True Crime

Review: “No One Helped”

“No One Helped”: Kitty Genovese, New York City, and the Myth of Urban Apathy

Marcia M. Gallo

From an early age, I longed for the big city life. Growing up in a sleepy township that didn’t even have sidewalks will do thatNo One Helped to a kid. To dissuade me from fleeing the Rust Belt for bright lights and tall buildings, my parents served up the tale of Kitty Genovese, the New York woman who, in 1964, was famously murdered on a Long Island street while everyone just stood back and watched her die.

It terrified me. In my mind, I envisioned a crowded street, broad daylight, pedestrians having to sidestep this dying stranger as she pleaded with them for help.

It wasn’t difficult to imagine. Though not the best time for New York City, the 1970s and early ’80s was a fruitful period for dystopian cinema set in the metropolis. My impression of the city was shaped entirely by Escape from New York and Fort Apache, the Bronx.

Though the story of a woman left to die on the sidewalk stayed with me, I never actually learned her name until college, when we studied the case in psychology class. Many psychology classes, actually. At the time, the prevailing narrative was still treated as gospel: 38 neighbors watched and did nothing as Winston Moseley assaulted Genovese, left, assaulted her a second time, left, and came back a third time to finish the job.

It’s hard to fathom how this could happen, and of course, it didn’t. At least, not the way it was reported in 1964, and certainly not the way it had been mythologized by the time it reached my ears as a cautionary tale. A more accurate telling was done by Kevin Cook in 2014’s Kitty Genovese: The Murder, the Bystanders, the Crime that Changed America.

The focus of Marcia M. Gallo’s “No One Helped”: Kitty Genovese, New York City, and the Myth of Urban Apathy is not so much on the murder as the social incubator in which the narrative of urban apathy was spawned and evolved — and how, by focusing on the witnesses rather than the victim or perpetrator, Genovese “had been flattened out, whitewashed, re-created as an ideal victim in service to the construction of a powerful parable of apathy.”

The biggest omission from Genovese’s story, writes Gallo, a history professor at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, is that she was a lesbian. Being young, pretty and white made her the perfect media martyr, so details of her romantic preference would have been inconvenient to the “ideal victim” narrative in 1964. As the story of her murder took on a life of its own, she became a nameless victim of urban decay — more of a plot device than a character in her own horror show.

“No One Helped” is on the shorter side, but Gallo deftly packs in a lot of information — and unpacks five decades of history. The chapters are like linked short stories, exploring in turn the history of Kew Gardens and the racial tensions of the time, the changing media landscape and the marketability of an erroneous New York Times article that fumbled the facts but resonated with “white flight” suburbanites.

As for Genovese, Gallo writes, the article “rhetorically reduced her to the chalk outline left on the sidewalk at a crime scene after a body has been removed.”

About those 38 witnesses? Only four were actually called to testify at the trial, and even fewer were aware that Genovese had been stabbed. The Times failed to mention the fact that Moseley’s initial assault was interrupted by a neighbor’s intervention, and his second assault took place in a darkened back hallway beyond the vantage point of any neighbors.

Gallo writes, “In all of the accounts that have followed in the story’s wake, what has rarely been noted is that there is only one actual eyewitness to Genovese’s death. That person is her killer, Winston Moseley.”

In reclaiming Genovese’s identity, Gallo reveals her personal connection to the case. She does so in a tasteful, informative manner, steering clear of navel gazing and drawing attention instead to the resonating significance of the story.

For all the horror of the Genovese murder, and its aftermath, it also gave birth to the 911 emergency response system and community policing efforts. It furthered the movement to reexamine our societal acceptance of intimate partner violence (some witnesses had dismissed the assault as a “lover’s quarrel”).

And it exposed racial bias in crime reporting. Just two weeks earlier, Moseley had assaulted another woman, murdered her and set her on fire. “Significantly, no photographs of Moseley’s earlier victim, Anna Mae Johnson, a young black woman, ever appeared. Within weeks she would fade from most popular versions of the story, as would her killer,” the author writes.

