Weird Synchonicities

Or is that synchronisms? What I mean is when two unrelated things turn out to have something in common after all. Or when two totally different aspects of your life come together in an unexpected way. We’ve all had that experience, and the immediate reaction is, “Hmm. Weird.”

So, as a crime writer, I guess I shouldn’t be surprised that in working on my family genealogy, the matter of crime comes up. Like the mysterious death of an ancestor in colonial Virginia and the two murders my family was involved in. (Stories for another time.) Looking back through old newspapers, I found a juicy crime story concerning my second cousin, twice removed, whose 25-year-old wife shot and killed her 18-year-old sister, because of her husband’s attention to the younger woman. The young sister must have been quite something, because a subsequent story said public sympathy was with the accused, and an acquittal was expected.  

Having vaguely in mind the kind of gems those old newspapers can hold, I was drawn to a recent story in the Library of Virginia newsletter. It reports on the results of a patron’s random inquiry into the nearly century-old newspaper record regarding far southwest Wise County veterinarian, game warden, and lawman JL Cox. The Library staff’s research found police-media relations were just as fraught back then as they are now.

A 1927 story in Crawford’s Weekly reported the attempted arrest of a man on outstanding warrants. Refusing to surrender, the man threatened the officers, including Cox, who’d come to get him. “We had to be shoot or be shot,” Cox told the paper. He said, “Some folks may criticize, but I’d like to know what they would have done had they been in our place.”

Two weeks later, Cox was involved in another exchange of gunfire. But a few days later, after Cox complained about the coverage of the event, the newspaper issued a correction, saying Cox had not returned fire. Over the next couple of years, Cox repeatedly called on the newspaper to correct stories about his activities. It’s a distant echo of today’s uneasy relation between law enforcement and the media.

After this frequent pushback, it appears the newspaper adopted a policy of not abrading Cox’s thin skin. The way I read some of the Weekly’s later stories, the editors learned to get their digs in more subtly: “Some may have criticized Dr. J.L. Cox, county officer, for being quick on the trigger in past performances . . .” Note the vague “some.” Politicians still use that gambit today. “People tell me . . .”

In a story about a stolen car, the paper suggested that “whoever did it thought they were wreaking vengeance on County Officer JL Cox, whose Chrysler also is a maroon coupe, because of his unrelenting enforcement of prohibition, traffic, and game laws.” Readers of Crawford’s Weekly might have had strong opinions about those laws and how vigorously they should be enforced. Talking about his “unrelenting enforcement” might not have been viewed as a tribute to his dedication. It was moonshine country, after all. (A moonshiner’s wrecked car and cargo shown above, police officer standing by.)

It turns out that Cox may have been too diligent for rural Virginia, and in 1931, he was shot and killed trying to serve a warrant on a man for dynamiting fish in the Guest River. The man claimed self-defense, but the case was dismissed. Why? Doc Cox “had been fooling with” the man’s wife. That story never appeared in the newspaper; the Library staff found it in the memoir written by the Game Warden who succeeded Cox in that post. The conclusion that can be drawn from this little research project by the Library is, I suppose, that times change, but people don’t.

What’s Down There?

In the last few weeks, a Missouri man (described as a “YouTuber”) discovered the car and body of a man missing since 2013 in the waters of a Missouri pond. It reminded me of a New Yorker story last summer titled “Hidden Depths,” by author Rachel Monroe, who dived (sorry!) deep into this particular specialty in the true crime cold case genre—underwater crime-solving.

The story focuses on a group called Adventures with Purpose (AWP). These are volunteer salvage divers who search lakes and rivers for missing cars—sometimes long-missing, and sometimes with the drivers still in them—and share video of their results for a YouTube audience that numbers in the millions. (Yet another massive social trend I’ve completely missed.)

Jared Leisek of Oregon founded AWP in 2018 intending it to feature treasure-hunts, but found it hard to compete with other dive sites that had much bigger audiences. The next year he found two handguns in the water, and a light bulb went off. He could build a bigger audience by focusing on the cold cases and missing persons.

