Archives for posts with tag: True crime

begone I don’t usually read true-crime books. The genre has never really appealed to me. The ways in which human beings can be awful leaves me lying awake at night as it is. But, as the internet makes the world ever more connected, it seems like these sorts of stories pop up on every form of social media I use. So, of course I heard about Michelle McNamara’s book. With rave reviews from the likes of Stephen King and an introduction written by Gillian Flynn, I decided to brave I’LL BE GONE IN THE DARK.

There are two stories in I’ll Be Gone in the Dark. One is the story of the Golden State Killer. The second, the story of Michelle McNamara. When she was a teenager, a girl in her neighborhood was killed. The murder went unsolved and McNamara was troubled by the idea that the killer was somewhere out there, unpunished. McNamara became a crime blogger, using TrueCrimeDiary.com to explore cold cases alongside other online amateur sleuths. When she came upon the story of the Golden State Killer, an obsession was born.

From 1974 through 1986, the Golden State Killer (GSK; the term was coined by McNamara) terrorized neighborhoods in Northern California, primarily Sacramento county. For years, law enforcement believed that there were three distinct criminals operating in the area: the Visalia Ransacker, the East Area Rapist, and the Original Night Stalker (not to be confused with Night Stalker Richard Ramirez). The truth, however, was that these were all the crimes of one man: the Golden State Killer.

The connection between these crimes would not be discovered until the invention of DNA testing. When samples from the seemingly unconnected offenses were entered into CODIS, the federal DNA database, the full range of GSK’s crimes became apparent. A particular genetic peculiarity made the DNA samples easy to connect. His offenses had, over the years, escalated from mere break-ins to rape and murder.

The Golden State Killer was meticulous in his planning. He would survey not just individuals, but entire neighborhoods for weeks at a time before striking. Often, he would call potential victims in what were assumed to be prank calls. He operated on terror, often taking hours to complete his intrusions. Even years later, he would call his living victims and whisper threats to them. Police had very few clues to go on.

I don’t want to write too much about the individual events described in I’ll Be Gone in the Dark. In many ways, the actions of the Golden State Killer aren’t the focus of the story that McNamara tells. McNamara’s writing breathes life into the places and people associated with GSK. She spends more time discussing the lives of the victims than the actual crimes, which makes them feel less like characters in a gruesome play and more like the people they were.

While McNamara doesn’t go into extreme detail about the offenses committed by GSK, the overall tone of the book is haunting. In fact, one night after I had gone to bed, one of my cats shoved open the bedroom door to join me. A fairly common occurrence, to be sure, but this time I had to choke back a scream. For an instant, I was sure that the Golden State Killer had burst into the room. I laid awake for a long while.

McNamara shares the histories of the places and people involved, building the world of Northern California so that it almost becomes a character on its own. As with many true-crime books, there are pictures included. But these are not grisly procedural shots. Instead, McNamara included pictures of some of the GSK victims and law enforcement professionals associated with the case. These portraits help preserve the dignity of those affected by these horrific crimes.

On April 24, the Sacramento County Sheriff’s Department arrested Joseph James DeAngelo for the GSK CRIMEs. You can find plenty of news stories about him with a quick Internet search. The most shocking aspect of DeAngelo’s arrest? He had worked as a police officer. More details will surely be forthcoming, but it seems likely that GSK has in fact been caught.

Sadly, McNamara passed away before her book was published, but her husband, actor Patton Oswalt, helped see her dream come true. I’ll Be Gone in the Dark is masterfully written, tying together the author’s life and the series of horrific crimes committed by the Golden State Killer. Gripping but not gruesome, McNamara’s book is one I would recommend for true-crime lightweights like myself.

True crime is not my favorite genre but how could a librarian pass up a book titled “Murder in the Stacks”? The complete title of this whodunit by David DeKok is Murder in the Stacks: Penn State, Betsy Aardsma, and the Killer Who Got Away.

In the library world, stacks are the rows of shelving that hold a library’s books. In 1969 Penn State’s library had thousands of stacks, many in dark secluded spaces. It was a security nightmare for library administration. Graduate student, Betsy Aardsma, went into those dark secluded stacks Thanksgiving weekend and came out on a gurney. Her killer was never identified.

The author grew up in the same town as Aardsma — Holland, Michigan — and graduated from the same high school six years after Betsy. Fascinated by the unsolved murder, he wrote an investigative piece for the Harrisburg newspaper in 2008 — just before the 40th anniversary of the murder.

In his story, DeKok wrote about how he had amassed enough clues to implicate a killer. That suspect died before the book was published; people didn’t come forward while the suspect was alive. A cold-case officer told Aardsma that they had the killer, but state police never charged him.

However, this is more than the story of a crime. It is dual biographies of an innocent victim and a predator without a conscience. It is also a cultural history of an institution and of a turbulent time in the history of the country.

all of 1969 from the University of Michigan, ironically, to escape the Coed Killer who targeted brunette coeds at Michigan universities. Love was another draw to Pennsylvania. Boyfriend David Wright was enrolled at the medical school in Hershey.

After spending Thanksgiving in Hershey with David, Betsy returned to Penn State to work on an English paper. Several of her classmates were also venturing into the gloomy stacks of the library.  Not long after Betsy turned down an aisle looking for a book a thump was heard, followed by a crash and the sound of books hitting the floor.