Most of all, for Gallo, the legacy of the Genovese murder still matters “because it raises the central question of how we engage with those around us, individually and collectively, when they need our help.”

Digging beyond the murder and the myth, Gallo has penned a remarkable portrait of Genovese and her enduring legacy a half-century later. Her murder inspired an entire branch of psychology, but perhaps her lasting impact on social science will be the study of media myth-making. No matter the fables and fallacies that have emerged, the impact of Genovese has endured.

I’ve been on the Long Island Railroad, and at the Kew Gardens stop, it’s impossible not to look down at the nondescript parking lot and the neighboring houses, all crammed together, and wonder how this could have happened.

After 50 years, we know it happened differently than we’ve believed, but the true story of the assault is still as brutal and horrifying, if different, than we imagined. Gallo succeeds in redirecting our attention from the “witnesses” to the victim, who became a footnote to the fable. “No One Helped” restores the individual who existed before the chalk outline.

Dispatches from the War on Drugs

Two new books explore the macro and micro effects of failed drug policy

In 1996, Dan Baum published the definitive account of America’s complicated relationship with psychoactive Drugs Unlimitedsubstances. Smoke and Mirrors: The War on Drugs and the Politics of Failure is an exhaustive, apolitical narrative history of the war’s origin, evolution and cost, and though public opinion has changed (a recent Pew Research study found that Americans now favor treatment over prosecution and are against mandatory minimum sentencing by a two-to-one ratio), the book remains an important document of the human toll of the drug war.

I bring up Baum’s work because Drugs Unlimited: The Web Revolution That’s Changing How the World Gets High, by UK journalist Mike Power, is its 21st century bookend. At the time Smoke and Mirrors was penned, the Internet was in its infancy, data transfer rate was measured in kilobytes and computer literacy was limited.

In the decades since, the Web has expanded the chemical landscape, altering which drugs we do, how we acquire them, and in an effort to stay a step ahead of the law, Power writes, producers, suppliers and consumers have shifted into the wildly erratic world of “research chemicals”—legal alternatives to and analogues of illegal compounds sold widely over the Internet.

The consumption of psychoactive plants is nothing new (the earliest known head trip dates back about 13,000 years), but until the 1970s and ’80s, recreational drug users had only a handful of chemicals to choose from. In 1971, the United Nations identified just 234 legal substances; 243 new compounds have been identified in just the past four years.

Accelerated culture, indeed.

These new chemicals are often untested, of shady origin and composition and can be far more lethal than their outlaw counterparts. They’ve also inspired media-invented “epidemics” of bath salts and synthetic marijuana—fueling a digital age reefer madness that keeps drug policy mired in the past.

But Drugs Unlimited is as much about hypertext transfer protocol as politics. The psychonauts who once explored inner-space have journeyed into cyberspace, and the market has moved from the corner to the CPU.

Power’s narrative is thorough and engaging, but at times can be too thorough, particularly when it comes to the chemical names. For example, Power is compelled to include a complete stock list from a chinese distributor, which includes more than 90 compounds with names like 5-MeO-DALT, Methiopropamine (MPA), Fluoromethamphetamine (and its analogues), Desoxypipradrol (2-DPMP) and so on.

Granted, he does this for effect: “Among that unreadable alphabet soup of drug names there are hallucinogens, stimulants, empathogens and cannabinoids. Working out which of them are legal or which have been outlawed in various countries would require thousands of hours of legal time or case law study.”

This certainly helps shed light on the challenges facing consumers and law enforcement, but at times, the emphasis on product names can be overwhelming.

Aside from that, Power crafts an accessible narrative that is one of the most important books of the millennium. What Baum did for the American drug war, Power does for the U.K., from the digital age to the Deep Web.

The Triangle: A Year on the Ground with New York’s Bloods and Crips

Kevin Deutsch

While Drugs Unlimited operates at a broad level, The Triangle goes micro. For a harrowing year, journalist Kevin The TriangleDeutsch shadowed the gang-bangers of Hempstead, Long Island, in a place known as the Linden Triangle—ground zero of a 2012 turf war that turned an already rough neighborhood into a slaughterhouse. Forget the stereotypes of suburban Long Island. Think The Warriors rather than The Great Gatsby.

