author Shanna Hogan, who died earlier this year. Margaret Howie suggested Bolshoi Babylon, which I am mightily resisting ditching this write-up to watch right now; it’s a “behind-the-scenes look at Moscow’s prestigious Bolshoi Theatre as it’s rocked by an acid-attack scandal in 2013,” per JustWatch.com.
Speaking of Deep Dives, I’ll be on Toby Ball’s Deep Dive Patreon podcast Thursday evening, talking about Emma Copley Eisenberg’s The Third Rainbow Girl. I ranted about Fatal Vision on that pod at the beginning of this year, and I reviewed the book for paid subscribers in February. If you’re a Crime Writers On Patreon supporter, I hope you’ll come out for the Crowdcast; my fellow guest is Julia Henderson of the 30 For 30/Bikram podcast, and I always love hearing her thoughts on story “lanes.” — SDB
And speaking of Ms. Howie, she’s got a round-up of recent BBC true-crime product for us to keep our eyes out for across the pond.
The BBC has three new true-crime properties worth keeping an eye out for, exploring three very different aspects of British crime. There are stories about the literal policing of rap lyrics, the tangled history of a conwoman at large, and a journey into the darkest days of modern Welsh history.
Defending Digga D
In 2020 drill rapper Digga D was released from a prison for a violent disorder conviction under a legal order that restricts what he can say in public. As Digga tried to record a follow-up to his viral hit, he ran into legal issues heightened by the UK’s BLM protests.
Remember the anti-hip-hop moral panics of the 1990s? Apparently they have fans in the British judiciary system. London-based MC Digga D became famous with a drill track called “No Diet,” with fans including Zac Efron. But after his conviction for violent disorder, he became one of the first artists in the UK to be given a CBO (Criminal Behaviour Order), which restricts what images he can post, what words he can use, and what incidents he can refer to in his lyrics. This is all allegedly in the name of preventing him from inciting violence through music, which dovetails nicely with the British media’s obsession with knife crime and violence among “urban” youth.
As he leaves prison for the fourth time, Digga’s eternally patient lawyer carefully explains the conditions of his release to him, and unlike this viewer she never once rolls her eyes at the draconian rules that seem to exist just to send Digga back to jail.
There’s times when having a nineteen-year-old rapper as the main subject means the documentary goes full Spinal Tap, like in an argument over how many models make up a party’s worth of models (more than 15, for the record). But there’s precious little about him or his lively tracks that seem threatening, certainly not to any of us who remember the emergence of gangsta rap. Digga comes across less angry than fed up, telling his lawyer that the “pussies” he’s complaining about on Instagram are only the racist ones, so only racist police should be offended. And when he’s rapping about putting someone in a coffin? It’s a dance move, he sighs. It’s on YouTube.
It’s a ridiculous state of affairs that his bars are getting pored over by public servants to determine their potential risk to the children. But as Digga’s release coincides with the BLM protests, it becomes clear how sternly the CBO is being enforced. When a Snapchat showing Digga carrying a protest banner with the phrase “Black Lives Matter” leads to an official legal warning for “inciting violence,” the outrage on social media leads to a backlash that the police clearly weren’t prepared for. One of the few shots of cops comes from phone footage of one of them smugly explaining to Digga that “you’re lucky we’re not like those American police,” which is the most violent language featured in this astonishing documentary.
Dark Land: Hunting the Killers
Wales has been underserved by true-crime properties, despite having both the stunning landscapes and post-war social upheaval that journalists love to frame stories around. However, in the same year BBC Wales launched the first-ever Welsh-language true-crime podcast [https://www.bbc.co.uk/mediacentre/latestnews/2020/mysterious-1950s-disappearance-subject-of-a-new-podcast], they’ve also put out the four-part series Dark Land: Hunting the Killers to explore unsolved murders from the country’s history.
The credits of Dark Land open with a sombre voice-over saying that there are “over a hundred'' unsolved murders in Wales. Across the show’s four episodes the cases of four different murder victims, all female, are examined by a team of experts. Subjects include one of the most notorious killings in Welsh history, the murder of Murial Drinkwater, a schoolgirl attacked on the way home in 1946.
Dark Land does its utmost to avoid breaking any new ground, with a group of experts led by a retired Chief Constable operating a war room from a very photogenic open office in a Swansea library. In between reconstructions filmed with copious use of yellow and green filters (because in the olden days everything looked like...herbal tea?), members of the team scrawl notes on a glass board before heading out into the field to find eyewitnesses or potential DNA sources that could lead to new evidence. There’s a grizzled ex-detective who props himself up against various garden walls to have a chat with the neighbours, the inevitable behavioural psychologist to remind us what the dictionary definition of “sociopath” is, and two Very Cool Job Title award contenders: a professional criminal historian and a geographic profiler.
While you never doubt the expertise of the team, each episode forces them to speak in leaden statements that only reinforce how awkward they are on camera. Every piece of evidence is “potentially significant,” every crime scene “chilling.” The age of these cases understandably mean there’s not many smoking guns left, leaving each episode to mainly rake over the case notes and throw in some cultural commentary. By the final episode on Mamie Stuart, her case isn’t even unsolved -- the team head off to England to work out whether her murderer also killed someone in Brighton. The result is an interesting tale of vaudeville-era seediness, but it’s notably not Wales.