Once he solved the case of missing man Nathaniel Ashby (a video about the discovery has been viewed more than ten million times), AWP was deluged with requests from friends and family members of other missing people. Responses from local law enforcement cover the gamut. Some welcome the help they can’t afford and the resources (dive equipment, trained divers) they don’t have; other not so much. Cause-of-death also varies. Many of the cases are the result of accident or suicide, but some may be actual crimes.

Interestingly, Leisek told Monroe he hates the true-crime community. Perhaps because of its voyeuristic love of sensationalism can lead to excess. As Monroe said, the true-crime fandom has “a tendency to assume that the official story of a tragic death obscures a more horrific reality.”

(Naturally, in the “no secret is secret for long” in the social mediaverse, AWP is criticized on numerous fronts and long-ago accusations that the teenage Leisek raped his cousin emerged, which at least for a time resulted in lost viewership for his YouTube channel.)

The Missouri case was resolved through the work of independent investigator James Hinkle, a local videographer who has his own YouTube channel, Echo Divers. Although there’s room for abuses here, the families Monroe interviewed are grateful that their days of wondering can come to a close.

Photo by Aviv Perets

Kill Show by Daniel Swearen-Becker

Author Daniel Sweren-Becker must have been well tuned in to the zeitgeist when he conceived Kill Show, his newly published mysteryl that delves into important critiques of the true crime genre. Written in the style of a television documentary script, the novel consists almost entirely of short verbatim quotes from 26 of the story’s principals, with no descriptions unless a character happens to provide one. The principals are being re-interviewed a decade after the events they’re called upon to explore. The book is their testimony.

Ten years earlier, in suburban Frederick County, Maryland, 16-year-old Sara Parcell disappeared. Her parents and brother panicked. Her friends were bereft. School officials tried to console. Local police were baffled. Now, as they talk about Sara, her family, the community, the disappearance and its aftermath, they amplify, contextualize, and at times contradict each other. Piece by piece, the story comes into focus.

In the emotional turmoil immediately after Sara’s disappearance, her dad, Dave Parcell, waves his bank statement in front of the cameras camped outside his home. He has $1762. That’s all. But he’ll put it every dollar of it up for a reward. A dramatic moment the news cameras catch, but not as viral as the cell-phone video Sara’s brother Jack makes a few moments later, showing Dave and his wife Jeannette back in their house, embracing, Jeannette in hysterics.

Across the country in Hollywood, Jack’s video sparks a brilliant programming idea in the head of Casey Hawthorne, a reality TV show producer. She convinces her boss to pay for her and a production crew to fly to Maryland, and then convinces the Parcell family that a reality television series—Searching for Sara—will bring massive attention to the disappearance and help get their daughter back.

They are desperate. They agree. To say Casey Hawthorne is full of herself, manipulative, and not to be trusted hardly describes the extent of the void in her character. Once in Maryland, right at the start, she makes a strategic choice that negatively influences everything that comes afterward. She meets Detective Felix Calderon in a bar, and, rather than revealing who she is and why she’s really in town, she lies. And sleeps with him. As a result, when aspects of the case start to deteriorate, the lead detective on the case has no credibility with the public, his superiors in the police department, or the prosecutor.

Of course, many more people involved in this debacle are lying. And, if not lying outright, they’re not telling the whole truth, or they’re shading it to justify their actions. Many characters undergo a shift in perspective over the course of the weeks the search drags on and shocking revelations emerge; others seem incapable of taking new information on board. In the end, quite a few Frederick County residents have reason to take a hard look at the role they played in the outcome.

When Sweren-Becker wants to delve into ethical grey areas, he provides comments from a pop culture critic or a sociology professor. In that way too, the novel reads very much like a real-life television documentary. This device never becomes tedious or heavy-handed. Meanwhile, in real life, true-crime dramas have come in for criticism, even though they’re still immensely popular. (A 2014 13-episode podcast, Serial, also about the murder of a Maryland teenager was downloaded more than 340 million times in the first four years of its availability.) Sweren-Becker’s story effectively demonstrates the main critiques of the genre: exploiting real people for entertainment, looking for sensation rather than examining systemic problems, and objectifying victims. Casey Hawthorne’s Searching for Sara is definitely guilty on the first two counts. If you have your own reservations about the public obsession with true-crime shows, this book will confirm them. Partly due to the format and partly to the compelling situation, this is a quick read, yet a profound one. Highly recommended.