Dramatically reconstructed from interviews, legal records and first-hand experience, The Triangle is as fast-paced and action-packed as a first-rate thriller—a literary narrative as entertaining as it is troubling. The cast includes leaders, hitters and corner crews from both the Bloods and Crips; the terrorized residents of Hempstead; cops, criminologists and others in the justice system; and a minister who leads midnight prayer groups on the corners.

Deutsch stitches together their stories with a novelist’s skill. He’ll (rightfully) earn high marks in the press for his research and daring, but his ability to manage this Dostoyevskian cast without disrupting the narrative flow is worth noting.

Racial and social problems emerge that are intrinsic to the drug war. Incarceration and surrounding gentrification has turned Hempstead into an island of poverty. The gangs are the biggest employers in the Triangle, and those who would oppose the gangs are financially trapped in their territory.

Deutsch doesn’t give us an easy out. The reader is forced to confront the capriciousness of life in Hempstead, the social and legal conditions that created it and the self-defeating strategies of the gangsters that maintain a vicious status quo.

There is something heroic about the ability to survive in this environment, particularly in defiance of hateful neighbors (one Nassau County government official recommends that they “carpet-bomb Hempstead”: “Let the blacks and Hispanics go back to New York City. They’re better off there. Long Island isn’t that kind of place.”) Yet, Deutsch is wise to avoid romanticizing thug life, and not afraid to reveal the cowardice of its so-called soldiers:

Tyrek, leader of the Crips set, earned his membership by stabbing a pregnant teenager in the stomach. His ace card in the turf war is a suckerpunch, not a fair fight. J-Roc, a rising soldier in the Bloods, talks a big game, but struggles to intimidate a senior citizen. Ice, leader of the Bloods, helps promising kids get an education, yet orders the kidnapping and gang-raping of his rivals’ sisters, girlfriends and mothers.

Sadly, for all the lip service about honor, the Crips and Bloods mostly prey on the vulnerable. The true casualties of this war are the women in the crossfire. “The gangsters see sexual violence as a strategic and tactical weapon, as important to their arsenal as guns and blades,” Deutsch writes in the chapter “Extreme Tactics,” which includes the retaliatory abduction and gang rape of a female Crips employee.

At least the victim, in this case, actually works for the gang. That is not a prerequisite. Flex Butler, a Crips lieutenant, brags about assaulting the 15-year-old sister of a guy who’d stolen $2,000 worth of cocaine.

“‘[He] was hiding from us,’ Flex says. ‘So we got his sister when she was walking home from school. She fought hard, but there was a lot of us.’”

So yeah, these are not sympathetic characters. Deutsch doesn’t condemn, patronize, glorify or victimize, but presents the residents of Hempstead in all their unresolved moral complexity. For the most part, he avoids the cinematic histrionics common to gang narratives. The lone exception is D-Bo, a promising kid whose attempt to escape the corner gets a bit of the Hollywood treatment. Much is made of the timing of a confrontation with his gang (even though he’d been at home for a month), which leads to a chase scene, a misunderstood shooting and a dramatic exchange between the corner boy and the officer who tried to help him escape while awaiting the paramedics.

But I’ll forgive Deutsch this one instance of going for the heart strings. Otherwise, this is an unflinching look at the fear, fame and futility of gang warfare.

Strong writing, compelling characters and front-line reporting make this an entertaining read, but Deutsch’s detached, yet compassionate handling of the material makes The Triangle an important one as well.

Both Drugs Unlimited and The Triangle are worthy books on their own, but for anyone with a love of history, sociology or just damn good journalism, this is a one-two combination that, together, offers a wide perspective of the War on Drugs.

Review: The Perfect Kill

The Perfect Kill

Robert Baer

It was not hard to get me to pick up The Perfect Kill: 21 Laws for Assassins, by former CIA case officer and best-selling The Perfect Killauthor Robert Baer. Advice on how to pull off a flawless assassination? From a CIA insider? Sign me up.

