The Blotter Presents 137: The Scheme and Finding Steve McQueen
Plus Dirty John S2, Erin Lee Carr's latest, LISK in the archives, and more
|Best Evidence||Apr 1, 2020||2||2|
Episode 137 of the podcast is live now! Mike Dunn came back to discuss HBO’s college-hoops bribery-scandal doc The Scheme, which aired last night; Finding Steve McQueen, a ’70s-heist story that went under the radar when it was released last year; and how much we 1) miss sports and 2) love the “good” Ocean’s 11. Which of these two-hour features is recommended, and which is likable but inessential? Listen and find out! — SDB
Content update! A handful of things I’d hoped to get done before the cruelest month arrived are still in process, including 1) polls for the N Crime AA; 2) a couple of author interviews; and 3) the March bonus book review (and the poll for April’s). Apologies for the delays. Everything will get done!
In the meantime, if you’d like to add a book to the list for review consideration — or just want to ask me to watch an old Unsolved Mysteries for some reason? — let me know! (You can also call or text us at 919-75-CRIME; I have gotten a few voicemails in the last couple days, which is great! And Google’s attempts to transcribe them are even greater. Keep ’em coming.)
We’ve almost reached That Moment in my old The Jinx coverage, but before we get there, here’s a few not-quite-burning questions I had about the penultimate episode. Please to note my pessimistic closer. Yeah, they really fucked THAT up! (hee hee)
"Family Values" is a dog's breakfast, a strange and jittery assemblage of information and revelations that doesn't seem to know where to focus. It's about Kathie Durst's family, and then it's over on Durst's brother Douglas, and then Jarecki's doing his Moore-ian ambush of Douglas at a charity event, and then we have Susan Berman's stepson -- whom we first met in the third episode? -- now comparing handwriting on a letter and finding that Bob Durst's block printing and the printing on the cadaver letter is the same, and so is the misspelling of "Beverley." So what's with all the airtime wasted on the Durst Corporation's security team?
And what happened with this?
We ended, as you may recall, on Durst's attorney rushing into frame to remind him that his microphone was picking up his rehearsals of his answers. I ended my coverage on a question about whether Jarecki had deliberately placed that break in the interview, knowing Durst would...incriminate himself socially, I guess is how to phrase it. I couldn't wait to see where we picked up with that.
We didn't. We go right into Kathie's nephew, Evan, talking about how Kathie's disappearance Isn't Discussed in the family. It's not mentioned again. If you're going to gotcha the guy, gotcha him; if you're not, don't put that sequence at the end of the previous episode and set it up like it's leading somewhere, and then drift away to something else.
Are interviews with the Durst family simply not in the case file? Or were they not done at all?
There is a difference, and given Det. Struk's casually defensive attitude towards the case in a previous episode, it's a distinction worth making explicitly. My assumption, having read enough true crime and watched enough L&Os with Adam Schiff's crooked friends, is that someone did speak to the Dursts but was encouraged not to take notes, because sometimes the super-rich have to be handled into speaking "on background," or whatever the line was then.
Why exactly did Durst's criminal attorney let Ed Wright go?
We can probably deduce based on the "best if they go another way" phrasing that Wright found and/or pointed out things Durst's team didn't want on the record, but if it's attorney "work product," nobody's going to see it anyway. Isn't it better to know where your client's weak spots are?
Why didn't the Dursts call Kathie's family?
My general sense is that the rest of the clan saw an opportunity to distance themselves thoroughly and permanently from Blinksy, and took it -- but you can still do that while reaching out to your in-law's family with condolences. Having the sinking feeling you know what happened doesn't mean it's your fault or that you can't be a thoughtful person.
Could someone have talked Jarecki out of ambushing Douglas Durst at this event?
Because they should have. First of all, it plays like a stunt. Second of all, once he gets face-to-face with Douglas, Jarecki kind of mealy-mouths it, "maybe we could meet" this, "I don't mean to make you uncomfortable" that. Do you want to give Douglas equal time, and not have to deal with his disingenuous reps? Or do you just want to make it look like you tried to, so you ripped a page from the Roger & Me playbook? Because it plays like the latter and it's a little smug about it besides.
