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.

 

The Secrets of Allenstown

Screen Shot 2014-01-11 at 1.15.27 PM
Screengrab from Google Street View

Edgewood Drive is a narrow road that cuts a short path through Bear Brook Gardens Mobile Home Park in Allenstown, New Hampshire. Timestamps on the images indicate Google’s Street View car drove down Edgewood in September 2011. The car’s camera turret captured the beautiful slanting light of a dying Fall day in New England, a mellow glow that for a few moments turns everything dreamlike. Even moments in an old trailer park in a small New England town seem beautiful then.

Allenstown is about 90 miles north of where I live, but I haven’t been yet. I’ve been thinking about the place a lot off and on since I moved here. There’s a mystery there.

Screengrab of composites of the mystery victims, from New Hampshire DOJ
Screengrab of composites of the mystery victims, from New Hampshire DOJ

The mystery began in 1985. A hunter in Bear Brook State Park found a 55-gallon barrel off a snowmobile trail. The barrel was on privately-owned property within Bear Brook Gardens. Inside the barrel, wrapped in plastic, were the bodies of a woman and a little girl. The woman was white and between 23 and 33 years old. The girl was between 8 and 10 years old. Fifteen years later, in 2000, someone discovered another barrel. It contained the bodies of two girls. One was between 4 and 8 years of age, the other between 1 and 3. According to a page about the bodies on the State of New Hampshire’s DOJ website, “These two children are biologically related to the adult female and it is possible all four victims are related.”

All the victims died from blunt-force trauma and they were nude, with no personal effects.

On the blog Mystery in Allenstown NH, siblings Scott Maxwell and Ronda Randall have collected a good deal of the publicly available information in the case. They have posted images and a wealth of links and archived articles going back to the 1980s. Below are bits from some of the coverage linked from or copied into the blog.

An article published on CNN’s website in June, 2013:

Evidence indicates the victims were white, but investigators do not know skin tone or eye color. The bones were not in the best condition, given they were exposed to the elements and years of deterioration, says Williamson. They may have died as early as 1977 or 1978.

On Mystery in Allenstown, from a microfilm record of an article published in the New Hampshire Union Leader in November, 1985. The article was titled, “Area Where Bodies Found Not Isolated”:

About 150 yards from the junkyard, the trail curves right and the junkyard is lost from sight. Only trees ahead, only trees behind. The path continues to curve and drop off slightly. A 15-foot tree has blocked the path at the 230-yard mark. No more than 20 feet off to the left was the spot where the hunter discovered the plastic covered remains of a young woman aged 23 to 33 and a young girl aged 8-10. Forensic reports indicate the pair had been killed by severe blows to the head. The bark of the junkyard dog chained up barely 200 yards away echoes loudly through the woods. The bark has been incessant, no pause lasting more than a few seconds.

A little more than 100 yards further down the trail from the spot where the bodies were discovered, the first mobile home of Bear Brook Gardens can be seen through the trees. The trail ends in a sandpit at the top of a small hill overlooking the mobile home park. From Bear Brook Gardens to the junkyard on Deerfield Road, the entire path is approximately 600 yards long and only for a couple hundred yards of that would a traveler be completely hidden by the woods.

Throughout the length of the path, car doors can be heard shutting in Bear Brook Gardens and cars can be heard shuttling down Deerfield Road. The junkyard dog continues to bark as though it had something to bark at.

Also from the Union Leader, February, 2013:

The little girl aged 5 to 11 found in 1985 offers [Kim Fallon, chief forensic investigator at the state Office of the Chief Medical Examiner] the most hope that someone will remember her because she may have attended school up to the fifth grade. She had double piercings in both ears, which would have been considered unusual at the time. […] The girl had fine light brown or dirty blond hair and would have stood about 4 feet 3 inches tall, Fallon said. There was some evidence of pneumonia in her left lung.

Later in that same article, Kim Fallon said, “If I had a good friend in elementary school who suddenly left, I would remember.”

That’s true. I still remember a family that briefly lived in a trailer next to our house in the southeast Nashville suburb of Antioch when I was a kid. The son was a blonde kid my age named Bobby. I recall a lot of odd details about him and his mom. She had cats-eye glasses frames, which were by then enough out-of-style to be odd, and Bobby wore heavy, square black frames that are tagged as “hipster-like” today but at that point in the 1970s, they were just old-fashioned.  I can still remember him eating dry white toast for breakfast as he waited for the bus and looking unkempt, even compared to me. I also recall that my parents seemed uncomfortable with me playing with him. It was the first and perhaps only time I perceived a kind of class bias from them–the discomfort of a poor family seeing their kid hang out with a child from even more straitened circumstances.

One day, Bobby and his mom were gone. No warning. He was at school the day before, seeming fine, then he wasn’t.

I didn’t even like the kid much–he seemed kind of humorless–but it’s been over 35 years and at least partly because of the way he seemed to vanish, I remember him as clearly as other kids I knew for much longer periods.

Whether in Canada (it was easier to travel between the US and Canada in the late 70s and 80s) or somewhere here in New England, someone still remembers the woman or one of the kids from the barrels. Someone knew them. Remembers odd facts about them. Yet they remain ciphers, gray computer recreations based on bones.

That’s the upshot of all the information collected on Mystery in Allenstown. The mystery still seems as impenetrable as when the first bodies were found in 1985.

I may contact the folks who run Mystery in Allenstown. May take a trip up the road to see what there is to see, eventually. And write more about it. When cases like this are solved, they’re almost always solved by investigators and scientists. Talk about it here, or in more depth in another publication in the future? That seems like the least I could do.