But before you start stockpiling your arsenal, don’t think of The Perfect Kill as a modern-day Anarchist Cookbook. This is an engaging work of military history—an insider’s view of the Middle East through the eyes of an assassin.

The assassin, though, is not Baer, but rather Hajj Radwan (aka Imad Mughniyeh), a notorious Lebanese terrorist affiliated with Hezbollah and the Islamic Jihad Organization. He is the man responsible for the 1983 suicide bombings of the U.S. embassy and marine barracks, and Baer links him to a number of kidnappings, hijackings and assassinations in the 1980s and ’90s.

Despite being an international fugitive (he was on the “most wanted” list of dozens of countries) and the focus of numerous arrest and assassination attempts by the U.S. and Israel, Radwan was able to execute successful terrorist attacks for a quarter-century before being killed by a car bomb in 2008.

His ability to elude justice for so long is frustrating to fans of instant karma, but for an experienced CIA operative (Baer himself was in pursuit of Radwan), he authored a playbook for political murder.

While the subject matter alone is interesting, Baer’s writing makes this a thrilling read from start to finish. He has a narrative voice that is concise, informative and though he occasionally drifts toward the conspiratorial (which isn’t a bad thing), he tempers it by clearly defining what is fact and what is conjecture.

And Baer’s got the bona fides to back it up. He writes for Time and other news outlets; he has produced documentaries for the BBC; and he has authored nonfiction best-sellers like See No Evil and Sleeping with the Devil.

Oh, and George Clooney played Baer in Syriana. Not a bad resume.

Each chapter begins with a “rule” for assassins, such as “The Bastard Has to Deserve It” (Law #1), “Every Act a Bullet or a Shield” (Law #4) and “Nothing Wounded Moves Uphill” (Law #20). Also included are “notes” to help one stick to each law and historical lessons (successful and otherwise) enforcing its importance.

But always, the primary narrative is the chess match between Bear and Radwan, and it is one that spans decades and continents. It’s a fascinating tale, and not surprisingly, the TV rights to the book were sold months before its publication.

I’m excited to see its adaptation, but there’s no substitute for the source. This is a stellar book that is a must-read for fans of history, the Middle East, the military and U.S. foreign policy.

Review: The Mad Sculptor

I first encountered Harold Schechter in the mid-’90s at the (sadly) now-defunct Twice-Loved Books in Youngstown, Ohio. My friend Todd and I would travel there often, lost The Mad Sculptorfor hours among their three floors of books and playing with the occasional store cat.

You would most often find me in the basement, where the true crime section was wedged into a nook behind the stairs. And you would most often find a Schechter book tucked beneath my arm.

I am not only a fan of crime writing, but an advocate. There is a stigma with the genre that I have always felt was undeserved. Even in progressive-minded bookstores like Twice-Loved (where I was able to order first-edition Aleister Crowley tomes in the pre-Internet age), crime reporting was given only subterranean shelf space.

That’s a shame. Crime writers like Schechter are historians, sociologists, documentarians and cultural commentators, and to be relegated to back-shelf status by the literary mainstream is a disservice to the many great writers (and well-informed readers) working in the genre.

I asked Schechter about the breadth of his work in a 2012 interview:

“You can certainly learn as much about a society by which crimes people are obsessed with at a particular time,” he said. “I think, in a general way, the crimes that become national obsessions, that strike a deep communal chord, symbolize the particular cultural anxieties of the moment.”

In the 1920s it was poisoners; in the ’70s Charles Manson personified the worst fears of the counterculture; the ’80s had phantom Satanists and the ’90s belonged to the serial killer; and today we have the rampage shooter.

But in the 1930s, it was the sexual deviant that haunted and titillated the public.

Enter Robert George Irwin, the subject of Schechter’s new book, The Mad Sculptor: The Maniac, The Model, and the Murder that Shook the Nation.

Irwin was a troubled and talented artist whose stunted psychosexual development (and religious obsession) fueled romantic fixations, violent outbursts, numerous hospitalizations and an attempted self-castration. It climaxed with a vicious triple murder in 1937, made all the more newsworthy because one of the victims, Veronica Gedeon, was a pulp magazine cover girl.

