So, I’m finally watching….

Crime Scene: The Vanishing at the Cecil Hotel, about the mysterious death of Elisa Lam. This is very frustrating. I’ve started this post two or three times and deleted each draft because I don’t want to sound like a bastard toward people doing what I essentially launched my writing career doing: “websleuthing,” kinda.

This series troubles me because the ultimate truth of Elisa Lam’s death isn’t chilling, real world horror as if she’d found herself trapped in some real world version of The Overlook Hotel from Stephen King’s The Shining. Elisa Lam wrote openly about her struggles with mental health. Anyone who has ever witnessed another person in the throes of a psychotic state saw the infamous elevator video of Elisa at the Cecil and knew what they were seeing.

All the internet churn surrounding Elisa’s vanishing and death from amateur sleuth types was understandable — and ultimately pointless. People loaded up Youtube with hours upon hours of utterly pointless videos discussing this case, parsing every moment…and in the end it was a bipolar woman off her medication and actively psychotic.

Of course there are questions about Elisa’s death. There will always be. Many are legit, I don’t question asking them.

But as someone who has had a part in evolving online crime writing and websleuthing and as someone who has lost a sibling to mental illness, this particular series is really bothering me. I have no idea how it could’ve been made differently, but one thing that does occur to me is framing it as some kind of gritty true crime account is a disingenuous choice. It pulls the focus away from the person at the center of the story — this intelligent, creative, and sadly very troubled young woman — and onto the self-styled “sleuths,” especially.

But Steve, um, weren’t you kind of at the vanguard of this sort of thing? There were like, what, three crime blogs online when you started?

Yeah. I was. And I learned from every single thing I wrote about. One thing I learned is we begin immediately making up our own narratives about high-profile mysteries. And because most of us are not in law enforcement and privy to a huge load of actual, concrete evidence, we start reinforcing our theories. We put them online. People start coming up with counter-theories. Others question your interest, as if all humans aren’t immediately curious about the fates of others — because we are. That’s the root of so much interest from strangers in true crime cases, in real mysteries of any kind.

Elisa Lam’s death was a gruesome and incredibly sad mystery. The real story is about mental health, however. Crime Scene spends way too long framing its narrative like true crime before it finally digs into Elisa’s own writing about being bipolar.

It begins to feel, by the third installment, like this was a fascinating and complex 90-minute documentary shoved into multiple episodes. I say this as someone who has been in their position many times, too, but it relies far too much on the videos from “sleuths.” They feel by the end of the second episode like what they are: filler.

I’m watching Crime Scene to the end to give myself a chance to change my opinion because smart people I know who do genuinely good work with true crime are involved, and producer and director choices were not their call.

But maybe since I sat down today to record segments for a true crime show on an actual murder I wrote about 14 years ago when I ran crimeblog.us, I’m just thinking a lot about this whole true crime thing online and how it has evolved, especially since podcasting was revealed as perhaps the ideal web-centric format for it.

The subject is still a source of intense fascination for me. My best ideas for nonfiction books are true crime subjects. I am really finding out in the last couple of years, however, that my perspectives have changed. I don’t know if I just take it all much more seriously than I did or if this is a result of just aging and growing up, but there it is.

 

True Crime Wire

In part to honor the memory of my friend, brilliant True Crime Diary author Michelle McNamara, I have created a new crime blog:

truecrimewire.com.

True Crime Wire will be modeled after Michelle’s work in many ways. Especially in taking a deliberate and measured approach to cases, not chasing clicks by covering high profile crimes or breaking crime news just because. I fell into that trap in the distant past as a crime blogger and don’t want to again.

I’ll try and update this blog more often now, with non-crime posts, but many posts will be directing readers to True Crime Wire.

I burned out on true crime six years ago. But re-reading my friend’s work, I realized I felt a compulsion to dive back in. I’d probably been feeling it for a while, but found it easy to set aside.

Not setting it aside anymore.

I am, gladly, a working writer, so I won’t update any personal project blogs daily — but I will update, and I’ll take time with what I write.

If you follow this blog and are interested in true crime, please follow True Crime Wire.

Let’s get it started.

 

The Fake Kidnapping That Was Not Fake And Was Definitely a Kidnapping And…

Back in the day, when I was blogging about crime all the time, I would’ve been tempted to really dive into the nuttiness that has recently come to light regarding the kidnapping of Denise Huskins, but honestly, I’m not feeling it today.*

It’s too crazy. From “The Hoax That Wasn’t…,” a post published by CBS’s Sacramento affiliate:

It started as a kidnapping investigation, then police called it a hoax. Now the FBI is saying the kidnapping of Denise Huskins was a real event, and that a man has been arrested in connection with the case.

A 59-page criminal complaint was released on Monday with the news of Matthew Muller’s arrest. It details him as a Harvard-educated former attorney who once taught at the prestigious school, but was disbarred earlier this year.

The 38-year-old is from Orangevale, and is a former Marine who suffers from Gulf War Syndrome and is bi-polar [sic].

Now just go read the rest yourself. Because I’ve never seen anything like it, and I’ve been covering crime on a regular basis since 2004 and reading true crime tales since I was 11 or 12.

If you’re curious about the guy who allegedly conceived of this insanity, a friend tweeted some links she found last night:

(Edit: I want to note that the facts known about Matthew Muller seem to make the two links above line up, but the guy’s appearance seems to have changed in a marked way; enough to make me wonder if the first really is him. Error? Identity theft? Who knows? Anything possible in this bizarre situation.)

That’s a start, I guess.

*I certainly don’t rule out writing about this later, but last night I was just too locked in a state of “WHAT THE FUCK” to wrap my head around it.

