The Alamo · Duran Duran · North Korean Hackers
Plus, honoring George Floyd, remembering Etan Patz, and bad-penny cops
|Best Evidence||May 25||5||3|
One year ago today, George Floyd was murdered. I apologize for the abruptness, but then, this was and is a stark horror, and I can’t treat it otherwise.
WaPo’s Holly Bailey looked at the state of the city in Minneapolis one year later:
As Minneapolis prepares to mark the first anniversary of Floyd’s death Tuesday, it remains a city in turmoil, with many of the racial inequities highlighted during last year’s protests unresolved. The police department is in crisis — woefully understaffed, its officers demoralized and its practices and culture under investigation by the Justice Department. At the same time, there has been a pronounced increase in crime while the relationship between the police and residents remains fractured.
Bailey speaks to residents who describe police officers on patrol with their windows up, refusing to engage; reluctance to call the police “because of concerns [callers] might put their minority neighbors at risk”; business owners who feel unsupported vis-a-vis community outreach; and, notably, not to MPD chief Medaria Arradondo, who declined interview requests, but is quoted from recent pressers in which he sounds very beleaguered.
Bailey also talks about the rise in gun violence that has plagued Minneapolis and other metro areas in the last 12-15 months, “which many blame on the economic despair and sense of alienation brought on by the pandemic.” Speaking for my own red district, festooned as it is with Blue Lives Matter flags, many others blame the Black Lives Matter movement and the calls to defund the police…for everything, from apartment fires to litter in tree wells to people riding their bikes on the sidewalk (hot tip: enjoying a seethe-free day? don’t go on Bay Ridge Nextdoor), and I’ve wondered several times over the last few months if we’re just going to stall here, divided, indefinitely. I hope that isn’t true, but it’s hard not to feel overwhelmed.
If you’re using today to reflect and read, to take action, or to support organizations, I’d love to hear what you’re reading and where you’re giving. (I’m putting together a fistful of dollars for the International Women’s Media Foundation’s Black Journalists Therapy Relief Fund, if that’s of interest.) — SDB
Today’s also the anniversary of two other “major case” events (and perhaps, now, the “anniversary” of my revising my crackpot theory of mid-July crime clustering to the end of May?). First, Oscar Wilde was sent to prison for “indecency” on this date in 1895. I welcome recommendations on longer reads (or watches/listens) about Wilde’s ill-fated bluff-call of “furious homophobe” Sir John Sholto Douglas. In the meantime, here’s a link to “The Ballad of Reading Gaol,” which I reread this morning for the first time in probably 30 years. My impressions of it haven’t changed much since I first had it assigned back in high school; it’s both melodramatically overlong, and a sharply focused snapshot of a great and embattled mind trying to manage an unjust horror. It both drags, and pulls.
And on this date in 1979, Etan Patz went missing on the way to school in New York City. Rick Rojas put together an excellent contextual explainer for the New York Times back in 2017: how the city responded, how the culture responded, how the case unfolded over the days and decades afterwards. I don’t have any contemporary memories of the case, because I too was six years old; nor did my parents make any changes to my supervision or routine as a consequence of it that I can recall — also because I was six years old, and while my parents had moved out of New York City to have and raise their kids for a number of safety-centric reasons, they also considered seven the official age of (limited) independence, so prior to 1980, even in my almost comically safe Jersey suburb, I just wasn’t going to be off the property by myself (or out of a grownup’s sightline on it, for that matter), regardless of what was going on in Manhattan. At the same time, I don’t remember a time when we weren’t aware of Etan, of how he had just turned a corner and…
Ronald Reagan declared May 25 National Missing Children’s Day in 1983; Etan’s disappearance also played a part in the creation of the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children. But these cases are of course still plagued by racial disparities in reporting and investigation. So much work remains. — SDB
I enjoyed Ed Caesar’s New Yorker deep dive into “The Incredible Rise of North Korea’s Hacking Army” more than I should have. Or, put another way, I shouldn’t have been muttering “…cool” occasionally, given that the piece is about how North Korea’s “cyber forces have raked in billions of dollars for the regime by pulling off schemes ranging from A.T.M. heists to cryptocurrency thefts.” But I can only be who I am, and who I am is someone who was already in with both feet at the word “schemes.”
That said, Caesar’s work is a perfect exemplar for why I keep paying for a subscription to the magazine: “Incredible Rise” is one of those mag long-formers that would really be extremely difficult to do effectively in any other medium, in addition to being a patented NYer read — clearly written, tastefully embroidered with detail, and one of those articles that makes you flip ahead to see how many pages you have left to wallow in like catnip until that little black diamond sends you back into the world. This one isn’t going to challenge John McPhee in the word-count department, but it was a gratifyingly long soak.
