Unsolved Mysteries · Opioids In Baseball · The Sons Of Sam

Plus the Peabody nominations and a classic longread

Little did I know when I suggested the topic for an episode of Extra Extra Hot Great that Season 5, Episode 22 of The Golden Girls would contain a true-crime element! And no, I don’t mean Dorothy’s six-mile schmatte. The A plot is Dorothy reuniting with an old lover played by Jerry Orbach — which is, given the players, a bit of a dud, not least because it doesn’t tie in to the B plot, a PSA about Sophia and Blanche getting taken in by a pigeon-drop con. (You can watch the episode here; Orbie’s not the only name in the guest-star credits.) That Rose is the one who has to explain the process-y part, versus getting taken in by it, is a little weird, and then the episode misses an opportunity to parallel the con bit by making Orbach’s character a love fraudster, but: later seasons, amirite?

Fast forward to yesterday, which I mostly spent lounging and rewatching stuff I didn’t really need to rewatch but that I could nap in front of. What did I happen to pick? Unsolved Mysteries: Original Flavor, Season 4, Episode 5 — which ends with Josephine White, a legendary pigeon-dropper! I’ve dropped the ep below, but it’s also on Amazon Prime (though they’ve shunted the show to IMDbTV, which means ads). Skip to 34:30 for the relevant segment…

(The version of the scam here differs somewhat from the one in GG, which you’ll probably recognize from the opening sequence of The Sting.) An update segment notes that White finally got a goodly amount of time in the joint for a check scam in Connecticut, and while she’s likely out by now, the pigeon drop lives on even during COVID times. — SDB

And Unsolved Mysteries is still helping solve crimes. In this case, though, it wasn’t viewers who came in with the tip, but rather UM producers, whose query to Kenner, LA police about the 2010 deaths of Hermania Ellsworth and Charles Davis led to a case review; an arrest; and a possible solution to a second double murder, of a couple (above) who lived on the block where the murders took place, and may have witnessed something.

But here’s an interesting snip from KIRO 7’s coverage:

Authorities said cold case homicide Detective Nick Engler, who was assigned the Ellsworth-Davis case, reviewed investigative reports, lab results, phone records and witness statements.

“Detective Engler was able to connect [Dernell] Nelson to the Kenner homicide by DNA and additional circumstantial evidence,” the police statement read.

The police statement, which I read in its entirety on Facebook, does NOT explain why, if they’d developed Nelson as a suspect from the jump and if they had DNA, this took over ten years to take off the board, but what do I know, I’m just an English major. At least it finally happened. — SDB

The May bonus-review poll results are in…and it’s a tie! Happily, I’m intrigued by both films — An American Crime (a vague title that might have you confused with the TV series; this is the 2007 based on the Sylvia Likens case, starring Catherine Keener, Elliot Page, and a gazillion other names…like, FRANCO is in this thing); and Who Killed Little Gregory?. And anyone can vote for these, but only paid subscribers can read the reviews, so if you absolutely must know what I think of Bradley Whitford’s performance as a prosecutor…

Free to all: my review of The Sons Of Sam: Descent Into Darkness for Primetimer. If you saw this one and were like, “Berkowitz, I don’t think I can do anoth— wait, satanic cults now? Forget it,” so was I, at first. BUT it’s directed by Joshua Zeman, in whom I always trust; Paul Giamatti is the voice of truth-seeker Maury Terry; and it ends up becoming a comment on true-crime journalism, and what one talking-head interviewee calls the “golden shovel” some reporters get — the one that lets them keep digging, always down another level, always juuuust a few scoops away from the grand unifying piece of evidence and the one true answer. Here’s a snip:

…I think questioning official stories is not just okay but vital to fixing a broken criminal-justice system. I can absolutely believe that the Son Of Sam investigation was compromised for the sake of "optics," sweeping a sketchy search warrant under the rug, and/or calming a nervous NYC populace. But another side effect of consuming a lot of true crime is that the phrase "satanic cult" tends to immediately slam a door in my head. To be fair, today we have the benefit of a hindsight that Terry didn't when it comes to how likely it is that Devil-worshipping played a role in any given case — i.e., not very likely — but you really can't overestimate how prone inexperienced or merely frustrated investigators were to grasping at the satanic straw 30 or 40 years ago.

It’s a handsomely made and compelling four hours, all of which dropped on Netflix overnight; I recommend it highly. — SDB

The Peabody Awards announced their 2021 nominees yesterday. It’s probably extremely uncharitable of me to hope out loud that their vetting process has tightened up since the Caliphate imbroglio, but I can only be what I am.

Anyway, relevant properties for our purposes include documentaries Athlete A, Atlanta’s Missing & Murdered, Belly of the Beast, and Time; podcast Unfinished: Deep South; and news stories on Breonna Taylor, George Floyd, and “needless deaths in Minnesota jails.”