More critique of the true-crime phenomenon are in my recent blog post: “Is peak true crime in the rearview?”

Killers of the Flower Moon

You think three hours and 26 minutes makes for an awfully long movie? You’re right. Yet, Martin Scorsese’s true-crime epic, Killers of the Flower Moon, completely held my attention throughout (trailer). Even though I knew the story, because I’d read the fascinating book by David Grann that the movie is based on, still there were no saggy lulls. It is time well spent.

The New York Times calls it “An Unsettling Masterpiece,” which recounts the terrible outcomes of white men’s unrelenting, murderous greed when oil is quite unexpectedly discovered on the Oklahoma lands that had been considered so worthless they might as well be given to the Osage tribe.

If I had a complaint, it would be that there was too much attention to Robert DeNiro as the “King of the Osage Hills,” cattleman William Hale. (Hale even asks people to call him “King.”) He gives an excellent performance, but, unlike the other characters, he doesn’t change; he’s the same throughout—a malicious, manipulative, avaricious local operator—and you understand him from the beginning.

Leonardo DiCaprio sets aside any vanity and is neither handsome nor savvy in playing Ernest Burkhart, Hale’s nephew. Because the tribe members are deemed incompetent to manage their assets, they are required to have white guardians. A quick way for a white man to become a guardian is to marry an Osage woman, just as Burkhart marries Mollie Kyle, memorably played by Lily Gladstone. Then if the wife dies . . . you can guess the rest.

Thanks to the oil, in the early 1920s, Osage members were the per capita richest people in the world. Much too tempting a target for undereducated, unprincipled roughnecks. Believe me, you’re grateful when Jesse Pelmons as Tom White, an agent of J.Edgar Hoover’s nascent FBI, appears on the scene.

The movie was filmed on a grand scale in Oklahoma, though there are plenty of intimate, emotion-packed moments in which Mollie and Ernest demonstrate real love for each other. Her penetrating gaze recognizes Hale and Burkhart’s schemes, but loves her husband anyway.

The film is dedicated to Robbie Robertson, whose last project was composing its music.

At the beginning, there is what seems an unnecessary statement by Scorsese about why he made this movie. That opening fits when he gives its closing words as well, bookending the film during a creative approach to telling “what happened next.”

The ill-treatment of indigenous people was one of America’s two greatest original sins and, in the arc of history, this sorry episode was not so very long ago.

Rotten Tomatoes critics’ rating: 93%; audiences: 85%.

The Pianist

The world premiere of Emily Mann’s theatrical adaptation of Wladyslaw Szpilman’s memoir, The Pianist, opened at George Street Playhouse in New Brunswick last weekend and will run through October 22. Directed by Mann, the show has an original score by Iris Hond.

The Pianist is Szpilman’s recounting of the annihilation of the Jews of Warsaw, and how he—a leading young Polish pianist and composer—survived. He had many dark days, but his music both consoled him and inspired him to keep living.

Why now? You may recall that Tony Award-winning Mann’s career has emphasized social justice, through such works as Having Our Say and Gloria: A Life. Szpilman’s story is, of course, a cautionary tale, and taking it on now is a timely move, as surveys show the Holocaust receding in public memory and as anti-semitic rhetoric and attacks are on the rise. It’s dangerous to ignore those past lessons, when around the world extremist leaders grow increasingly prominent. Who might their net targets be?

A terrific cast has been assembled for this production, including Russian-born actor Daniel Donskoy, who makes his American stage debut as Szpilman, bringing both passion and intelligence to the role. I couldn’t take my eyes off him. In Szpilman’s nuclear family are his father (played by Austin Pendleton), mother (Claire Beckman), sisters Regina (Arielle Goldman) and Halina (Georgia Warner), and brother Henryk (Paul Spera).