The Allegedly Fake Kidnapping Tale of Denise Huskins Gets Weirder and Weirder

Denise Huskins
Denise Huskins

It’s not big and dramatic, and that’s good, but this alleged ‘hoax’ kidnapping of a physical therapist named Denise Huskins is evolving into one of the weirdest news stories you’ll read. And it was already weird.

Especially after this, from the San Francisco Chronicle, published yesterday:

Over the past several days, a person claiming to be one of Huskins’ kidnappers sent The Chronicle a series of e-mails saying the incident was real, and that if police did not publicly apologize to Huskins and Quinn by noon Tuesday, the abductor would be a “direct agent of harm.”

Then the “kidnapper” (I know sarcastic quotes are a tired blogging trope but it’s early and I can’t think of what else to do with that) decided to back off the threats. In emails sent to attorneys for Huskins and her boyfriend, Aaron Quinn, the sender said they would “not attempt any further damage or harm.” The Chronicle reports the writer went on to say they were rescinding their threats because doing “otherwise would disregard and dishonor the one positive thing we learned from this, that it is not some game and real humans are involved.”

If I wasn’t a middle-aged man who feels stupid using emojis or emoticons, I’d insert some kind of side-eye symbol here.

To go much further would lead to quoting the Chronicle more than I want, but a few things are worth noting: the paper reports one email was 9,000 words long. This is significant because if police really want to unravel this strangeness and have suspects in mind, the person who wrote the correspondence gave them a lot to work with, from a psychological point of view. I’d be surprised if some kind of forensic analysis isn’t being done on several levels with the emails alone. Then there’s this–the Chronicle quotes the “kidnappers” as saying “For what it’s worth, what could have ended up as a prolific and dangerous criminal group has disbanded […] and you have Denise Huskins to thank for that.”

Well. Good to know.

Previously, in my experimental Tumblr crime blog.

Elderly Man Beheaded, Wife Abducted From $1M Lakeside Georgia Home (Updated)

Russell Dermond (AJC)
Russell Dermond (AJC)

Today in “Holy Hell, What?” crimes, this horror movie-level mystery.

Dateline Putnam County, Georgia, where county coroner Gary McElhenny tells the media that Russell Dermond, 88, was beheaded in his million-dollar lakefront home sometime between Saturday, May 3, and Monday, May 5. Dermond’s wife, Shirley, is missing.

Shirley Dermond is not a suspect. She is 87, and Putnam Sheriff Howard Sills told reporters that Mr. Dermond’s “body was moved,” and he didn’t “think an 87-year-old lady” could do such a thing.

The Dermonds lived in the gated and presumably secure Great Waters community at Reynolds Plantation. Investigators believe the person or persons responsible approached the Dermond residence from Lake Oconee, a central Georgia reservoir that ranges across Morgan, Greene and Putnam counties.

The Macon Telegraph reported that Sheriff Sills described the murder and disappearance as “baffling” and there aren’t that many clues as to what happened, so far:

There is no sign of forced entry to Russell and Shirley Dermond’s home where friends found his body about 10 a.m. Tuesday.

She was gone.

The cars are still there.

There is no sign of a struggle, either, inside the house…

To compound the mystery, security cameras inside the Great Waters community may have been for show, or perhaps poorly maintained, as they weren’t working at the time of the crime. The home was described as immaculate and nothing was stolen.

Based on the Telegraph’s reporting and some online searches, it’s hard to figure out why anyone would target an elderly couple like the Dermonds–and investigators have told the media they do think the Dermonds were targeted.

The Atlanta Journal-Constitution reported today that the Putnam County Sheriff has asked the FBI to assist their investigation.

Edited to add: Missed while finding links earlier, this, from WSB, Atlanta’s ABC affiliate: “A law enforcement source told Channel 2 Action News that Dermond was beheaded and the head was not found at the crime scene.”

Links:

WMAZ
Putnam County Sheriff
Discussion of the crime at Websleuths.com

 

Crucified Woman Discovered Under Italian Bridge

It’s been a while since I wrote a crime blog post.* In fact, I’m not sure I’ve published one about a contemporary crime in this blog. Until now.

This came into my inbox via a Google Alert I set up  years ago, when I was writing about crime every day. It was too chilling to not mention.

A cyclist was riding under a bridge in Florence, Italy on Monday, when he or she discovered

…the kneeling body of a naked woman taped to a horizontal bar.

The witness described the woman as having “her arms outstretched as if she had been crucified.”

The victim, an adult white woman, was under a bridge near the A1 motorway in the Ugnano district, close to Scandicci. An Italian language newspaper reported that the victim was a Romanian woman in her 20s named Andrea Cristina Zamfir.

There have been as many as 3 similar cases in the region in the last few years, but all the victims survived.

The killer, if it is one person following a certain method of operation, has apparently learned to not leave any eyewitnesses behind.

[The Local]

*Posts about Richard Parker feel a little more personal than posts about a disturbing or mysterious crime in the news.

Richard Parker Goes on Trial for Murder October 28th

Richard Parker, the man whom I knew when we were boys and who allegedly murdered his in-laws with a package bomb in February, goes on trial in October. Richard made a court appearance in Lebanon, TN this morning. In that preliminary hearing, his trial date was set for October 28, 2014. The Lebanon Democrat reports that Richard has been “charged with two counts of premeditated first-degree murder, two counts of felony first-degree murder and one count of unlawful possession of a prohibited weapon.” The Tennessean notes that Richard is being defended by public defenders and is currently being held at the Riverbend Maximum Security Prison. The Tennessean’s Andy Humbles also reports that Richard’s case is no longer sealed.

The next hearing in the case will be June 20.

[WZTV]