That in and of itself would make for a good read, but Schechter is a skilled storyteller and, more importantly, a devoted historian. His research into the man who would become The Mad Sculptor not only unearthed a traumatic upbringing, but also documented the changing post-Depression personality of the Beekman Hill neighborhood where the murders occurred.

Turns out this neighborhood was home to a series of sensational murders a year prior to Irwin’s massacre.

Weaving a wealth of historical documents into a cohesive narrative, Schechter gives us not only the crime and the cultural mindset, but also the role the media played in the tale, from the earliest indictment of an innocent man through fictional jailhouse confessions and a business arrangement with the Chicago Herald-Examiner so shady that it would make Rupert Murdoch cry foul.

In fact, all of the media coverage (including the persistent “blame-the-victim” approach that made a fuss over Gedeon’s modeling career and her father’s fondness for “French art” postcards) makes today’s television news seem downright ethical (well, almost) by comparison.

If I have one critique of The Mad Sculptor, it’s that we don’t learn much about Irwin’s time in prison. We get factual data, such as how long he lived after his conviction, when he died, and such, but not the in-depth reporting showcased in previous chapters.

But in a time when most movies and many books run far too long (only quantum physics can explain why it takes longer to watch The Great Gatsby than it does to read the book), it’s not really a bad thing to say that Schechter could’ve gone on for another hundred pages or so and I would have been with him all the way.

Schechter had a run in the 1990s that would make any writer jealous, penning best-sellers about Albert Fish, Ed Gein and Depraved, Schechter’s account of H.H. Holmes.

The latter is an example of the literary caste system writ large. Depraved, published in 1994, predated Erik Larson’s The Devil in the White City by nearly a decade. While both tell the story of the same man—and the same crimes—one is relegated to the dusty shelves of true crime while the other is a modern classic and prominently displayed at the front of the store.

This is not a knock on Larson’s book (he did nothing wrong by writing an excellent book and reaping success), but rather an example of the double-standards that sometimes emerge in publishing. I point this out not to get on a soapbox but rather to appeal to readers who may never otherwise stray to the nether regions of the bookstore or think that crime writing isn’t for them:

Yes, you will find The Mad Sculptor in the true crime section, but it is greater than the sum of its kill count.

Yes, Harold Schechter is America’s finest crime writer, but he is so much more.

Let this book be your introduction to another historical viewpoint, and don’t be afraid to drift to those shadowy corners of the bookstore where you’ve feared to tread before. To quote Nietzsche: “I am a forest, and a night of dark trees; but he who is not afraid of my darkness will find banks full of roses under my cypresses.”

Take it from the weird kid who spent hours in those shadowy basement corridors, collecting the flowers of history in the dark.

Review: Skull in the Ashes

Skull in the Ashes: Murder, a Gold Rush Manhunt, and the Birth of Circumstantial Evidence in America

by Peter Kaufman

University presses aren’t usually known for producing pot-boiling thrillers, but that’s Skull in the Asheswhat the University of Iowa Press has done with Skull in the Ashes. In 1897, the quiet eastern Iowa town of Walford was awoken by a fire at the general store. When the flame had died, they discovered a charred corpse with some belongings of the store’s owner, Frank Novak, who often slept there.

The timing was curious as Novak, heavily in debt, had recently purchased multiple life insurance policies.

Oh yeah, and the skull they found in the ashes had been bashed in, which is atypical behavior for your run-of-the-mill house fire.

Here, the lives of three men intertwine: Novak; M.J. Tobin, the new county attorney; and Red Perrin, a near-superhero whom we’ll discuss later.

There may have been a time when folks wouldn’t have asked too many questions about the fire, odd though it was, but Tobin utilized emerging forensic tools—such as dental records—to identify the corpse as someone other than Novak. Tobin’s quest crossed multiple state lines and even involved the famed Pinkerton National Detective Agency. But the trail went cold in the Pacific Northwest.

Enter Red Perrin.

Perrin was a detective in Arizona who had a reputation for tenacity and toughness. He was the only one trusted to venture into the Yukon and return Novak alive.