I’d likely link to “Rocket Men” (its title in the print mag) even if it were merely good, but it’s better than good — because it’s also a fantastic exemplar of writing in the subgenres of cybercrime and bank fraud. Tasked with the job not just of describing relatively dry set-ups accurately but also creating suspense from them, Caesar does both masterfully. Here’s one cinematically brisk sequence of one online “bank job”:
After this and another small irregularity were detected, freeze requests were placed on the recipient accounts. but — as the hackers had anticipated — because the heist was carried out on a holiday weekend in the Philippines the freeze requests weren’t processed for another forty-eight hours. By that time, some eighty-one million dollars had been transferred into a different account. Most of this money was then withdrawn, converted into cash as Philippine pesos, and exchanged for casino chips. At the time gambling establishments in the Philippines were exempt from anti-money -laundering regulations. It wasn’t a billion dollars, but it was a huge haul.
I won’t bore you with granular process (not here, anyway; snerk) but this is harder than it looks. Compare it with coverage of, say, Anna Sorokin; a lot of that writing struggled to illuminate the actual fraud, as well as the IYKYK aspect of Sorokin’s faked wire-transfer receipts. That stuff is hard to make kinetic regardless of medium, so I’m particularly interested to see how/if they’ll do it onscreen, but in the meantime, I’ll recommend both this piece and another one by the same author. Apparently he’s got something of a cyber-crime “lane,” and we’re all the better for it. Hail Caesar! (I regret nothing!) — SDB
The next New Yorker piece on today’s docket comes from the mag’s The Daily email roundup from last Friday: “How Violent Cops Stay in Law Enforcement.” Abe Streep’s account of one specific cop’s continuing journey through various departments begins with a harrowing account of said cop shooting a mentally ill teen in the head, and does not get cheerier from there, particularly when Albany County sheriff David O’Malley, who hired Derek Colling in 2012, makes his entrance:
O’Malley is widely known for his role investigating the murder of Matthew Shepard, a gay student at the University of Wyoming who was beaten and left to die on the outskirts of Laramie, in 1998. O’Malley, who was then the head of investigations at the Laramie Police Department, worked with a detective from the sheriff’s department to build the case that convicted two men of Shepard’s murder. The story garnered international attention, helped to catalyze a reckoning with anti-gay violence, and inspired a play, “The Laramie Project,” that was produced as a touring show. O’Malley became an outspoken public figure, advocating for national hate-crime legislation and speaking openly about his former anti-gay bigotry. He marched at Pride events, attended drag-queen bingo, and spoke out against a book that cast aspersions on Shepard.
It becomes clear over the course of the piece that O’Malley probably relies heavily on that aspect of his policing “brand,” as well as what Streep characterizes as O’Malley’s instinctive understanding of the need to project “warmth” and a folksiness in the sheriff’s “role,” to deflect criticism of his department. As well, the local PD had declined to hire Colling — they didn’t even complete his background check — and O’Malley’s rationalizing of the sheriff’s hiring of a “terminated” officer is the kind of exhausting hair-splitting you always hear when yet another cop commits yet another homicide that pretty much anyone out of diapers could have seen coming. Then it’s on to a contemplation of the system of decertifying the “bad apples” — a system that is unsurprisingly patchwork across the country, but would actually work well at “removing the worst actors” if it were implemented consistently.
The problem of preventing the bad pennies of a trade from turning up in another jurisdiction isn’t limited to law enforcement — read any true-crime account of an “angel of death” and you’ll likely see a murderer on the move — but in the internet age, there’s really no excuse not to Google an applicant, then decline to proceed to the interview stage. Yes, even if, like Albany County, you have a tough time recruiting officers and a veteran of a large metro force seems like a smart pick.
This isn’t a fun read, especially when Robbie Ramirez enters the narrative; you’ll find yourself bracing for the bad outcome. The piece explains why violent cops keep their jobs and get others, but isn’t particularly optimistic about anything changing. (Some local Laramie cops do tell Streep that they’ve “started to reëxamine the assumptions” they’ve been trained with.) But Streep is a keeper — one of those New Yorker bylines that can convince me to read an article I’d have been otherwise inclined to skip. — SDB
Your money may be promised elsewhere today, as discussed above. But when you subscribe to Best Evidence, that lets us subscribe to publications like The New Yorker, Vanity Fair, and Texas Monthly — and comb them for the best true-crime reads. Eve is combing a beach in Palm Springs this week, but for her birthday, we’re getting y’all a gift: grab an annual paid subscription to Best Evidence any time before Friday and it’s just $50.
