Various Texas Killing Things · RIP, HLN · The Teacher's Pet
Plus: Danny Masterson's reboot
“Guess we’re just lettin’ the Chippendales pile up in the sink?” Sarah asked yesterday, and for me the answer is “yeah, I guess.” I still can’t figure out why I’m so tepid on the Hulu series, which is being released weekly like how TV was in the olden days. I like Murray Bartlett and Kumail Nanjiani, I like naked guys, and I like crime, but I just can’t get it up for Welcome to Chippendales. Anyone else having the same issue?
So this weekend I’m way more interested in the newly released Crime Scene: The Texas Killing Fields. This is the third outing in the Crime Scene series for Netflix, a mixed-result true crime effort from Ron Howard, Brian Grazer and Joe Berlinger. We’ve discussed the Times Square and Cecil Hotel seasons here before — they were B- to C+ quality-wise, but I was always engaged. So they have me for this one on that basis alone.
Another reason is the IMBD intel, which drops the tidbit that journalist Skip Hollandsworth appears in all three episodes. Hollandsworth’s the Texas Monthly longform writer who in 1999 penned the arguably definitive piece on the decades-long series of slayings along 1-45.
TM brought the item back from its archives, likely because they knew the doc was coming, and it holds up surprisingly well for its age. This is to Hollandsworth’s credit: he was doing prestige true crime before the term existed. I mean, read just these two grafs and tell me you’re not sucked in:
Is it possible that Robert Abel is a cold, calculating murderer, one who is consumed by a twisted need to prey on young women but also patient enough to wait years between attacks—and smart enough to leave almost no clues behind? Or is he a victim of overzealous police work and outright hysteria? For several weeks I tried to learn the truth about a brilliant but sometimes baffling man who, as one FBI agent told me, “is not your average social encounter.” During that time, I headed down to the killing fields to see if Tim Miller—who had become so frustrated with the police’s inaction that he had launched his own investigation—was going to find more bodies, as he had predicted, or whether he was merely chasing ghosts.
As it turned out, this was indeed a ghost story, but not the kind that I or anyone else really expected—for just as the sun was setting that August afternoon, a few of the dogs went into a frenzy, barking and pawing anxiously at one particular clump of dirt. “Something’s down there,” Miller shouted as people came running with their flashlights. “Something’s down there!”
A lot has happened regarding the case since 1999, including the increasing prominence of another suspect, Clyde Hedrick. But as anyone who has followed this story knows, these cases are still unsolved, which means I might be setting myself up for dissatisfaction/disappointment as the series tries to conjure up a resolution without one in real life. But, oh well, it’s only three episodes. It’s worth the chance, I think.
So that’s me — what about you? What true crime is on your docket this weekend? Let’s hear it. — EB
Outlets like CNN and the NYT have nice accountings of what happened with the high-profile rape case this week, and I encourage you to read both: in short, the jury started deliberation on Nov. 15, deadlocked three days later, and threw the towel in this week. L.A.’s district attorney “will now consider our next steps as it relates to prosecuting this case,” he said via statement, so we’ll see if my old SF buddy George Gascón is ready to take another run.
In an analysis piece from MSNBC’s Danny Cevallos, the legal analyst argues that the decision to keep Masterson off the stand likely saved the day, as “a criminal defendant might inadvertently ‘open the door’ to harmful evidence that otherwise would be inadmissible.” Cevallos elaborates:
Imagine Masterson had taken the stand and, under cross-examination, lost his composure just a little. Not that he completely imploded, like Col. Nathan Jessup did on the witness stand in the classic trial film “A Few Good Men.” Instead, suppose he mentioned something seemingly innocuous like: “I’m a good guy. I’m not a violent guy.” Sounds harmless enough, but under the rules of evidence, he might as well have stepped on a claymore mine.
It’s an interesting, counter-intuitive argument based on what we’ve been fed through crime fiction. According to Cevallos, since that “keep Masterson quiet” strategy worked once, we can expect to see it if prosecutors move forward on a criminal case again. — EB
Everyone who listened to the The Teacher’s Pet podcast knows the name Chris Dawson, the Australian former high school teacher who’s been suspected of killing his wife Lynette since her 1982 disappearance, allegedly so he could better pursue a relationship with their kids’ teenage babysitter.
