The Doodler · Cocaine Bear · Atlanta

Plus: Netflix trickery

The first two episodes of The Doodler are available now. This is the podcast about the Doodler Murders, which went essentially uninvestigated in 1970s San Francisco, due to the massive rift between the good-old-boys of the SFPD and the city’s growing LGBTQ+ community. It’s also a bit of a personal obsession of mine, so I’ve been both looking forward to and worrying about how this show will turn out.

The SF Chronicle “more or less ignored the Doodler killings until they were over,” Elon Green noted in his seminal piece on the serial slayings, but now the paper is making up for lost time with a podcast on the cold case. According to the Chron, “reporter Kevin Fagan spent nearly three years” investigating the case, so the show is the fruit of his labors. Handily, the paper is also offering a text version of the show (you can find links to the readable versions here).

I’m going to write a full review of the show when we have a couple more episodes to pull from, but for now I’ll just say that the show is very consistent of what I know of Fagan, a veteran reporter who throughout his lengthy career has focused on marginalized groups and stories. So far, it’s been an efficiently-told story, and hasn’t veered into the most common problem with newspaper podcasts, that show-your-workism that means we have to hear about all sorts of dead ends that never worked out — but we also haven’t gotten to the investigation part yet, we’re still learning about the homicides, themselves. Color me cautiously optimistic. — EB

Could the Atlanta shootings bring a new level of accountability to crime reporting? This publication’s tag line is “how true crime is told and sold,” as you likely know. Sure, that means we talk about Tiger King or whatever, but these days, the most crucial area of scrutiny is the daily crime reporting we see via news reports (broadcast, newspaper, etc). Even if you don’t read the paper or watch TV news, how those cases are told and sold informs your perception of the issue, long before they make it to the eight-part investigative podcast stage.

That’s why I’m particularly intrigued by a potential sea change in how crime reporters cover cases that target people on the basis of race, “color,” religion, national origin, sex, sexual orientation, gender or disability — especially when, as in the case of the eight slayings Robert Aaron Long admitted to on Tuesday — officials claim that a case isn’t a hate crime even with the suspect says that he chose specific targets.

Until last June, Georgia was only one of four US states without a hate crime law, but now it does, which is why reporters immediately asked if Long would face hate crime enhancements in the case. This is pretty common — when a suspect is one race and a victim another, you typically ask, and more often than not officials respond that they can’t find any evidence that the attack was motivated by a victim’s identity, and you go on with the press conference.

But this time it’s different. This time, publications from Vanity Fair to Reuters to the Washington Post are refusing to let the Cherokee County Sheriff’s Department’s assertion that Long says the shootings weren’t “racially motivated,” so, gosh, they must not be, go unquestioned. (Also, as the victims were women admittedly targeted because they offered sexual temptation, the killings seem pretty clearly gender-motivated, which is also covered under hate crime laws! Just saying.) As opposed to writing up an explainer on what constitutes a hate crime and what doesn’t, reporters are pushing back on official narratives on the case, either by speaking to heads of advocacy groups or just snagging person-on-the-street quotes from people who are dismayed by remarks from folks as vaunted as President Biden, who said “the question of motivation is still to be determined.”

Other reporters are just using their own words. One example is 60 Minutes correspondent Wesley Lowery, who tweeted in restrained frustration about the way law enforcement is framing the mass shooting.

This, combined with thoughtful news orgs’ growing reluctance to accept police accounts of shootings committed by their officers, could arguably usher in a new golden era of breaking news/blotter-style reporting after decades of single-source copaganda…that is, if we support that style of reporting as true crime consumers. One way to help is to keep an eye on your local news orgs, and hold them accountable when they present the police narrative as the only one. Trues me on this: sometimes it takes a couple emails, tweets, or phone calls to get a newsroom to think more deeply about how it’s telling the crime stories that pay its bills. — EB

Speaking of paying the bills…It’s Sarah’s birthday on Monday! That means that I’ll be writing BE that day, and that it’s a great time to buy a subscription to help keep her in caftans and bourbon. (As for me, my engine light went on last night and my dog has a doubtlessly bank-breaking vet appointment today, so keep your fingers crossed and…)

Elizabeth Banks will direct the Cocaine Bear story. Variety reports that the actor/director has signed on to helm (per a press release) a “character-driven thriller inspired by true events that took place in Kentucky in 1985.” Those events? Per a New York Times report from that year, Georgia investigators found a dead bear “among 40 opened plastic containers with traces of cocaine … apparently dropped from a plane piloted by Andrew Thornton, a convicted drug smuggler who died Sept. 11 in Knoxville, Tenn., because he was carrying too heavy a load while parachuting.”