Plus you get access to the entire archive of subscriber-only review content! — SDB
It all started with an old library book. Processing inventory the other day for Exhibit B., I found myself entering a 2002 tome, The Count and the Confession, about the murder of Roger de la Burde, a Polish nobleman sans portfolio (maybe?) who either killed himself…or was killed by his lover, Virginia “Mouse” Monroe? Although the case, along with another murder, was the subject of a TNT special narrated by Miguel Ferrer called Was Justice Denied?, and the book was reviewed favorably by James B. Stewart in the New York Times (complete with a grimly hilarious correction at the bottom), I’d never heard of it before. The question of who killed de la Burde and why is compelling, but yours truly disappeared into a fog of alternate timelines in which the author, John Taylor, was that John Taylor, from Duran Duran.
My esteemed colleague and fellow Jersey native Mike Dunn also suggested that the John Taylor who invented Taylor ham might have had an interesting take on the case, but before I could work up a double country album about pork-roll-related deaths, this appeared in Exhibit B’s replies:
The Shoe Leather podcast, “an investigative podcast that goes behind the scenes of forgotten stories that shaped New York City,” “is produced collaboratively by students at Columbia Journalism School”; its first season, which dropped last year, took on the forgotten stories of the city in the nineties. S01 in its entirety is proving somewhat elusive, but the Happy Land episode is available right here, along with a transcript that informed me, among other things, that the Duran Duran song had a few factual errors, and that of course there was a Cerreta-era Law & Order ripped from the case’s headlines. I meant to listen to the episode in its intended form, but I did get sucked into the transcript and ended up just reading it to the end instead. I kind of wish I’d heard this exchange, between episode co-host Kara Grant and the daughter of a woman who died at Happy Land, and gotten to feel surprised by it that way:
KARA: Thelma finished middle school and started working. She ended up getting her GED. She also ended up in two bad marriages, something she attributes to losing her mother. Her protector.
THELMA: I got married. My husband was abusive. I left him. And I got married again. My second husband was abusive. And I, uh, divorced him. And now I’m single.
KARA: Men are shit! No offense.
THELMA: You’re absolutely right!
S02, which focuses on the seventies and had a bunch of episodes drop last week, is easier to find on Apple Podcasts et al., but both seasons feature various crime stories and unsolved mysteries, and if you use previous/next navigation on the podcast’s website, you can get to the true-crime-based archived episodes that way. — SDB
No, the crime is not this illustration, which in fact is bringing me great joy in the days since I read the article it decorates: “The Next Battle of the Alamo!” Said article may or may not in fact contain a crime, but I’ve justified its inclusion here for the following reasons: 1) it’s an adaptation of an upcoming book, Forget the Alamo: The Rise and Fall of an American Myth, by Chris Tomlinson, Jason Stanford, and Bryan Burrough — and while Burrough isn’t strictly speaking a true-crime writer, I’ve cited him and his work plenty around here; 2) the piece contains an extended sequence on Alamo ephemera, knife-expert testimony on provenance, and the possibility that some of the figurative crown jewels in Alamo obsessive and “Sussudio” on-the-world inflicter Phil Collins’s massive collection of Texana are not only not legit but were knowingly passed off as genuine articles, which is fraud; 2b) part of that sequence details the use of a major-case psychic as an authenticator, specifically
Peter Hurkos, a Dutch clairvoyant who claimed a head injury had given him special powers. … Hurkos, who had worked on the Charles Manson and Boston Strangler cases, agreed to a meeting, Musso says. After Musso handed him a brown paper bag with the knife inside, Hurkos reportedly named the man who had sold the knife to Musso. Musso says he then laid out several photos facedown and Hurkos pointed at one, which Musso then flipped over. It was Bowie’s portrait; Hurkos declared the knife had belonged to him. To Musso, this was just another piece of evidence that would help him build a case for authentication.
…and 3) the other extended sequence, about the battle across various Texas state offices over how the Alamo site and its history would be re-imagined for a 21st-century public (or not), ties back into my note at the top about change/the speaking of truth to power stalling out.
The article is textured, super-readable, and by turns pathetic (oh, Phil Collins) and infuriating (ugh, Dan Patrick). Highly recommended. — SDB
Later this week on Best Evidence: Streaming finds, the sins of Citizen, and soccer.