Henryk can’t stop warning his family about fascism’s deadly implications, as the dark cloud descends on Warsaw. The parents don’t want to hear—or believe—it. Much like Szpilman, his father loses himself in music, almost obsessively playing his violin, but bit by bit, the ability to maintain the illusion of normalcy or that it can ever be regained, disappears along with the city’s food supply.

Several other actors—Charlotte Ewing, Jordan Lage, Robert David Grant, and Tina Benko—take on multiple roles as resistance fighters, people who try to help Szpilman or not, and Nazis. The play’s short scenes build and deepen Szpilman’s despair, as the whole is knitted together by the piano score of Iris Hond, which combines her original music, classical pieces, and Szpilman’s own work.

Anyone who needs evidence of the significance of this production need only read the biographical sketch for actor Claire Beckman, which concludes with her gratitude to Emily Mann for including her in this work of art “and by extension my great grandmother Anna Frankova Pickova, murdered in Terezin in 1943.”

The Pianist is on stage at the New Brunswick Performing Arts Center. Tickets available here or by calling 732-246-7717.

Is Peak True Crime in the Rearview?

In 2014, the 13-episode podcast Serial investigated the murder of a Maryland teenager and “electrified group chats, provided rich loam for conspiracy theories, and turned hordes of millennials into experts on cell towers,” says Katy Waldman, a New Yorker staff writer. Somehow the genre convinces people, ordinary citizens, that they can know what and who are behind a crime. As a result, in a number of recent cases, investigators have been swamped by amateur detectives and wild theories.

Earlier this year, Waldman reviewed a book questioning the public’s preoccupation with true crime—podcasts, tv shows, movies, and books. Waldman’s review centered on Rebecca Makkai’s 2023 novel, I Have Some Questions for You, primarily a murder mystery set at a prestigious boarding school, which also critiques true crime on three counts, “exploiting real people for entertainment, chasing gore rather than studying systemic problems, and objectifying victims,” especially young white women who are pretty and rich.

Is the popularity of participatory and armchair crime investigation “the thrill of conjuring monsters to despise” as Waldman suggests? Or another example of “the numbing, almost hallucinatory pervasiveness of violence against women,” and “how greedily such stories are consumed”?

About a third of podcast listeners listen to true crime, but only last week, in the Washington Post, Hope Corrigan reported on people quitting the genre altogether. Corrigan opens her article with the story of a young woman who realized she was becoming overwhelmed by anxiety and paranoia, which she attributed to a “near constant consumption of true crime.” Those who quit this preoccupation report improvements in their mental state and sleep.

What seems to be changing now, Corrigan says, is how “some fans, and even podcast hosts, grapple with heightened anxiety and qualms over exploitation of victims,” and profiting from someone’s murder. Families of victims are speaking against the shows. A victim of a non-fatal attack said she “would rather get stabbed again than have TikTok users descend like vultures on my social media.”

Not unexpectedly, the popularity of the genre has inspired some tasteless merch, including a doormat that reads, “Crime Shows Have Taught Me Unexpected Visitors are Sketchy.” That may have started out as a poor joke, but recent tragedies suggest quite a few people may actually feel that way.

True crime tales may be most valuable when they reveal problems in the system that can be corrected. In the hands of a “capable creator,” stories of real crimes can reveal a lot about how the justice system works or doesn’t work, can demonstrate how social class and race affect crime and punishment, and can give voice to the voiceless. In less skilled hands, negative effects may predominate.

Professor Jean Murley, who studies the cultural impact of true crime, cites The Red Parts by Maggie Nelson, as one of her favorite books in the genre. This memoir and meditation from 2007 deals with one of the Ann Arbor murders of 1967-69, which occurred when I was living there. I read Nelson’s book several years ago and was surprised at how much of what I was sure I knew was simply wrong. Several novels I’ve read in recent years have considered the impact on investigations of social media piling on—notably New Zealand author Paul Cleave’s The Quiet Ones and The Pain Tourist. Unfortunately, such fictional accounts reflect actual events in society, where social media “suspects” become targets of vigilantism

Annals of New Jersey Crime, Part 2

Yesterday’s post described the murder of Atlantic County, N.J., man John Kingsbury and the flawed investigation into his death, in which martial arts gym owner Michael Castro was the chief suspect.