The Knoxville News Sentinel has a more current accounting of the case, and, just saying, the bear isn’t even the weirdest part of the yarn. Here’s a snip:

On Sept. 9, 1985, Andrew Thornton II, a former Kentucky narcotics officer and lawyer turned big-time drug smuggler, embarked on a mission with Bill Leonard, his karate instructor turned bodyguard. The pair hopped in a Cessna 404 airplane and flew to Montería, Colombia, with plans to pick up 400 kilograms of cocaine and smuggle it into the U.S.

Leonard said the plane landed in a swamp in Montería and was quickly surrounded by men wielding machine guns. While there, he said, he ate what turned out to be parrot and became "deathly ill with food poisoning." He continued to struggle with the sickness as they loaded up the plane with kilos of cocaine. The kilos were wrapped in yellow plastic, packed into burlap bags, stuffed inside duffel bags and outfitted with parachutes.

"If he had told me, 'Hey Bill, we're going to Colombia and smuggle 400 kilos of cocaine to America,' I would have gone, 'Yeah, right!'" Leonard said. "That would have been the end of it right there. He tricked me. There's no way in hell ... I mean anybody that knows me in Lexington knows there is no way I would do anything like this. ... I was a nobody."

No news yet on casting for the film, or a potential release date, but you can rest assured that we’re staying on this one. — EB

If the Night Stalker or Cecil Hotel docs whetted your appetite for LA history, then Blood on Gold Mountain might be up your alley. The new, independently-produced podcast seeks to cover the worst lynching in U.S. history: the 1871 Chinese Massacre, in which rioters killed at least 18 LA residents, all of Chinese ethnic heritage. No one was ever convicted in the crime. From the LA Public Library:

In October, 1871, tensions were running high in Chinatown because of a feud between leaders of two rival Huignan (mutual benefit associations) over the kidnapping of a young Chinese woman. A shootout between several Chinese men broke out in the middle of Negro Alley. The ensuing response by two police officers resulted in the wounding of one of the officers and the death of a civilian who assisted the officers, Robert Thompson. The shooters took cover in the Coronel Building.

Word quickly spread that Chinese had killed Thompson, a popular former saloon owner. A mob of rioters quickly grew to 500 people, ten percent of the population of the city. The rioters forced the Chinese out of the Coronel Building and dragged the captured Chinese to makeshift gallows at Tomlinson’s corral and Goller’s wagon shop. When John Goller protested that his children were present, a rioter pressed a gun to his face and said, “Dry up, you son of a bitch.” After Goller’s portico crossbar was filled with seven hanging bodies, the crowd dragged three more victims to a nearby freight wagon and hung them from the high side of the wagon. While there are varying accounts of exactly what transpired, there is no disputing the brutality and savagery of that night.

The show’s a family affair: Scripps College prof Hao Huang is the host, and his son Micah Huang writes the scripts. Expect the first episode on March 24, and subscribe here. — EB

Thanks to Best Evidence subscriber Tara Ariano for this handy true crime Netflix trick/way I found out that Substack won’t let me embed TikToks. So, here’s the deal: TikTok user Laura Lindsay discovered that if you go to Netflix’s search function and enter “9875” (instead of a property name), you’ll be served every single show they currently offer in their true crime category. (I tried this, it works.)

Clearly, 9875 is the category designation for true crime, so this is a handy shortcut if you’re in the mood for true crime but don’t want to wade through the platform’s oft-dubious recommendations. And for days that you’re not into true crime (it happens!), the Mirror (scroll way, way down) has compiled the numbers for a panoply of other categories (“Satanic Stories” is 6998, for example, and “Tearjerkers” are 6384), so you never have to hunt around again. — EB

Friday on Best Evidence: Why do some true crime stories get forgotten while others catch fire?

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