Veritas · Cocaine & Rhinestones · West Cork

Plus Jeffrey MacDonald, Johnny Rodriguez, and a tragic bank robber

Jeffrey MacDonald’s request for compassionate release was rejected last week. MacDonald “has claimed factual innocence,” per Paul Woolverton’s USA Today Network explainer, but after withdrawing two petitions for parole in 2020, he changed tacks to compassionate release; Judge Terrence Boyle ruled that MacDonald isn’t eligible. Here’s why:

The compassionate release law allows some federal prisoners over age 70 to get out of prison under certain circumstances, such as if they have served at least 30 years of their sentences or there are extraordinary and compelling reasons.

The compassionate release law doesn’t apply to MacDonald, Boyle said, because MacDonald was sentenced under an older sentencing law that has provisions for parole. The compassionate release law applies only to inmates whose crimes took place on or after Nov. 1, 1987, Boyle said, and who were sentenced under a newer law that replaced traditional parole with supervised release.

As I said last month when arguments were heard on the issue, I don’t really have a dog in this hunt. I think four decades of MacDonald not being able to manipulate the situation to his advantage is probably sufficient misery for that specific narcissist, and I highly doubt he’s a threat to public safety; I also think he’s guilty as the day is long, and the ferocity of the beatings he’s guilty of means I have zero problem with him dying inside.

I also also think Judge Boyle could not wait to punt on these conveniently-available inverse-grandfather grounds, and that Boyle’s clerks were instructed in no uncertain terms to find a lengthy procedural road down which to kick this can. I am not an attorney, and my sense that Boyle could have considered the merits under the spirit of the statute instead its letter is only that. Nor do I blame the guy. Just saying, it’s expedient. — SDB

It’s Monday, so that means another review from Susan of one of the Mystery Writers of America’s 2021 Edgar Award nominees for Best Fact Crime. We wrap up our look at the list with Veritas: A Harvard Professor, A Con Man, and the Gospel of Jesus’s Wife by Ariel Sabar.

In September 2012, Harvard Divinity School professor and historian Dr. Karen King announced a remarkable discovery to a gathering of scholars in Rome. She had come upon an ancient Christian text — which she dubbed The Gospel of Jesus’s Wife — that purported to upend the settled tradition of a celibate Jesus. If accepted as genuine, the papyrus meant that some early Christians believed Jesus was married to Mary Magdalene. King didn’t show the experts photos or the manuscript itself, written on papyrus in the Egyptian script known as Coptic, and thus the announcement immediately triggered questions among her peers as well as the press.

In Veritas: A Harvard Professor, A Con Man, and the Gospel of Jesus’s Wife, investigative journalist Ariel Sabar chronicles the mysterious provenance of the papyrus. It becomes clear rather quickly that Dr. King is less interested in confirming the absolute authenticity of the papyrus than she is in advancing the narrative it supports and that has driven her lifelong scholarship — women’s wrongful exclusion from the Church.

The specter of forgery emerges quickly among the very small and intense subculture of code-breakers and sleuths dedicated to translating the Coptic language. It seems clear that whoever is behind the papyrus copied from manuscripts available online and then, in an attempt to cover his tracks, introduced small changes. Meanwhile, Dr. King is steadfast that testing shows the papyrus fragment is genuine, and has her work peer-reviewed and published in Harvard Theological Review.

Sabar’s detective work is really impressive, as he takes the very few details Dr. King is willing to offer up about the identity of the man who presented the papyrus to her and runs with them. Determining the provenance of an object requires a trail of dates, places, buyers, and sellers. Through painstaking research, Sabar is able to not only find the papyrus’s owner (a South Florida man with a wild past named Walter Fritz), but to prove that none of the evidence Fritz provided to support the authenticity of the papyrus is genuine. There are lots of surprises along the way, but like so many other con men in history, Fritz has a talent for mirroring other people’s beliefs and desires.

As I was reading Veritas, my mind jumped to Mark Hofmann, master forger who targeted the Mormon faith that disillusioned him. Sabar draws parallels between Hofmann and Fritz, particularly in the way Hofmann would lean into a kind of deferential cluelessness that allowed his targets to feel more secure in their own interpretation of what they were seeing. Fritz seemed to play Dr. King in a similar way.

The con man as a shape-shifter is a well-worn trope these days. What’s fascinating about the con at the center of Veritas is how precise and specific it was. Dr. King’s credibility in her field brought a level of credence to the papyrus discovery, while the content of the manuscript aligned perfectly with her scholarship. In hitching herself to the papyrus, Dr. King found a hook for her own viability and survival during a time of change within her institution.