Castro’s Day—Make that Decade—in Court

On April 5, 2013, 15 months after John Kingsbury’s murder at his Atlantic County home, the county prosecutor authorized charges of murder and felony murder against Michael Castro. While Castro languished in jail for 15 months, his lawyer diligently picked apart the prosecution’s case. He made plenty of holes in it, and a judge dismissed the murder indictment in June 2014.

In January 2016, the investigators obtained a second murder indictment. By that time, new evidence suggested that two people connected to Castro’s martial arts gym might have committed the crime or participated in it, further muddying the waters. Castro wasn’t jailed this time, but required to wear an ankle monitor for the next 15 months.

A man known to both Castro and his friend Lauren Kohl (whose missing gun apparently was the murder weapon) was driving Kohl’s Jeep Wrangler back and forth near the Kingsbury home shortly before the murder occurred there, and his alibi for the actual presumed time of the murder didn’t hold up. Investigators waited another 19 months to confront him about these actions.

A teenager whom Reporter Rebecca Everett describes as “Castro’s martial arts protégé” matched a witness description of a person seen near the house. He had no alibi for the afternoon of the death. Again the investigators dawdled, and when they asked for the youth’s cellphone data two years later, the company no longer retained it. By May 2017, prosecutors believed they could not win the case against Michael Castro and dropped the charges.

Impact on Michael Castro

Years of uncertainty had taken a toll on Michael Castro. He’d filed a civil rights lawsuit in 2015, put on hold when the second indictment came down. After the dropped charges, his lawyer dug in, finding in his investigation of the investigation “a pattern of deliberate misconduct.”

Such suits rarely succeed, but in 2021, a U.S. District Judge decided the problems were big enough that a jury should decide. New shortcomings in the investigation emerged—failure to document meetings, text exchanges, and steps in the investigation, including interviews and the results of a photo lineup. Those flaws were on top of the mishandling of evidence, inadequate case preparation, and damaging delays.

In a rare outcome in such suits, Castro received a $5 million settlement.

And in the Court of Public Opinion

Castro made a 37-minute YouTube video posted August 2021. In it, he talks about his initial surprise at being considered a suspect, his arrest more than a year later, and his months in jail and with the monitor. He talks about his abusive mother, his absent stepfather, the ten different schools he attended, his military service and resultant PTSD, and his persistent financial problems. Twice accused of murder, yet never convicted, he can’t escape public suspicion.

Says the dead man’s son, Glenn, “The whole thing’s awful. And it’s gonna go on till the day I die. And in theory, it may go on till the day my children die.”

Did Michael Castro get away with murder, or is he another victim?

Parts 1 and 2 of this story are based primarily on reporting by Rebecca Everett for the Trenton, N.J., Times.

Annals of New Jersey Crime

The Trenton, N.J., Times, recently devoted several pages to a true-crime mystery from the Garden State. Reporter Rebecca Everett detailed the investigation and failed prosecutions of the murder of 77-year-old John Kingsbury. Kingsbury died on Super Bowl Sunday 2012 at his home in Mullica, a rural township in New Jersey’s Pinelands area. His son Glenn, who returned home and discovered the body, as well as first responders, thought a fall or stroke accounted for the blood on and around the elderly man’s head. None of them saw the bullet holes from a gun described as “small enough to fit in the palm of your hand.”

Glenn and his girlfriend, Karen Drew, cleaning up, found two spent .380 shell casings and called emergency services immediately. Too late. John died before reaching the hospital, and they had just cleaned up a murder scene. Now, eleven years later, no one has been convicted of John Kingsbury’s murder. Reporter Everett says the cold case is “filled with enough shocking twists, shadowy characters and law enforcement bungling to fill a ‘Knives Out’ sequel.”

