Pulitzer Prizes · Casey Kasem · Edgars Flashback: The CBS Murders
Plus Tribeca highlights, and the latest in E. Jean v. the Donald
The 2021 Pulitzer Prize “class” joined us last Friday. The New York Times has an overview of the award-winners and their often shared focus: “The annual awards recognized journalism on the murder of George Floyd, including a special citation for Darnella Frazier, the teenager who filmed the killing.”
Honoree Frazier joined a handful of other names Best Evidence readers will recognize, including The Marshall Project, which shared the award for national reporting with AL.com, IndyStar, and the Invisible Institute for “an investigative series on police dogs used as weapons, often against innocent citizens.” As well,
The Tampa Bay Times won the local reporting award for exposing a data-driven policing initiative in Pasco County, Fla., that intimidated residents and labeled some schoolchildren future criminals. The staff of The Star Tribune in Minneapolis won in the breaking news category for its coverage of the murder of Mr. Floyd and its aftermath, and 10 photographers from The Associated Press were honored in the breaking news photography category for their coverage of the nationwide protests touched off by his death.
(If Pasco County sounds ominously familiar, it’s because it was one of the jurisdictions usually featured on Live PD.)
Also relevant to our reading interests around here is Mitchell S. Jackson’s win in the features category — Jackson “wrote for Runner’s World about the killing of Ahmaud Arbery, a 25-year-old Black man who was murdered while jogging in Georgia” — and a couple of book-length winners…
[I]n the category of general nonfiction, the winner was David Zucchino for “Wilmington’s Lie: The Murderous Coup of 1898 and the Rise of White Supremacy,” a deep study of a coup against the multiracial government in the coastal North Carolina city. Mr. Zucchino, a contributing writer for The Times, won a Pulitzer in 1989 for his reporting from South Africa.
Marcia Chatelain won the award in history for “Franchise: The Golden Arches in Black America,” on the relationship between McDonald’s and Black communities.
Me, reading the list of winners: “Yep; yep, makes sense; totally adding that to shop inventory; Marcia, obviously, awesome; [record scratch] MARCIAAAAAAA! AHHHH AWESOME!” Dr. Chatelain took the time to talk to me about Franchise last year, and you can read that interview right here. And she’s got a Substack of her own called Your Favorite Prof; I encourage you to check that out, not to mention Franchise, which I can’t wait to make her sign a bunch of copies for for the shop. — SDB
Speaking of award-winners, let’s continue our 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!
Next up is The CBS Murders: A True Story of Greed and Violence in New York’s Diamond District by Richard Hammer. This one took the Best Fact Crime award in 1988 and I can understand why. It’s a taut and tense read (the hardback clocks in at a judicious 178 pages) and the case itself is a doozy. I was somewhat familiar with the details, having seen it covered on the wonderful (and dearly missed) Dominick Dunne’s Power, Privilege & Justice, but Hammer does a masterful job with this complex tale of grift and desperation.
On Easter Monday 1982, a silver van entered a midtown Manhattan parking garage on the lookout for a blue BMW and its owner, a young woman named Margaret Barbera. When three veteran employees of CBS who worked nearby and parked their cars in the garage saw a man shoot Barbera in the head and drag her lifeless body into his van, the hit man retaliated and assassinated them one by one. A fourth CBS employee who witnessed all four killings managed to escape and was able to describe the order of events, but can only identify the van, not the killer.
The clues left behind — Barbera’s shoes, car, and purse and the eyewitness description of the van — propelled the investigation. It seems clear from the beginning that this was a hit, but why was Barbera targeted? As Hammer lays forth the details of Barbera’s entanglement with a shifty purveyor of gold and diamonds named Irwin Margolies, things begin to come into focus.
Margolies was a mildly successful jewelry distributor whose taste for the trappings of a lavish lifestyle led him to embark on a multimillion-dollar Ponzi-esque scheme. He hired Margaret Barbera as controller, and she kept several sets of books to hide the millions he was pilfering. But Margolies was weaving a web to entrap Barbera from the start. She wisely never fully trusted him and kept her own records of his misdeeds. When it became clear that the FBI was closing in, Margolies hooked up with a desperate soul named Robert Nash and enlisted him in a plan to abduct, kill, and dispose of Barbera and her girlfriend, with the aim of making it look like the two ran off with Margolies’s money and diamonds.
Hammer deftly weaves together the various strands that lead to the horrific scene in that Midtown parking garage and the skillful investigation that started with very little to go on, but ultimately zeroed in on those responsible. Irwin Margolies really stands out as one of the worst people I think I’ve ever read about — the sheer number of lives destroyed due to his greed, and the lengths he was willing to go to shield himself, is staggering. A stunning case and a top-notch narrative account by Hammer makes this a worthwhile read. — Susan Howard
We’re no Pulitzer committee — but we do try to keep you informed on the true crime that’s worth your time, and paid subscriptions help us commission serieses like Susan’s, and buy books new and old for review.
