Theranos · Robert Ressler · James Hanratty

Plus reviews from the archives, and all the things Americans don't know.

A reminder that there’s no new podcast this week — but the upcoming schedule is shaping up!

  • Episode 129 with David J. Roth on Killer Inside: The Mind Of Aaron Hernandez and The Pat Tillman Story;

  • Episode 130 with Stephanie Early Green on Ted Bundy: Falling For A Killer and Gregg Olsen’s book, If You Tell;

  • and Ep 131 with Toby Ball’s first appearance of 2020 on Interrogation.

And you can listen to me AND Eve talk about McMillion$ on Extra Hot Great in just a couple of weeks!

If you’d like to request a Most Wanted OR Cold Case topic, or just a review of a book or Dateline ep you’ve seen recently, you can call OR text us at 919-75-CRIME! Or just leave a comment. — SDB

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From the archives: my review of Bad Henry from July of 2018. Is Investigation Discovery still struggling to lock down a brand “tone” a year and a half later?

Bad Henry isn’t “bad.” But it isn't GREAT, either; ID's newest special just NEEDS something.

The crime

It's tempting to say that narration like "when spring came to Charlotte in 1994, so did murder" is the primary bad actor here, but the narra-TOR, Delbert Hunt, is fine, and that's pretty much the last of the sweaty pronouncements Bad Henry has to make on the case of Henry Louis Wallace, aka "the Taco Bell Strangler." Wallace's rape and murder spree, which focused on young, poor African-American women (many known to him from work), terrorized Charlotte, NC -- but, victims' families and others argued, should have terrorized the city and its law enforcement more, as Wallace was very much in the mix of the investigation but not apprehended until he escalated nearly to the point of decompensation in March of 1994.

Finally grabbed up, Wallace confessed fairly readily, including to crimes police didn't know about and/or that had occurred in other jurisdictions. As of this writing he remains on North Carolina's death row.

The story not the right story, I suppose is the diagnosis I have to put in the lede.

Bad Henry as it is is...competent. Acceptable. But...I can't really recommend it. Like a lot of Investigation Discovery's recent programming, which has seemed to make a conscious shift away from the campier Wives With Knives m.o., it's leeched a lot of the trashy out of the tone and presentation -- but kept the tabloid newsmag structuring, which doesn't always serve the timeline in the most illuminating way.

And that's the case here. The timeline of Wallace's murders is fairly confusing, versus the discovery of various victims' bodies, but the telling of the timeline here is at the same time a bit too straightforwardly listy. Wallace was a monster; Charlotte PD took over a year to figure it out; eventually Wallace sped up his "work" to the point that even civilians could have seen there was a serial murderer at work/caught his mistakes. We've seen or read variations on this arrival at the a-ha moment by law enforcement dozens of times, and another variation is not essential.

This crime story does have elements that would make a compelling documentary or series. Garry McFadden, the detective who does the bulk of the talking-head interviews about the case and ran point on it with his partner, was Charlotte's only black detective at that time; that's a feature. Wallace's childhood, his history of substance abuse, and the tail end of the crack "epidemic" burning itself out around that time: that's a feature. The sense, not just today but at the time and vocalized by victims' families, that the police were not prioritizing -- much less linking -- these murders because poor African-American women were the victims: that's a feature. Whether the stereotypical serial killer the culture, scripted and non-, has fixed in our minds -- a decent-looking, decently-socialized white dude whose lethal creepiness isn't revealed except behind closed doors -- gets in the subconscious way of law enforcement, and lets predators prey more freely upon communities of color: that's a feature, and that's not even getting into the idea that some citizens, having been consistently marginalized by law enforcement, will not call on them period, much less to do more in a murder investigation that at best is going to victim-blame a loved one.

Bad Henry doesn't whistle past any of that stuff, mind you; it acknowledges those "subplots." But it still makes them subplots, secondary to the eventual triumph of McFadden -- and given that McFadden also stars in the network's I Am Homicide, that the production chose a more straight-ahead, pro-cops angle is not surprising. But despite McFadden's charisma and easy, unforced story-telling -- and the potential in the larger story -- Bad Henry is...just that, overall: not surprising. Good effort; wrong angle. — SDB, 7/25/18

The Theranos trial is probably going to ruin Elizabeth Holmes financially. This isn’t “news,” per se, but Sunday’s East Bay Times goes into plentiful detail about the Theranos founder’s finances: the many lawyers required to fight her legal battles on multiple fronts (the EBT puts the current count at seven, with others having quit “after they said she hadn’t paid them for more than a year and probably never would”); the fact that Theranos paid Holmes’s and Sunny Balwani’s legal bills, but is now a smoking crater; and that Holmes may not have the assets necessary to make restitution, should restitution be ordered. Holmes spent Theranos’s dimes rather freely on private jets and HQ renovations and whatnot, but never sold any of her stock, and probably doesn’t have a cache of sapphires stashed in a Geneva safe-deposit box. (Interestingly, Ethan Baron’s piece notes, a secret grand jury may have been convened to establish exactly that, plus any other Bondian assets Holmes may have squirreled away.)

And it’s…not like she can get the kind of high-profile job that might allow her to pay investors/the government back, as last year’s SEC settlement “bans her from serving as an officer or director of a public company for 10 years.” Could someone set her up as a Giuliani-style consultant? Sure. But consulting on…what? Baritone elocution?