Who are John and Glenn Kingsbury?

John Kingsbury was a retired RCA electronics specialist, a member of Mensa, and Korean War veteran who trained K-9s. In shaky health, he’d moved to New Jersey a few months before his death to live with his son. Glenn and Karen own lucrative cheerleading event companies Cheer Tech and Spirit Brands. When they return home after a typical event, they’re holding tens of thousands of dollars in cash. “Anyone who worked with them would know that,” Everett wrote, “Including Michael Castro.”

Robbery seemed the likely motive.

The Crime

John Kingsbury was at home alone when the killer or killers arrived at the family home. There was no weekend’s worth of event receipts, Karen Drew had already taken them to the bank.

Police found no indication of a break-in, and nothing appeared to be missing, but, unexpectedly, the video surveillance system had been disabled. Karen’s suspicion immediately fell on Castro, who she said had been pestering her that afternoon with cell phone calls about her and family members’ whereabouts. What’s more, Castro owed Glenn several thousand dollars, some of which he’d used to set up a mixed martial arts studio.

After the lead detective, Michael Mattioli, interviewed Castro four days after the killing, Castro immediately called a Camden County Sheriff’s Officer he knew, Lauren Kohl. It wasn’t until after she was contacted by Mattioli that Kohl reported two handguns missing from her home.

An Investigation Botched from the Start

The Atlantic County prosecutors worked on the case against Michael Castro for more than a year, in an investigation “torpedoed by errors and oversights,” Everett was told. Among them:

  • Investigators lost track of John’s cellphone, so it couldn’t be analyzed for years
  • They had a warrant to search Castro’s vehicle, but didn’t do it
  • They didn’t ask the medical examiner to estimate the time of the shooting
  • They didn’t collect surveillance footage from area stores that might have confirmed whether Castro (or other possible suspects) were in the area
  • They didn’t subpoena the cellphones of other possible suspects to confirm their locations
  • And, when it appeared one of Lauren Kohl’s missing handguns might be the murder weapon (and eventually was proved to be, on what basis is unclear, as the gun is apparently still missing), it was months before investigators actually followed up with her.

During this period, the prosecutor’s office had internal organizational problems, handing off the Kingsbury murder to three separate lead investigators in just over a year. Months passed between any investigatory actions they logged, with much not logged at all. The cellphone evidence fell apart. Stories changed. New suspects emerged, fogging the investigatory lenses.

Tomorrow: Michael Castro’s Day—Make that Decade—in Court

What to Watch This Weekend

popcorn

Three recent-ish British films well worth the time. Our theaters keep teasing us with lots of enticing film previews, but they aren’t here yet!

Downton Abbey: A New Era

Has this popular franchise finally lost its luster? I was afraid so, but writer Julian Fellowes pulled it off once again (trailer). All the regulars are there, except for Mary’s husband. In the opening scene, Tom Branson marries a wealthy young woman, and she and her mother join the ensemble. Downton is being taken over by the cast and crew of a deep-pockets film company, under Mary’s supervision. To avoid this intrusion, most of the family travels to the South of France to visit the Dowager Countess’s unexpected legacy—a villa willed to her by a man she charmed decades previously, before her marriage to Lord Grantham. (Here’s hoping her legacy included funds for maintenance.) Quibbles aside, the costumes, manners, scenery, and pleasantness of it all are refreshing. Rotten Tomatoes critics’ rating 86%; audiences 97%.

The Duke

You’ll enjoy this comedy about a man whose single-mindedness repeatedly gets him into trouble with the authorities, directed by Roger Michell and written by Richard Bean and Clive Coleman (based on a true story)(trailer). To the exasperation of his wife (Helen Mirren), Kempton Bunton (Jim Broadbent) is so focused on aiding elderly veterans that he neglects his family responsibilities. He steals a famous painting, hoping to hold it for ransom that would be used to help poor people. He’s caught and put on trial. Lots of chuckles here, and you can’t go wrong with Mirren and Broadbent. Rotten Tomatoes critics’ rating 97%; audiences 86%.