And Best Evidence makes a great Father’s Day gift. If your pops is one of those people who turn up their noses at true crime, explain to him that it’s basically history with crime stories at the center. So…history straight up, basically. — SDB
Oxygen posted a list last week of all the true crime they’re “dying to see” (…phrasing) at Tribeca Film Festival. A few of the features on the list, while they sound compelling, may not qualify as “true crime” except in the Law & Order-y, “the basic outlines of this crime have probably occurred out in the world somewhere” sense; the Soderbergh joint, for instance, seems initially like it’s a docudrama, but as far as I can tell is a straight period piece.
But Tribeca’s list of documentaries has a handful of more pertinent titles Oxygen doesn’t mention, including The Price of Freedom (the NRA’s pernicious influence); Stockholm Syndrome (the Swedish-tour travails of A$AP Rocky); and possibly The Lost Leonardo, which the festival page characterizes as an “art thriller,” so if said Leonardo was either stolen or a forgery, that qualifies.
As for the Bundy scripted project Oxygen mentions, congrats to Luke Kirby for joining the ever-lengthening roster of “…huh.” casting of Ted Bundy — nobody’s ever coming for Corin Nemec in the “wait, seriously?” department, I suspect, but it’s an honor just to be nominated, right? — and the choice of Elijah Wood to play Bill Hagmaier works for me. I just don’t know if this is necessary when it seems to duplicate the Ted Bundy Tapes series in scripted form.
Anything on either list you’re eagerly awaiting? — SDB
Wondering what’s going on with E. Jean Carroll’s defamation suit against the former president? Carroll herself posted an update last week:
Not a hundred on that phrasing, but I guess she knows how to headline things. (I am a hundred on her suiting choices.) In any event, the Department of Justice is in the position of having to defend the office against Carroll’s suit, arguing (I think) that, while the events surrounding the defamation occurred outside Donald Trump’s presidency/official duties, the defamation itself is a protected act via said presidency. Carroll walks readers through various filings and progress in the case so far on her newsletter, and concludes that, against all predictions, the attorney general is set to defend the DOJ as an institution against accusations that, under Bill Barr, it behaved badly vis-a-vis Carroll’s proceeding.
I’m…less surprised than she is by this development, and the rationale is, I suspect, two-fold: 1) while the idea of throwing the entire Barr era in the garbage is, to many of us, viscerally appealing, it also creates opportunities for reversals and appeals in federal cases that were in fact decided “properly”; and 2) Democrats, as usual, will be far more interested in avoiding accusations of judicial bias from the other side than a) they should be given b) how little the other side cares about looking bad/hypocritical. I’ll grant on the latter point that there is literally nobody alive who will scream louder and longer than Trump about getting cheated or treated unfairly, so I understand the instinct to avoid that, or at least to make one’s cases against him as airtight against his bullying as possible.
But the line between justice and PR isn’t that fine, and since Trump’s flunkies will squawk that he’s getting railroaded no matter what you do… — SDB
Audible’s Bitter Blood: Kasem vs. Kasem drops tomorrow — the anniversary of Casey Kasem’s death. Cobra Kai’s Martin Kove is narrating the project, which promises to unpack
The final years and death of radio legend and entertainer Casey Kasem …
The series will reveal the shocking insights into the events preceding Kasem’s passing in 2014 and the eventual wrongful death lawsuit filed by his three eldest children and his brother, against Kasem’s widow, Cheers and Ghostbusters actress Jean Kasem.
Bitter Blood may not be quiiiiiite the objective exploration of the topic you’d hope for — Kove is evidently a “longtime Kasem family friend,” and Kasem’s daughter Kerri is a co-exec producer — but the case is a sordidly compelling one. Here’s a transcript of the 48 Hours episode on the case, and if you’d like to watch the Law & Order: SVU version of the case starring Marcia Cross as the Jean Kasem (…the clauses you get to type in this job; #blessed), it’s available on Hulu, and pretty good given the era of the show it’s in.
Also of interest is the overall deal Bitter Blood is part of between Audible and AYR Media. AYR’s TV properties include, among others, The Case Of: JonBenét Ramsey, and upcoming podcasts — which AYR is hoping to funnel into small-screen projects — include
a docuseries with the first wife and daughters of ‘Dirty John’ Meehan, and a true-crime series investigating the bizarre events connected to the murder of D.C. attorney Robert Wone and the “thrupple” linked to the crime.
I get kind of a lowbrow sense from AYR’s website — which is fine! — but I’m cautiously optimistic about the Wone project, as that case has bugged me since Susan tipped us to it at the end of last year. — SDB
This week on Best Evidence: Genetic data vs. a fifties cold case; on the lam with an elephant; and a crappy informant.