Veritas is a great con story, but it’s also a fascinating rumination on theology, academia, and the tension between fact and faith. — Susan Howard

Our esteemed colleague Margaret Howie tipped us to this immediately gripping longread on Steve Carroll, exec turned bank robber. Jeff Gottlieb, writing for Truly*Adventurous on Medium, had me at the title, “Death of a Really Good Salesman,” which is one of those “har har…actually, dang, that keeps unfolding” heds you have to admire. Here’s the relatable snip that grabbed me, an utterly recognizable intra-familial reaction to an utterly bizarre set of circs:

“Dude you’re not going to freaking believe this,” John told him as he emailed him a link to one of the photos pinging around the internet. Scott opened the link and agreed it sure looked like Steve, but he offered that maybe it was just someone who resembled him. Another brother, Bob, came on the line and directed them to photos taken from different angles. There was no question: The man robbing the bank was their brother-in-law, their sister’s husband of 36 years. Scott even recognized the Bersa Thunder 380 pistol, which he’d given his sister as a gift. The Foster Grant sunglasses were familiar, too, a present from Scott to Steve the previous Christmas.

The piece doubles back from there into a secret family, Diet Cokes filched from a corporate breakroom, “Santas who couldn’t act” (you’ll see), and a belchy DUI before landing back at the stick-up. The graphics are haunting, and the prose hums right along; check it out. — SDB

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In a discussion thread about the true crime/popular music Venn from just about a year ago, a handful of us started lamenting the lack of a second season from breakout forgotten-history-of-20th-century-country podcast Cocaine & Rhinestones. Welp, wait’s over! Creator Tyler Mahan Coe teased the second season last week; as noted by reader Amanda, it is in fact about George Jones, and having finally caught up on Ken Burns’s country-music project in the last couple weeks, I’m especially excited for Coe to dig into the honey-voiced tragedy that was the ex-Mr. Wynette. (Coe is making all of his Patreon behind-the-scenes episodes available “to the general public,” too.) Season 2 kicks off Tuesday, April 20.

If you want to (re-)listen to the first season, you can do that right here (or wherever you get your pods) — or read the transcripts of each episode/dig into the reference materials, which may explain why it’s taken Coe three-plus years to return with new content. (Folks who don’t make podcasts may not entirely grasp how many hours of prep and post go into the average half-hour of listening, even if you’re not providing deep-tissue auxiliary materials like Coe’s, and for a single-narrator cultural-history pod like Coe’s or Karina Longworth’s — in which case IME you can multiply the time investment by at least two. Coe is not the cuddliest creator when it comes to responding to various “…it’s in the FAQ”/GTFY inquiries but the prickliness is understandable.)

Speaking of Longworth, if you sort of glazed over this entry because you’ll listen about almost any true-crime story but you draw the line at the guit steel, give C&R a try anyway; if you like You Must Remember This, C&R has the same immersive quality — and Coe’s native…asperity, I guess, serves his narration well in my opinion. (I could have sworn I reviewed the pod on The Blotter Presents back in the day and made more or less that same comment, but I’m damned if I can find it in the archives. If anyone turns it up, drop a link!)

And speaking of the Burns series, here’s a link to a story that Country Music touches on and that Coe doesn’t seem to have covered in C&R’s first season: Johnny Rodriguez’s 1999 acquittal on murder charges. Rodriguez, a Tejano star with a handful of number-one hits who is usually included in country’s “outlaw movement” (Willie; Merle), is still living, although he’s been on the straight and narrow in the ensuing decades (and also stopped marrying people — probably a wise fiscal choice, if nothing else; hee). Back to the Statesman piece about the verdict: this note from prosecutors disputing Rodriguez’s self-defense version of events — “Prosecutors contended that Borrego was merely cooking breakfast, not stealing, when Rodriguez confronted him” — is a country song in and of itself, but you should really read the full article, because the sentences on either side of that one make it a double album. — SDB

West Cork is now available on all platforms. Another of many hat-tips to my esteemed colleague Melissa Locker and her newsletter Pod People, which let me know that the well-regarded podcast on a murder that preoccupied the Irish county in the 1990s “finally got freed from its prison on Audible.” Thanks to Acast, it’s now on most of the larger pod purveyors.

If you’ve already listened, but fancy a deep dive from last year into “the true impact of true crime” that uses West Cork as a case study, here’s Nicola Spendlove’s look at that on, though it’s more a single-source anecdotal snapshot than a “study,” properly speaking. Here’s “Ross” (no last name) reflecting on how West Cork affected a community that, before social media, hadn’t had to contend with the Reddit-herring hunters of the world:

However, the community’s experiences since West Cork’s release has changed the way Ross views true crime as a genre. ‘I used to love Serial [famous true crime podcast]. I can’t listen to it anymore because I think true crime turns criminals into celebrities, and desensitises murder to the point that people now go to murder sites for a holiday and get excited about them. I don’t know what the benefits of true crime are except entertainment if we’re being honest about it’.

Not to put too fine a point on it…and that quote is very neat, isn’t it. Not saying it’s not real! Just…saying. — SDB

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