Public Enemies

Public Enemies

This week I review one of my favorite true crime books, Brian Burrough’s Public Enemies: America’s Greatest Crime Wave and the Birth of the FBI, 1933-34.

Instead of looking at a single crime like I did in last week’s blog, the book I review this week covers many crimes and many criminals over a two-year period.

I have always found the so-called public enemies era of the 1930s fascinating and Burrough serves up the whole period in one readable book.  Although it is not a new book (it came out in 2004), it is both detailed and authoritative.

The Public Enemies Era

American in 1933 was in the depths of the Great Depression.  While most people plodded along trying to eek out a living, a flamboyant few who turned to crime became celebrities because of the daring nature of their deeds and the creativity of newspaper writers.  Bank robbers like John Dillinger and Baby Face Nelson, kidnappers like the Barker-Karpis gang and Machine Gun Kelly, and gunmen like Charles “Pretty Boy” Floyd all became famous—and infamous.  Audacious robberies and thrilling escapes were fodder for newspapers eager to boost circulation.  The stories were also cheap entertainment for a public short on money for recreation.

Public Enemy: John Dillinger mugshot
John Dillinger

When the new administration of Franklin D. Roosevelt took office in March 1933, Attorney General Homer S. Cummings launched a War on Crime that lasted until 1936.  Cummings may have wanted to use crime-busting to boost his own popularity, but J. Edgar Hoover outmaneuvered him and focused attention–and credit–on himself and the FBI (it was just the Bureau of Investigation until 1935).

The Book

Previous books on this subject tended to focus on one outlaw or group of outlaws rather than the entire period.  Also, until relatively recently, the FBI’s files on this period were not available to researchers.

Burrough states his central aim in writing this book was to “reclaim the War on Crime for the lawmen who fought it.”  He does an excellent job of this, while not whitewashing Bureau’s early mistakes.  He begins by recounting the Kansas City Massacre, the killing of one Bureau agent, three other lawmen, and a prisoner in front of the Kansas City, Missouri train station in June 1933.

The FBI’s first foray into the War on Crime was not promising.  Inexperienced in real criminal law enforcement, agents’ early efforts were amateurish and prone to bone-headed mistakes, some of them deadly.  For example, agents missed several chances to capture John Dillinger, who seemed to have no trouble eluding them.  In one instance, a botched raid on a Wisconsin hunting lodge resulted in the deaths of an innocent civilian and one of the Bureau’s own agents.

Public Enemy: Lester Gillis a.k.a. George "Baby Face" Nelson mugshot
Lester Gillis a.k.a. George “Baby Face” Nelson

Slowly, over the course of three years, the FBI learned from its mistakes and began to evolve into a truly professional crime-fighting organization.  This evolution didn’t happen overnight, but as one reads through the book, the progress is plain to see.  One by one, the marquee gangsters fall, often to FBI bullets.

By 1936, only one major gangster remained at large: Alvin Karpis, the brains of the Barker-Karpis gang.  The FBI arrested him in New Orleans in May 1936, and he went on to spend more time in Alcatraz than any other prisoner on “The Rock.”

Public Enemy: Alvin "Old Creepy" Karpis mugshot
Alvin “Old Creepy” Karpis

Incidentally, of the first four men the FBI designated Public Enemy Number One, Karpis is the only one captured alive.  He went on to outlive many of the 1930s gangsters and lawmen, including J. Edgar Hoover himself.

Recommendation

Public Enemies is both informative and entertaining.  At times, it reads more like an adventure novel than history.  Burrough also does a commendable job of keeping the large cast of major and supporting characters straight.  He also corrects some misinformation that arose either from FBI distortions or highly exaggerated newspaper accounts.

The result is a period-piece snapshot of the lives of Depression-era gangsters and lawmen.

Public Enemy: Charles Arthur "Pretty Boy" Floyd mugshot
Charles Arthur “Pretty Boy” Floyd

As I said at the outset, Public Enemies is one of my favorite true crime books.  I’m probably prejudiced because I have a strong interest in the period and subject matter. But I think any true crime fan will enjoy this book.  I highly recommend it.

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Murder on Birchleaf Drive

Murder on Birchleaf Drive book cover

This week I review a book about domestic homicide, Steven Epstein’s Murder on Birchleaf Drive: The True Story of the Michelle Young Murder Case.  Intimate partners commit more than half (55%) of murders and most of the perpetrators by far are male.  Epstein’s 2019 book recounts one of those cases.  This book isn’t really a whodunnit; the “who” is obvious from the beginning.  The question was, would they be able to convict the S.O.B.

The Couple

Michelle Fisher grew up in the town of Sayville at the southern tip of Long Island.  After high school, she decided to attend North Carolina State University in Raleigh.  There she earned a master’s degree in accounting and landed a plum job in the Raleigh office of powerhouse accounting firm Deloitte & Touche.

Celebrating her birthday in 2001, Michelle met Jason Young, a native of the North Carolina mountains, at a local bar and the two soon began dating.  They made a curious pair.  Michelle was a meticulous planner while Jason was an overaged frat boy.  When Michelle discovered she was pregnant, the couple decided to marry.

But marriage and fatherhood did little to settle Jason down.  He and Michelle argued and fought frequently.  Even a second pregnancy failed to smooth the troubled waters.  Michelle and Jason appeared to be headed for divorce.

The Murder

On the afternoon of November 3, 2006, Jason called Michelle’s sister, Meredith Fisher, and cajoled her into retrieving some pages from the printer at his home.  When she got to the house, she discovered the body of her sister lying face down in a pool of blood beside her bed.  Shockingly, Michelle’s two-year-old daughter, Cassidy, emerged from under the bedcovers, explaining that Mommy “got boo boos everywhere.”