Though a 2003 inquest advised charges against Dawson in his wife’s presumed death, prosecutors declined to move on the case until the 2018 podcast, which cast new light on the case. He was convicted of Lynette’s death in August, and was sentenced today to 24 years in prison. "We really didn't believe this day would ever come,” Lynette’s brother, Greg Simms said following the sentencing. “What we need now is to find Lyn and put her to rest." Dawson is 74, which means he’ll first be eligible for parole when he’s 92. Meanwhile, The Teacher’s Pet hasn’t dropped an episode since its wildly popular run in 2018, but with resolution in the case, perhaps we’ll hear just a bit more. — EB
It appears to be the end of a true-crime era at CNN. CNN spin-off HLN began its broadcast life in 1982 as CNN2, a more bite-sized version of the flagship station. Over the years, it morphed into “Headline News,” then HLN, first presenting news that was trending on social media then by 2016, transitioning again to a true crime-heavy slate of programming.
It looks like that stage in HLN’s lifecycle is over, too, based on the news coming from CNN Thursday: per Oliver Darcy, who works at the outlet, new CEO Chris Licht said that CNN “will no longer produce live programming for HLN,” and will start dupli-broadcasting more of CNN mothership work.
While it’s true that HLN has always leaned hard on the rerun game, it has been home to occasionally ambitious original true crime programming like How It Really Happened, Beyond Reasonable Doubt, and the true crime-adjacent hypochondria enabler Something’s Killing Me. “A number of popular correspondents and journalists were terminated” from HLN yesterday, as well, Variety reports, with names likely trickling out as the day goes on. — EB
You can decide Sarah’s last review topic of 2022. Yes, you! You know the drill by now, I suspect: vote in the poll, Sarah will consume the winner and send out her analysis to all paid subscribers right before the milestone-marking ball drops in Times Square. (Since Sarah lives in New York, I assume she goes to the Times Square ball drop every year, as all city residents do!) [“llol” — SDB]
Right now, I’m dismayed to see that the two most San Francisco titles are trailing behind in favor of Murder One, I might have to log in from a few different IP addresses to rectify that (jk jk). But, seriously, things are close enough that a few votes can sway things one way or another, so get on it! — EB
“If you haven’t read this 1995 Bissinger dispatch, well, it’s good.” That’s author/BE faithful Elon Green, who swooped into my inbox like some true crime fairy godparent yesterday just as I realized I didn’t have a longread to leave you with today.
The piece he’s referring to is “The Killing Trail,” a Feb 1995 Vanity Fair piece from Buzz Bissinger about a spate of Texas slayings by teen males; “eight brutal murders in Texas that echo the bloody heyday of the Ku Klux Klan. But the victims are not black; they are homosexual men who are being stalked, terrorized, and killed.”
This is three years before Matthew Shepard would be gay-bashed to death in rural Wyoming, and the killings happened right around when Brandon Teena was raped and killed in Nebraska, yet these cases (at least, to my limited knowledge as a wastrel 24-year-old when this VF piece ran) didn’t achieve the same level of national attention, despite this glossy mag take. (Elon, if you’re reading, we’d love to hear why you think that is.)
The piece is very classic VF of that era, brutal and poetic by turns. and it doesn’t age completely perfectly (nor have I in the intervening 27 — jesus christ — years), but Elon’s right. It’s good. Here’s a snip to send you off on your weekend:
The trail leaves the Baptist belt of East Texas and stretches its fingers for 400 miles into the mesquite and dry dust of West Texas, where an 18-year-old named Ramsey Blake Harrell is tried in Midland in February 1994 for the killing of a 48-year-old gay hairstylist named Tommy Musick. Musick was shot four times in the back of the head. Harrell’s defense, according to testimony in the case, is that he went insane after Musick allegedly made persistent sexual advances toward a friend. During the trial, much is made of Musick’s lifestyle, the way he carried a “purse,” the fact that he had a lover. A jury finds Harrell guilty of shooting Tommy Musick, then sentences him to 12 years, meaning that he could be in prison as little as 3 years, less than one year for every shot fired.
The trail leaves the West Texas prairie and moves 300 miles southeast over oil fields and high-school football fields and the thick bluebonnets of the Hill Country to San Antonio, where the newspaper, the Express-News, decides to publish the names of men who have been arrested in city parks on misdemeanor charges such as public lewdness and indecent exposure. One man on the list is suddenly fired from the job where he has worked for 13 years. Another is hauled into court by his ex-wife, who succeeds in changing their custody agreement so that he is allowed only supervised visitation with his children. Another man named by the newspaper, Benny Hogan, has just started a new “dream” job in San Antonio as an insurance adjuster. All his life, until June 2, when his name is published, Hogan has kept his sexual preference private from family and close friends. On June 5, as nearly 12,000 people celebrate Gay Pride Sunday in San Antonio, Benny Hogan hangs himself in his garage.
Next week on Best Evidence: More fun with Joe Berlinger quotes.