Why is the "betrayal" of Seymour Durst choosing Douglas over his older brother Bob to run the company a storyline?
Bob has consistently maintained he wanted nothing to do with it and only rejoined the company at his father's guilt-trip request, no? Just wanted to run his little Vermont store? Sometimes brothers don't get along; it seems likely there's no "getting along with" Bob in the traditional sense; why introduce this fraternal-envy angle into it now?
Why is Debrah still such an opaque figure in all this?
She finally reappears partway through "Family Values," but why is she so vague on things like how long they'd been married, and whether he was home around Christmastime in 2000? Keeping in mind she's not being interviewed now, 15 years later; the footage we see of her is contemporary. She "doesn't think" he was in residence during the timeframe in which he drove from Trinidad, CA to L.A. to (allegedly) (...I know) kill Berman? It's the holidays; you just married the guy. Do these people even like each other? Or did he only marry her and buy her that $77,500 ring to buy her alibi power/spousal-privilege silence?
And if she wouldn't speak to the production, have they made that clear? And if not, why not just do that? What's her deal?
Why isn't The Jinx clearer on the Trinidad timeline its own self?
There's a lot of...I wouldn't call it "dead air," but a lot of stuff I feel like we didn't need in "Family Values." The footage of Jarecki putting the letter exemplars in a safe-deposit box; the entire sequence in which Ed Wright can't really talk about what he did or didn't find (and the filmmakers got the report anyway, so why bother with that except to reinforce what we already know about Durst's malleable story about his whereabouts); Durst's visit to his brother's Manhattan townhouse (their estrangement is more than asked and answered, and the "Durst goes to his brother's house with guns in the car" thing isn't followed up terribly well).
Then, when it's time to follow real evidence, like Durst's trip to California in 2000, and his coincidentally silent cell phone when he would have been in Los Angeles, and his smirky "California's a big state," The Jinx doesn't lay its groundwork as carefully. How long has he owned the Trinidad property -- or does he own it, or rent it? How long had his car been in longterm parking? How often did he visit? What about this trip would have been unusual in these respects, besides that Berman ended up dead afterwards?
And once you see the block printing and the misspelling, all of this other "evidence" sort of falls away as far less compelling, so why not boil it down better or cut it entirely? The episode as a whole is not uninteresting, but often feels like it's stalling or needed another editing pass. It's re-answering questions it already asked of some subtopics and not pushing hard enough on others...and thanks to the "cliffhanger" from last time that wound up being a curb cut, I'm not super-confident they can wrap the story in a satisfying way in the hour remaining. — SDB, 3/9/15
Erin Lee Carr’s latest, How To Fix A Drug Scandal, drops today on Netflix. Perfect timing for everyone who’s got Tiger King fatigue (or just Can’t With that one), Drug Scandal is typically well-built Carr product; the four-parter takes on a story out of Massachusetts from a few years back that I can’t believe I didn’t clock at the time. I wrote it up for Primetimer (just a reminder that sometimes the headline you write is not the headline that ends up on the thing; heh); here’s a snippet:
First of all, it's a scam/faker story in the Stephen Glass mold: Annie Dookhan, the first scientist to be unmasked, was a stereotypical "striver" (a very Edith Wharton way to describe this particular sort of frustrated overachiever, but one of the interviewees in Drug Scandal uses that exact word). …
Then there's the simultaneously enraging and pathetic addiction story at the center of the second unmasking: Sonja Farak, a good student and the first girl in her state to play high-school football. Farak wasn't faking results, but she was raiding the drug lockup — first the methamphetamine used for comparative testing at the lab, then evidence assigned to her for testing. Farak even made her own crack cocaine….
A miniseries that’s basically about failures in lab testing is perhaps not everyone’s preference just now, but the piece closes with a list of Carr’s other work, none of it cheery but all of it compelling and well made. — SDB
Speaking of compelling…well, I’ll just let Eve’s note in our topics list speak for itself, verbatim: “Dirty John: The Betty Broderick Story TRAILER HAS DROPPED OMFGGG”
Guys, I still can’t get over how flawless this casting is, and as much as I love the original, I really hope this is the project that finally, finally gets Amanda Peet the universal love and respect she deserves, because she is terminally underrated.