The amount of research that went into this book is evident. Kaufman worked his butt off on this book, and he does a good job of balancing information with narrative. Where he is strongest, though, is following Perrin—which, ironically, was probably the toughest to recreate. The trek through the mining territory is difficult. Perrin hires a team, hikes for days through the mountains and brings along with him a boat builder.

That’s right, a boat builder.

On the other side of the mountain pass was a treacherous waterway, which Perrin would need to traverse to get up to the mining camp where he suspected Novak was living under an assumed name. But they couldn’t carry a boat through the mountains, so once completing that leg of the journey, Perrin and his partner chopped down trees and built a craft sturdy enough for the rapids.

That’s pretty bad ass.

Skull in the Ashes is divided into three parts, and this is by far my favorite. Part one is the story of Novak and Tobin; the town of Walford; and the crime and initial investigation. It’s a bit like a murder-mystery, although we already know whodunit. The narrative here is about history and evidence, and I really enjoyed this section.

Part two is an adventure tale. Kaufman creates lavish scenery, strong characters, high tension and the thrill of a pulp wilderness expedition. I think of it as Thoreau’s The Maine Woods meets The Fugitive. The plotting is well-paced, and Kaufman rightly pulls back on the history and lets the action take center stage.

Which brings us to part three: the aftermath. Unfortunately, this is where Kaufman runs out of bullets. It’s not his doing, but simply the climax of the story. The final part covers Novak’s trial and incarceration and ties up the storylines of all involved. As with the other sections, it is well-researched and –written, but we spend too much time on the trial.

I did enjoy the sociological aspects of the book’s conclusion. Kaufman describes prison life at the time and reforms that were making it more humane. There is also the importance of the Novak trial for its use of forensics and circumstantial evidence. Kaufman clearly describes a time of transition in American history: the advance of science, the sophistication of law enforcement, and the expansion and opening of the world, such that a local crime committed in small-town Iowa would involve the federal government, multiple states, two countries and a wilderness chase.

And so Iowa, and America, looked ahead to the 20th century.

To sum up, Skull in the Ashes is a thrill ride for history buffs and fans of narrative nonfiction and an unexpected, and delightful, blend of pulp and scholarship.

Life After Death, Damien Echols

At the height of the ’80s Satanic Panic, I was a prototypical blasphemer. I played Dungeons & Dragons, blasted Shout at the Devil at maximum volume, plastered Metallica posters on my wall, read the Necronomicon, gorged myself on horror cinema and wore a daily uniform of ripped denim and black T-shirts.

According to Al Gore’s wife, I was a bloodthirsty soldier for Satan. Oh yes, me and my virginal D&D pals—who could perform about 15 push-ups combined—were dangerous, alright.

But the tragic nadir of the Satanic Panic was the case of the West Memphis Three, a trio of teenagers wrongfully convicted of child-murder in rural Arkansas.

The case first attracted media attention for its lurid qualities—abduction, mutilation and supposed Satanic Ritual Abuse. It later attracted attention for the hillbilly witch hunt that resulted in the trial of the West Memphis Three. Two of the boys received life sentences while Damien Echols, the alleged leader of the trio, was sentenced to death.

After two decades of public outcry, numerous books and feature films, the three men were finally released in 2011.

On Sept. 18, Echols recounts his experiences in Life After Death, available in hardcover and e-book. Echols has previously published his poetry, nonfiction and the 2005 memoir Almost Home. I’m excited to read what he has to say about the years since then.

Much has been written on the horrors of the Satanic Panic, but the definitive account should rightfully come from Echols, one of its biggest victims—a man who was nearly put to death on account of mass hysteria.

The saving grace for our justice system is that it’s not a posthumous release.

Check back for info on more upcoming releases throughout the week.

Second-String Sociopaths

On Tuesday, Harold Schechter‘s new book, Psycho USA, hit the shelves. Last month, I interviewed Dr. Schechter on topics such as the new book, true crime as cultural history and recent rampage violence. He offered insights both witty and wise. Read the full profile here or at Transgress digital magazine.