Three people close to the area saw a man run from the aisle. He slowed long enough to tell them “someone had better help that girl”. Joao Uafinda thought the running man was going for help and followed him.  He soon lost him and went home.

Richard Allen saw what was happening and could provide a general description of the man but he did not offer assistance. Only Betsy’s classmate Marilee Erdely ventured into the aisle to check on the girl who needed help.

Marilee found Betsy lying motionless in a pile of books. Kneeling beside Betsy she began straightening Betsy’s hair and dress and putting books back on the shelf. Her cry for help was answered by library staff who began CPR and checked for a pulse. The assumption by them and the ambulance attendants who responded was fainting or a seizure.

The stab wound through Betsy’s chest into her heart was not discovered until after she had been pronounced dead.  Meanwhile the library staff returned the books to the shelf and had a janitor clean up the mess. Campus police had responded to the call for help but made no attempt to secure the scene or the library.

Chief of criminal investigation for the Pennsylvania State Police Rockview Barracks, Sergeant George Keibler, was recalled from vacation to take the case. He began a decade’s long search for a killer with virtually no evidence, no murder weapon, and no reliable witnesses.

The social unrest on campus, against the Vietnam War and the lack of diversity at the university, complicated an already challenging case.  Plus Penn State officials didn’t seem to care about finding the killer; they just wanted it out of the headlines.

The description of the investigation gives us a glimpse of how a criminal investigation was done fifty years ago. Betsy’s life and that of her named killer are detailed showing a stark contrast between an all-American girl and a man portrayed as a psychopathic pedophile.

This isn’t a lock your doors, sleep with your lights on true crime thriller. It is a detailed, thoughtful examination of an unsolved case. However, if only one or two citizens had come forward at any point, it may have been a case solved by Sergeant Keibler.

  As I was browsing the library’s list of new materials for March, True Story: Murder, Memoir, Mea Culpa by Michael Finkel caught my attention.

The summary begins “In February 2002, a reporter in Oregon contacts New York Times Magazine writer Michael Finkel with a startling piece of news: a young, highly intelligent man named Christian Longo, on the FBI’s Ten Most Wanted list for killing his entire family, has recently been captured in Mexico, where he’d taken on a new identity–Michael Finkel’s.”.

I was intrigued. How does someone react to the news that a fugitive on the Ten Most Wanted list is impersonating them? Finkel’s reaction was flattered (a little), curious, and relief for the distraction.

Finkel had just become an ex-writer for the New York Times Magazine and was awaiting the vilification he’d receive when the announcement was made. He created a character from people he interviewed for an investigative piece on cocoa plantations and child slavery. Finkel used the name of one of the interviewees, Youssouf Male, just not his story and got caught.

After the story of his deception and firing had played itself out Finkel reached out to Christian Longo, asking for a chance to talk. A month later Longo called.

Thus began a years long relationship between Finkel and Longo. With Longo incarcerated their communications were by letter, weekly phone calls, and rare face to face meetings separated by a wall of glass.

Finkel knew that having an exclusive on Chris Longo’s story might save his career. What he didn’t know was that getting to know Longo would force him to examine his own character and the choices he’d made.

This book is a mix of true crime, biography and confession/apology. The narrative switches back and forth between Longo and Finkel. Finkel’s part begins with the assignment to write the cocoa plantations piece.

The story was a hot topic and many news agencies were in West Africa covering it. But as Finkel delved deeper he discovered the issue was not slavery but extreme poverty. Children came willingly to work because as bad as it was on the plantations it was better than home.

After 3 weeks he came home with a different story than what was assigned. His editor approved the new storyline but wanted a human interest angle. He needed to tell the story through one character. Finkel agreed to do the story without admitting that he hadn’t conducted the interview needed to write the story through one person.

Longo’s tale begins in Oregon with the discovery of the bodies of his son, 5-year-old Zachery, and daughter, 3 ½-year-old Sadie. The bodies of his wife, MaryJane, and 2-year-old daughter Madison were found a few days later. By the time the bodies were discovered and identified Chris Longo had fled to San Francisco and from there to Mexico.

In Mexico, Christian Longo became Michael Finkel, reporter for the New York Times. He made no attempt to hide other than the name change and was friendly with fellow tourists. He was memorable to many including a Canadian tourist who, on the day that he was placed on the FBI’s wanted list, reported seeing him in Cancun. Two days later he was arrested and returned to Oregon to be tried on 4 counts of murder.

Many of the details about Longo’s movements after the murders and his time in Mexico are provided by him. He wrote and sent to Finkel thousands of pages about his life before and after the deaths of his wife and children.

Finkel came to like Chris Longo even as he was using him to get a story. And Longo was using Finkel – to see how his story was received and to refine the parts Finkel questioned. Longo, Finkel realized, was a good liar and he saw some of himself in Longo.

This is an intriguing and disturbing tale. Finkel makes Chris Longo come alive and he is unsparing about both of their failures. As the story moves through Longo’s life and the murder trial I was reminded why I usually avoid true crime books. I prefer to read about murder as fiction not fact. I sleep better at night.