But there is enough here to sustain a compelling weekend binge. While it’s almost all left in the field of speculation, this is a rare chance to learn more about Wales’s criminal past.
Catch Her If You Can
On social media and in news headlines, Mariam Mola exemplified #girlboss goals as an entrepreneur with a non-profit startup that sought to empower women. But behind the impeccable selfies was a string of cons, many targeting her fellow young Black women.
Like many con artists, Mariam can’t be accused of lacking a sense of drama. Her testimonials on Instagram Live or morning TV shows never fail to position her as a survivor with a flair for reinvention, but what she leaves out are the means to her end: bulldozing through her marks to scam loans, credit cards, designer clothing and jewellery. This brisk 30-minute documentary tells her story through both Mola’s media clips and the testimony of some of her victims. The filmmakers are careful not to reveal too much, saving reveals about her background to be deployed by their talking heads, but ultimately Catch Her if You Can isn’t interested in motives of Mola’s grifts -- it’s on how she’s ruined people’s lives.
This focus on impact serves the short format well, as it doesn’t seek to demonise her, just to expose her tactics. Once she’s fleeced her way through the private sector, she hit the world of theology, preaching -- what else? -- the prosperity gospel. She manages to meet her match in one victim’s wife, who hits the books to track down Mola through a maze of pseudonyms before connecting her to prominent social media accounts. It’s in her mentions that Mola gets the closest thing to comeuppance that we see, and while this is a satisfying half-hour, you finish it wanting a sequel about just what happens when she’s caught. — Margaret Howie
Me, six months ago: “I suspect that thanks to the setting Women In Blue gets a PBS pick-up sooner rather than later.” My inbox, this morning: “Women In Blue to have national television debut on Monday, February 8, 2021 on PBS Independent Lens.”
You may recall that I didn’t love this one:
[T]he documentary is trying to get its arms around problems in Minneapolis policing along the axis of a handful of women in MPD — the embattled chief, Janée Harteau; an officer transferred to IA, then given a mandate to investigate challenges in recruiting women…but no funds for the project; a patrol officer with three years on the job; a lieutenant who ends up leaving for a more rewarding job in correctional support — but more recent events intrude throughout. The lieutenant has charge of Minneapolis’s Third Precinct, for one.
But I didn’t hate it, and I’m sympathetic to the issues the director must have faced releasing it this summer of all summers; I think IL is the perfect spot for it, and if you have that show season-passed, come on back in a couple months and let me know what you thought. — SDB
You, six months ago: “I should treat a friend to a Best Evidence subscription come holiday time.” Your shopping list, this morning: “Hey soooo it’s the 16th?” Reader, we are here to help — up to and even ON the 25th! Whatever the occasion, we make a great, safe, early-bird OR last-minute gift. Fragrance recs from your fellow subscribers, potshots at Dan Abrams…something for everyone! (Well, maybe not people who don’t like swearing.) Snag one today…or tomorrow.
Netflix dropped a trailer for Night Stalker: The Hunt For a Serial Killer yesterday. I am both intrigued by the series and resentful that the teaser’s creepy take on Bananarama’s “Cruel Summer” is going to ruin that song for me. Have a look/listen:
This notorious case isn’t one I’ve really engaged with in the past, but the director’s past work — it’s Tiller Russell, who also directed The Last Narc, The Seven Five, and upcoming feature The Silk Road — has me expecting good things.
Anyone got recs on magazine-style longreads on the case? Until one of y’all comes through, here’s this weird Vanity Fair hit on Sean Penn’s pen-pal relationship with Richard Ramirez back in the eighties. — SDB
Back to the New York Times for “The Undoing of Jeffrey Toobin,” Katherine Rosman and Jacob Bernstein’s painstaking account of Toobin’s pants- and dignity-free tumble from grace. The piece is full of good illustrations, both actual and metaphorical; Toobin’s preoccupation with The Great Gatsby, and the ambiguous “complexity” of Nick Carraway, is quite telling IMO, not least because…well, look, I love the novel, but it’s not like they wait until the second year of grad seminars to teach it, know what I mean? Nick is quite literally how the concept of the unreliable narrator was taught to generations of high-school freshmen. For a legal commentator to attach himself to a that literary figure, and then kind of make it out like said figure is misunderstood, is interesting, because at the end of the day, Nick is kind of just a weird little creep. (Not to mention that the guy who played Nick in the movie went on to play Jack McCoy.)
As you get further into the piece, you may recall the various tawdry stories about Toobin that came before The Zooming: the phone message on Lisa DePaulo’s voicemail; the son he had with a woman not his wife, a child he didn’t see for nine months and had to be sued to support. And you wonder how it took so long for Toobin to blow himself up, and then you’re like, riiiiiight: these things aren’t fatal for weird little creeps who went to Harvard Law.
It’s a good piece, dry like a martini, like this sequence in which a certain pop-econ cottage industry gets snarked on for lecturing the authors:
(Mr. Gladwell then took out his Bible and read to a reporter an allegory from Genesis 38 in which God strikes down a man for succumbing to the sin of self-gratification.)
Thursday on Best Evidence: Leaping lords, Japanese justice, and more.