Operation Mincemeat

Operation Mincemeat, which was directed by John Madden and written by Michelle Ashford, is based on a nonfiction book by Ben Macintyre (trailer) It recounts the story of the key piece of the Allies’ massive effort to convince the Germans that Greece, not Sicily, was their invasion target in the Mediterranean. A corpse is given a back story and a set of fake papers and set adrift to come ashore in Spain. Will the papers get to  the German operatives in Madrid? Will they believe the fake story or recognize it as disinformation? This deception is led by military planners Ewen Montagu (Colin Firth) and Charles Cholmondeley ( Matthew Macfadyen). The film tries hard to maintain the tension, but knowing how the plot turns out, deflates that balloon somewhat. One fun aspect was the important role of Ian Fleming (Johnny Flynn)—then a Lieutenant Commander as assistant to the Director of the Naval Intelligence Division. in the office typing away on what he says is “a spy novel.” I’m not convinced the romantic elements are factual, but that’s filmmakers for you. Rotten Tomatoes critics’ rating: 84%; audiences 64%.

No Escape

And, to show that you can’t get away from Downton Abbey, the cast of Operation Mincemeat includes Penelope Wilton, who plays Isobel Crawley Merton in Downton. Matthew Good, who played Henry Talbot (Mary’s absent husband) in Downton plays Kempton Bunton’s barrister in The Duke..

How True is True Crime?

In the current issue of Wired, cultural commentator Virginia Heffernan writes about her long relationship with the true-crime tale The Staircase and its seemingly endless, Escher-like iterations.

It first came to her attention in 2005 in the form of a six-hour documentary, recorded on a set of DVDs. True-crime was less of a thing on television then, yet she found the The Staircase “among the most captivating films I’ve ever seen.” It won numerous awards, including a Peabody. And, it was produced by a French filmmaker with the prescient name, Jean-Xavier de Lestrade. Not quite Holmes, but a worthy investigator nonetheless.

The Staircase recounts a 2001 case from Durham, North Carolina, in which war-novelist Michael Peterson was tried and convicted for the grisly murder of his wife Kathleen. He claimed she died falling down a staircase, but the authorities didn’t buy it. They were convinced he had bludgeoned her to death and charged him with murder. An argument over Peterson’s bisexuality triggered the assault, they said.

The jury convicted him, and he received a life sentence, but in 2011, the verdict was overturned. (A prosecution witness had lied.) In 2017, awaiting a new trial, Peterson entered an Alford plea in which he accepted a charge of voluntary manslaughter, was sentenced to time served, and walked away a free man.

Since that time, there seems the repackaging possibilities have proliferated. In 2012, de Lestrade updated his original documentary with coverage of Peterson’s second trial (Rotten Tomatoes has no critics’ rating, though one wrote “Appalls in its presentation of the sheer incompetence of one ‘expert,’” while audiences rated it 75%). In 2018, it came to ABC as a 10-episode documentary, with more new material (Rotten Tomatoes critics’ rating 94%; audiences 82%), and in May 2022, HBO Max aired a fictionalized miniseries, The Staircase, by Antonio Campos, starring Colin Firth and Toni Collette (Rotten Tomatoes critics’ rating 92%; audiences 77%).

And this probably isn’t a complete list. At this point, where does reality lie? As Hefffernen says, “documentaries are filled with staged stuff, and fiction films use real names, real plot points, and often real dialog drawn from court records.” Poor Kathleen Peterson seems a bit lost.

De Lestrade criticizes the recent film for suggesting his team was biased in favor of Peterson, when through its several iterations, his Staircase attempted to leave its viewers uncertain as to the husband’s guilt. However, “taking sides” may be an artifact of de Lestrade’s decision to tell the story from the point of view of Peterson and his legal team.

As true-crime television and documentaries proliferate, and podcasts gain in listenership, it may become harder to separate fact from fiction. Without taking sides on this key problem, Heffernen concedes these hybrid genres have “lived in the flicker of truth and poetry.”