Two immense red flags are noticeable right away.  First, the brutal overkill indicated that this killing was intensely personal.  Second, killers often maneuver a third person into discovering the body, as Jason did with Meredith in this case.  Both facts pointed to Jason as the murderer and made his subsequent refusal to discuss the case with detectives even more suspicious.

The Book

Murder on Birchleaf Drive opens with the discover of Michelle’s body.  It then traces the background of the couple and the long path through their disintegrating marriage.  There is also coverage of the investigation.  Epstein devotes a significant part of the book to the trial—two trials, since the first resulted in a hung jury, not surprising since he is a veteran attorney and a partner in a North Carolina law firm.

Two things are interesting about the trials.  One is the dearth of physical evidence.  Prosecutors had to make a largely circumstantial case.  The other is Jason’s attempt to manufacture an alibi that involved sneaking out of and back into a hotel and tampering with security cameras.  It did take two trials, but a jury did convict Jason of murder in the first degree, in 2012, nearly six years after Michelle’s murder.  Judge Donald Stephens sentenced him to life without parole, saying he had “no quarrel” with the jury verdict.

Appeals

The verdict and sentencing were not the end of the Jason Young story, however.  On April Fool’s Day 2014, the Court of Appeals overturned Jason’s conviction based on an obscure technicality.  The North Carolina Supreme Court reversed this decision and reinstated the conviction the following year.  Jason’s lawyers made one more attempt to have the conviction set aside, this time based on a claim of “ineffective assistance of counsel,” but this effort ultimately failed.

My Take on the Book

I liked Murder on Birchleaf Drive for its deep-dive into the backgrounds of not only Michelle and Jason but of key family members as well.  Part of the story is the long fight over first visitation with then custody of custody of the Youngs’ daughter, Cassidy, on behalf of Michelle’s mother and sister.

I did find it a bit difficult to work through the chapters on the two trials.  They present the legal cases and arguments in fine detail, as one expects from an attorney turned author, but non-lawyers may find these chapters a bit tedious.

But overall, I liked the book and readily recommend it.

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Cold Blooded

Cold Blooded examines the 959 murders that took place in this house
Clutter house (SundanceTV)

Last week I mentioned Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood as a candidate for the first modern true crime book. This week, I review a more recent look at the crime that inspired Capote. Cold Blooded is a four-episode documentary presented by SundanceTV.

The Crime and the Book

In the wee morning hours of Sunday, November 15, 1959, two ex-convicts broke into the home of Herb and Bonnie Clutter in the small village of Holcomb, Kansas. Richard Hickock and Perry Smith expected to find a safe stuffed with money. Instead, they left with barely $50 in cash, a pair of binoculars, and a transistor radio. They also left behind the dead bodies of Herb and Bonnie and two of their four children, Nancy and Kenyon (two older daughters no longer lived at home).

Capote read about the crime in the New York Times and decided it was the perfect subject for his concept of a “nonfiction novel,” a factual account using novelists’ techniques. He headed to Kansas with his friend, writer Harper Lee, in tow. The resulting book wasn’t published until 1965, six years after the crime. In Cold Blood was an instant sensation and a best-seller. It really put Capote on the map and made him famous. But not everyone back in Kansas was happy with the book or the 1967 film based on it.

Surviving family members felt the book and the film didn’t portray the Clutters’ lives fully or even accurately, and instead sensationalized their deaths. Some also felt that Capote was overly empathetic to Hickock and Smith at the expense of their victims. Nor surprising, perhaps, because the writer spent considerable time interviewing the two killers.

A New Documentary — Cold Blooded

SundanceTV released the four-episode documentary, Cold Blooded: The Clutter Family Murders, in 2017. It uses archival film, audio clips, and interviews with surviving friends and members of the Clutter family to tell a more complete story.

The first episode presents the Clutters in a level of detail that In Cold Blood didn’t. It deals with the murders, of course, but is sympathetic to the victims. Friends and relatives also relate their reaction to the news of the deaths.

Episode two follows the hunt for the killers. The names of Hickock and Smith emerged early in the investigation, offered up by a former cellmate of Hickock’s who found the reward money too tempting to resist. Identifying suspects was easier than finding them, although police arrested the pair in Las Vegas, Nevada barely just five weeks after they violated the Clutter home.

Hickock’s and Smith’s trial is the subject of the third episode. Held in Garden City, the largest town near Holcomb and the seat of Finney County, the trial was of immense local interest although it attracted little national attention at the time. Given that Hickock confessed shortly after his arrest, naming Smith as the actual triggerman, it was hardly surprising that the jury returned two convictions for first-degree murder. Judge Roland H. Tate sentenced the pair to death by hanging.

The final episode tracks the case through Hickock’s and Smiths appeals and execution. It also examines the effect that the book and film versions of In Cold Blood had on the Clutter family and the town of Holcomb.

Evaluation

Cold Blooded is a balanced account of a tragic event and how it affected the people involved. The participation, anonymously, of a Clutter granddaughter and great-granddaughter lend an air of accuracy that is sometimes missing from Capote’s book. Viewers see how the crime affected friends, family, and neighbors.

The series is also the story of the investigation. It focuses largely on Alvin Dewey, the lead investigator from the Kansas Bureau of Investigation. Even though two suspects quickly emerged thanks to Hickock’s former cellmate, locating, tracking, and arresting the fugitives is an interesting story in itself.

Recommendation

The Clutter family that viewers meet in Cold Blooded is three-dimensional and human, more than simply victims.  It is a worthy epilogue to In Cold Blood and is worth watching.

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