Kevin Smokler and I just talked about the scripted version of Lost Girls a couple weeks back; he and I interviewed Bob Kolker earlier this week (look forward to that discussion in an upcoming Blotter Presents); and I talk about Josh Zeman’s work all the time on here. So why not revisit my New Show Fact Sheet on Zeman and Rachel Mills’s 2016 dive into the Long Island Serial Killer, The Killing Season?
What is this thing?
The Killing Season is a true-crime event series that begins with an unsolved serial-murder case: the Long Island Serial Killer, or LISK, whose grisly work was discovered when Craigslist escort Shannan Gilbert fled from an outcall into a Long Island swamp. Gilbert was not found until 18 months later, but in the search for her, the remains of ten other women were unearthed on Gilgo Beach, Long Island. What murderer, if any, connects them? Where was Shannan Gilbert? Why can't law enforcement catch this guy?
Show creators Joshua Zeman and Rachel Mills start with that case, ably covered by New York mag reporter Robert Kolker in Lost Girls, and dive into the files with internet sleuths, family members and roommates, and retired cops...but the Gilgo Beach burial ground may be just the tip of an iceberg of "missing missing" women, targeted victims, and crimes nobody seems to want to solve, from New York to Florida and beyond.
When is it on?
Saturdays at 9 PM on A&E (in two-hour blocks, at least for the first couple weeks).
This case specifically even got an SVU episode.
What's its pedigree?
The names that got me stoked are co-directors Joshua Zeman and Rachel Mills, who made Killer Legends; Zeman also made Cropsey. I liked both films a lot, and Cropsey in particular is just the kind of filmmaking experience -- investigating an urban legend tied to real-life disappearances, looking not just at the crimes but at the larger questions it raises about the community and society in which they took place -- that would seem to lend itself to LISK.
Wellllll, let's start with the scheduling, which would not seem to indicate a ton of confidence in the material. A&E's initial premiere date, November 5, has come and gone; the first episode got pushed to the 12th. Both those days: Saturdays. I'm not saying you have to throw it in with the Sunday-night prestige stuff, but Saturday is a graveyard, if you'll forgive the expression. Between that and the double shots of episodes, it's like, does the channel not believe in it, or just not know how to sell it?
I suspect it's that second thing, because Zeman's previous work is first-person and ruminative and does not exactly follow the beats of a 48 Hours OR a Making A Murderer, so maybe an executive bought it not realizing that it's not really on-brand for that suite of channels and now it's getting semi-buried.
And the first episode is, at times, a bit much. The arty shot of fish being gutted; lines like "Shannan has disappeared, into the cold blue dawn"; stagey compositions of Zeman and Mills they seem reluctant to do, like it's in response to a network note.
Time that I would have spent taking viewers through the Gilgo Beach victims chronologically and providing more logistical context is instead spent on obligatory voice-overs to the effect that a prostitute's "next client...might well...be her last."
If I didn't know Zeman and Mills's work, I might have given up, but I do think there's something here. The filmmakers contract with "Super," a Long Island sex worker, to tail her and serve as her drivers for the week, to get a sense of her working life, the protocols she uses for safety, and so on. Super looks tired, her skin papery, the trashy mani and the poodle steps in sky-high heels, and at one point she's off the radar far longer than they'd agreed and they're freaking out -- should they follow her into the hotel? what happened? why isn't she picking up? Finally she appears, sighing that her phone died and the client took forever to finish, and of course you don't expect anything to have happened...but "anything" happens to these women (and men too, in that line of work), all the time, every day, with nobody around to see or follow up. It's a nail-biter, and then it's depressing.
It's good and process-y, too; the filmmakers use the internet, talk to families in a stripped-down way (one stepparent gives an interview at his short-order grill), interview everyone from Bob Kolker to retired feds to some German amateur profiler who doesn't think LISK killed Gilbert. And it's not just the LISK cases they want to solve, it's why jurisdictions still drop balls between them on missing-persons reports, why sex workers and their loved ones can't get detectives' full attention, and what it's going to take to get the media to swarm a case that isn't a blonde white girl lost in the tropics.
The Killing Season has some kludgy bits, but I trust the filmmakers' instinct for picking good stories and the right roads into them. I'm in. — SDB, 11/9/16
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