One comment really stuck out to me — Stanford Law’s David Sklansky remarking that “the goal of the justice system is not to leave those found guilty of crimes in ruins.” He goes on to talk about there being no guarantees of wealth retention etc. and so on, but that phrasing really struck me, for two reasons. First, whether or not it’s “the goal,” the justice system is extremely efficient at leaving those even accused of crimes in ruins, thanks to cash bail, institutional bias, the War On Drugs, and a host of other reasons — and fighting a wrongful conviction or trying to get a convicted person off death row will ruin entire families and firms.

Second…maybe it should be the goal in a case like this? Holmes didn’t take my money, and I suspect her motivations here were primarily fearful, versus malign, but regardless of the psychology involved, if the government can prove intent to defraud, and if victims of the fraud were ruined, shouldn’t at least part of the punishment involve…I don’t know, a wealth “cap”? I understand that enacting an Old Testament fiscal penalty in fact is very problematic, particularly if you’re of the belief, as I am, that once a convicted felon has served their time, we as a society shouldn’t continue slanting the playing field. But I also kinda feel like paycheck-to-paycheck isn’t a bad place for Holmes to stay, at least for a while.

Let me know your thoughts! And let me also remind you that we’ve only got about half a year before this trial starts — and we’ll cover it in person if we have 2000 paid subscriptions! Sign up today, or buy one for a friend! — SDB

Another one from the archives: my 2013 review of Robert Ressler’s memoir, Whoever Fights Monsters.

The godfather of profiling's brisk memoir holds up.

The crime
Most of them -- Robert Ressler is one of the founders of the FBI's profiling program, got VICAP up and running, and has decades of experience at both the Bureau and the Army's criminal-investigation division. Ressler's Whoever Fights Monsters: My Twenty Years Tracking Serial Killers for the FBI, written with Tom Shachtman at a gratifying velocity, explores and explains the crimes of John Wayne Gacy, Richard Trenton Chase, Ted Bundy, and others, while discussing the origins and growth of the profiling field.

The story
Ressler and Shachtman give enough background on Ressler's career to provide perspective without losing pace. Ressler's accounts make an interesting contrast with John Douglas, who speaks of nobody except Ressler as highly as he speaks of himself. Douglas's co-author, Mark Olshaker, is very skilled, and their The Cases That Haunt Us is indispensable in the genre, but the analogous accounts of major cases and the early days of profiling in Douglas's other books can present as flatulent self-promotion. Ressler seems more interested in telling us what happened than describing his key role in it; he does take credit for coining the term "serial killer," but is quick to note that he derived it from the British term "crimes in series." He's passionate about how valuable profiling is, but also stresses that it's not rocket science, and it doesn't make arrests: "Profiling never catches a killer. Local police do that."

Shachtman's prose is blunter than Olshaker's, and the flatness is effective. A description of items found in Chase's possession notes that he "kept articles from the newspapers about a Los Angeles strangler and circled advertisements for free dogs." (The dogs also became victims.) Explicating the differences between organized and disorganized offenders, Ressler and Shachtman talk about Bundy's and others' facility in attracting romantic attention, then add, "Ted Bundy's main squeeze before his incarceration said that he was an unexciting sex partner" -- a wealth of detail, Space-Bagged into a relatively simple clause. "Main squeeze" in particular is a retro locution that drains some of the toxicity from the idea of Bundy Doing It with a girlfriend at all, never mind that he was a two-pump chump.

…I apologize for that image.

Whoever Fights Monsters is now over 20 years old, and some of its information is now out of date -- several of the killers Ressler discusses in the present tense have had their dates with the executioner, including Jeffrey Dahmer -- but it's not dated. In fact, Ressler's musing that fictional works always want the profiler/protagonist doing more, playing a bigger day-to-day part in the detective work, is even better taken today. Most of what we think we know about the field and its targets comes from fictional crime shows like Criminal Minds, or the profiling qualities given to "regular" detectives on Law & Order: SVU and the like. We may even have gotten our introductions to profiling from Silence of the Lambs, a movie based on a book written by Thomas Harris -- who consulted with Ressler at length.

For more detailed and recent information on the individual cases Ressler mentions, you might do better elsewhere -- but as an overview of his career and the notorious cases within it, Whoever Fights Monsters is a strong, fast-moving read for any "immersion level" of the genre. It's detailed but not pedantic, and the voice is knowledgeable without bragginess or condescension. An A-plus plane read. — SDB, 3/19/13

On this day in true-crime history…the trial of James Hanratty for “the A6 murder” began in Bedfordshire in 1962. I’d never heard of the case before reading up on it today, but evidently Hanratty was swiftly convicted, then executed, for murdering Michael Gregsten and raping and shooting Valerie Storie — and, as one of the last people executed in Britain, became a figurehead for abolishing capital punishment, as much doubt apparently remains as to his involvement. (A 2001 Irish Times story notes that DNA tied Hanratty fairly firmly to the crime, but Hanratty’s family and legal team continued to insist that that evidence was circumstantial.)

Is this one of those crimes that everyone in Britain knows about, but nobody in the States does? And while I’m up, overseas readers, what are the cases that preoccupy your countries, but get blank stares from Yanks? And which ones should make the leap into the American true-crime-consumer consciousness? If you’ve got books or docus to recommend, we’re here for it!

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Thursday on Best Evidence: Chasing Cosby, “loving” Weinstein emails, and whatever else strikes Eve’s fancy.

What is this thing? This should help.

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