White Bear Lake · Peachtree · Bombshell

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We’re continuing to look at undersung Edgar Award nominees with the help of Susan Howard. Today’s entry comes from 1991…

A Death in White Bear Lake: The True Chronicle of an All-American Town by Barry Siegel (Edgar Award Nominee for Best Fact Crime in 1991) is now available “free” for Amazon Prime customers. This meticulously researched tome (clocking in at 544 pages) deserves a spot on your to-read list and in the canon of true-crime classics…but it’s an extremely painful and sobering read, detailing horrific child abuse and the systems that failed over and over again to protect the victims of a chronic abuser.

On Palm Sunday, 1965, a little boy named Dennis Jurgens was murdered by his adoptive mother Lois Jurgens in White Bear Lake, MN. It took 21 years to bring the perpetrator to justice and this only happened because Dennis’s birth mother challenged investigators to re-open the case, relentlessly hounded prosecutors to hold Lois to account, and used the media expertly to force action.

A Death in White Bear Lake is about this crime, yes. But it’s also about a lot of other things: the emergence of medical research around child abuse, a twisted version of the bystander effect (when members of a community are well aware a crime is happening and yet still do nothing), attitudes toward adoption and how it colors our views of abuse, and those systemic failures. Failures at every level…from public welfare agencies, private charities, psychiatry, the medical field, the police, the courts. It goes on and on.

Siegel is able to deftly weave these threads together. The book only lags when he leans a little too heavily into the machinations of small-town life: White Bear Lake’s quest to be named an All-American City, and the line of succession for the head of the local Chamber of Commerce, for instance.

What works best is Siegel’s unpacking of society’s attitudes toward child abuse and how they evolved between the time of Dennis’s death and when Lois finally faced punishment. Landmark medical research gave a name to “battered child syndrome,” a concept that provided a framework for doctors to recognize the significance of what were before mysterious and unexplainable childhood injuries. Advances were also made in the perception of child abusers. There was a tendency and desire in this era to believe that child abusers were psychotic. Much more distressing is the realization that sane, seemingly moral and upstanding citizens could subject their children to such atrocities. In addition, the research bore out what is now the commonly accepted understanding that abuse begets abuse and that most abusers suffered at the hands of their own parents. The perception that child abuse couldn’t be proven without eyewitness testimony also eroded over time, removing the legal barriers to effective prosecution of child-abuse cases.

Lois reads to this armchair psychiatrist like a pretty obvious sufferer of Borderline Personality Disorder. But she clearly didn’t fit the framework of diagnoses known to the psychiatrists who observed her in the 1960s. Nor, tragically, did Dennis’s case fit within the boundaries of the legal system at the time.  

There is a lot more to unpack in A Death at White Bear Lake: the potential cover-up of the crime by local police (including the role of Lois’ own cop brother), the four additional kids that Lois was able to adopt after Dennis’s death and the hell they went through, the co-dependency of her husband Harold and what he did and did not see, the bravery of those who did stand up for Dennis, and the haunting question of whether this community was simply negligent or consciously condoned horrific child abuse in their midst. Highly recommended. – Susan Howard

A dramatic adaptation of the true crime tale of porn king Mike Thevis is moving forward. Thevis made his millions on peep show machines (think season one of The Deuce) and in 1970, “fatally shot a former employee turned rival peep machine manufacturer in an Atlanta warehouse filled with dildos and dirty magazines,” The Daily beast reported back in 2017.

Director Anthony Maras (Hotel Mumbai) tells Deadline that he’s been obsessed with the yarn for years, saying “my team and I unearthed thousands of pages of documents and dozens of eyewitness testimonies. We lodged FOI requests for government case files. We sifted through endless boxes of archives in Atlanta — it was just a treasure trove of riches for a storyteller.” He’s since struck a deal to write and direct a film based on the case, for which he “put together a monumental research dossier,” one of the movie’s backers says. Here’s a nice cache of photos of Thevis, who do you think they’ll case in the role? -- EB

I love it when a website can marry trend-focused clickbait with service reporting. I think Slate does this really well in general, and one of my favorite features of theirs is their “what’s fact and what’s fiction?” offering. This comes in especially handy today, when we’re looking at two dramatic adaptations of films with true crime elements: Richard Jewell and Bombshell, the movie about Fox News.

I’m unlikely to see Jewell due to all the jerkiness surrounding it, so I appreciated having Violet Kim’s breakdown of other elements in the film. I still do kind of want to see Bombshell, so though I know the bones of the case I’m going to hold off on reading Heather Schwedel’s comparison of prose v poetry in the film until after I watch. -- EB

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Monday on Best Evidence: What true crime pod is your state’s favorite?

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