And…also Ted Lasso and I May Destroy You! Lots I need to catch up on here, though with Karina Longworth dropping a new season of You Must Remember This, I don’t know when I’ll get to any of it… — SDB

You’re probably accustomed to thinking that drugs in baseball means steroids, period, but does the death of Anaheim Angels pitcher Tyler Skaggs almost two years ago suggest that the sport — like the rest of the country — has an opioid problem? I confess it’s not a possibility I’d given much thought; these are, after all, pro athletes, and this particular breed of self-destruction seems a little off-brand. But at the same time, I became a baseball fan in the ’80s, of a team with Dwight Gooden on it, and even non-fans probably know what a Steve Howe reference means…not to mention that opioids are painkillers. I’m not naive, but there’s so much other baseball stuff to rant about.

Nathan Fenno’s grim L.A. Times longread from last week digs into the Skaggs tragedy, including the fall from grace of Eric Kay, the Angels communications director who’s headed to the courtroom this summer to face charges for procuring the fentanyl and oxycodone that led to Skaggs’s OD-ing.

And it sure as hell sounds like Skaggs isn’t an outlier; his death, perhaps, but the contact with this particular class of drug?

Kay’s trial has been repeatedly delayed, including because one of his attorneys contracted COVID-19. The trial is now scheduled to start Aug. 16. Among the cache of evidence are 24,000 pages of records — including from law enforcement, telephones, finances and medical care — plus 185 gigabytes of email files. The evidence also includes interviews with witnesses who are “professional athletes and/or otherwise affiliated with Major League Baseball in various capacities,” and “sensitive information related to other investigations.”

Skaggs’s family is still considering a lawsuit, presumably for wrongful death, and officials said the DEA’s investigation is still active, so even more could come out about how endemic the problem is or isn’t in MLB.

Hat tip to Craig Calcaterra, whose excellent Cup Of Coffee newsletter alerted me to the story yesterday, and who reported a piece on opioids in baseball for NBC Sports in October of 2019. The six baseball insiders Calcaterra talked to included former players, former front-office guys, and an agent, and it doesn’t sound like Skaggs’s using was either a rarity or a surprise. As to why MLB and/or teams haven’t addressed it more forcefully,

[an “industry source”] suggested that this is less about teams blatantly ignoring opioid addiction as much as it was about them not truly grasping its seriousness or knowing where, specifically, to draw the line on illegal drug use. Part of what blurs those lines: the Joint Drug Agreement makes no distinctions between the various “Drugs of Abuse” it lists, despite the fact that there is a pretty big difference between the drugs that are banned.

The industry source, the agent and a second former front office executive with whom I spoke told me that marijuana — which, at least as far as the JDA is concerned, is placed on the same level as opioids as a “Drug of Abuse” — is ubiquitous in Major League Baseball. 

Later in the piece, the agent “was critical” of the resources available to players who might struggle with addiction or benefit from a diversion-type set-up short of an official report-and-rehab proceeding. Most of Calcaterra’s sources “are pessimistic that the league will take the tragedy that befell Skaggs [in 2019] to heart and truly learn from past mistakes as opposed to hoping that the matter blows over.” Without delivering a stemwinder on the fact that MLB appears at the moment to be run by people who actively dislike the sport, and are more concerned with merchandising and not getting sued than with the sanctity of the game and the safety of its players…I’d have to agree. Why try to confront a problem that might make a union shop steward yell at you when you can fuck up free baseball by putting a runner on second like everyone’s eight years old? — SDB

I don’t know how I got this far in this line of critical work without having actually read Buzz Bissinger’s Vanity Fair piece about Stephen Glass, but I have now closed that gap, and in the event that you also need to do so, here it is. And here’s a snip, in case Bissinger’s name conjures only 1) spending sprees at leather stores or 2) Bissinger ripping a spluttering strip off Will Leitch, because all we used to know about him is that he could write…which is what everyone thought about Glass for a while:

He was hardly the first to make up stories. Janet Cooke had done it in 1980 in a Pulitzer Prize–winning piece for The Washington Post. Nik Cohn, 21 years after the fact, blithely admitted to having made up most of the New York story that inspired the film Saturday Night Fever. More recently, Boston Globe columnist Patricia Smith was fired for making up parts of her columns. But none of these journalists approached the sheer calculation of Glass’s deceptions. He is the perfect expression of his time and place: an era is cresting in Washington; it is a time when fact and fiction are blurred not only by writers eager to score but also by presidents and their attorneys, spinmeisters and special prosecutors. From one perspective, Stephen Glass was a master parodist of his city’s shifting truths.

Okay, the word “spinmeisters” dates this a bit, but the piece is excellent. I also went down a Google rabbithole seeing what Glass has gotten up to in the last quarter century. Did you know that the committees of bar examiners in not one but TWO states have refused to certify his bar-exam results based on “moral fitness” tests — and that, in California, this resulted in a lengthy appeals battle, which Glass lost? (Does this seem to anyone else like BBWAA voters sniffily pointing to the Baseball Hall Of Fame morals clause vis-a-vis guys like Roger Clemens when guys like Cap Anson — whom I once described as “patrolling the color barrier with a caulking gun” — have been in for decades?) — SDB

Thursday on Best Evidence: Elizabeths Olsen and Holmes.

What is this thing? This should help. Follow Best Evidence @bestevidencefyi on Twitter and Instagram. You can also call or text us any time at 919-75-CRIME.