The Accountant’s Story: Inside the Violent World of the Medellín Cartel – Roberto Escobar with David Fisher


On September 14, 1986, United States President Ronald Reagan (1911-2004) gave a speech to the nation on the Campaign Against Drug Abuse. And though he did not mention names of drug lords, those with knowledge of the flood of narcotics entering the United States aware that Reagan was also speaking to Pablo Emilio Escobar Gaviria (1949-1993), the head of the Medellín cartel who had earned a place on Forbes’ list of the world’s wealthiest figures. Seven more years passed before Escobar met his fate on December 2, 1993, but prior to the final act of his life, Escobar continued to earn billions of dollars as cocaine became the drug of choice. There are countless documentaries, films, and articles about Pablo, but his brother Roberto has remained in the shadows. His role as the organization’s accountant and proximity to his brother, allowed him to witness the rise and fall of the Medellín cartel. And this is his story of that world and what really happened in their lives as Pablo became the most wanted drug lord in the world.

Before reading this book, I knew of Roberto Escobar, but I did not know his personal story. I did expect it to mirror Pablo’s but the perspective from Roberto’s view is unique on its own and raises questions about morality that I did not expect. Further, what he reveals adds more complication to the legend and infamy of Pablo. After a brief explanation of the family’s history which traces its maternal routes to Spain, Roberto focuses on the young Pablo who has no interest in narcotics. In fact, Robert explains that “in 1974 Pablo was studying political science at the Universidad de Antiochia. There are many who believe Pablo was an uneducated man who succeeded only through drugs. That simply is not true.” But the most significant aspect of the early Pablo’s life is his vision of becoming president of Colombia. It may sound comical looking back in hindsight, but the book leaves no room to believe that Escobar was insincere about this. And though he was trafficking narcotics, he did want to be president of the country.  This is supported by Pablo’s successful political campaign in which he ran for Congress and was elected. Of course, the drugs were never far away but as we learn from Roberto, Pablo did not start out as a narcotics trafficker nor did the violence in Colombia start with the Medellín cartel. Those who are from Colombia or have visited Latin America may find this sobering statement from Roberto that “Colombia has always been a country of violence. It was part of our heritage” to be hauntingly accurate.

After engaging in the transport of contraband and a narrow escape from police, Pablo realizes that he needs another stream of revenue and learns about a paste made from coca leaf extracts. It is chance event that changes history and the lives of all Colombians. But Pablo was unknown outside of Colombia early in his career and the leap from domestic trafficker to public enemy number one of Washington is a fascinating story, and Roberto delivers the goods. We learn that America was always a good drug market and traffic from Colombia and other parts of South America flew under the radar. But that all changed in 1979 when The United States and Colombia signed an extradition agreement to extradite drug traffickers to America to stand trial. It was a move in the making and changed the lives of Pablo and Roberto permanently. However, before that took place, Roberto knew that America was an entirely different arena and recalls that “for the entire family, our lives changed forever the day my brother decided to send his drugs to America“. War was declared and it has not let up to this day. And to drive home the significance of the agreement, Roberto goes on to explain that “Although none of us knew it at the time, the wars had actually begun in 1979, when the United States and Colombia signed a treaty that declared drug trafficking a crime against the United States and permitted Colombian traffickers to be extradited to the U.S. It was that law that changed everything.”

Within Colombia, Pablo and his family enjoy life as they could have never imagined with unlimited access to cash, enforcers, and political influence. However, I could not overlook the deeds by Pablo for the poor people of Colombia. And this part of the book presents a duality the remains constant throughout the story. We know Pablo is dealing drugs, but he also becomes a Robin Hood type figure who commits unbelievably generous acts of kindness, one of which is Barrio Escobar which stands to this day. The complicated nature of Pablo is observed by Roberto who cautions his sibling when needed and provides explanations for the decisions they make. And to be fair, Roberto does not shy away from criticizing his brother in the book when necessary. The best example is Pablo’s entry in politics which the author strongly disagreed with. But that was only the beginning in a bitter feud with the Colombia Government that included the Cali cartel, police hit squads and the notorious group of killers called Los Pepes. Colombia was turned into a bloodbath and the Escobars were the top prizes to be captured. The stories from Roberto are unbelievable and show that the idea of safety was a foreign concept for victims of the drug wars. The violence escalates in the book as expected and readers may want to use discretion.

Any story about Escobar must address the elephant in the room and that is the sad fate of Avianca Airlines Flight 203. Roberto explains that he did not know of any plot, but had he known he would have stopped Pablo. There is no smoking gun and any discussions about it were hidden from Roberto, most likely to protect him from prosecution. This act combined with the attacks on government buildings, political assassinations and deadly battles with Colombian police units, catapulted Pablo to a level of infamy from which he has never descended and never will. Yet while these things were taking place, he was still committing acts of kindness to those in need. But he was firm in his determination to never be incarcerated in an American jail and was clear to Roberto that he would rather die on Colombia soil than sit in a United States prison. In the end he got his wish.

Following the Avianca tragedy, the writing is on the wall, and we know that Pablo will not escape alive. But there is still more carnage to come, and Colombia saw more bloodshed before the drug lord was ambushed and eliminated. Roberto recounts those finals weeks with Pablo and the feeling they both had as the walls closed in. Both were deeply affected by the isolation from their children and Roberto goes through three marriages while telling the story. The Escobar name became a liability and the bounty placed on their heads resulted in death coming from all angles. But following Pablo’s demise, their mother takes action to end the battles with the Cali cartels and rebel groups with astonishing courage. Roberto suffered a different fate and his ordeal in prison at the time of Pablo’s death and its aftermath are beyond shocking. It is a miracle that he is alive today. The glory days of the Medellín cartel are gone but drug trafficking continues to exist. But there was a time when a simple man from Colombia with an unobstructed vision of destiny became the poster boy for the cocaine trafficking industry. And along for the ride was his brother Roberto who served as the accountant, confidant and voice of reason when needed. If you want to know the real story of Pablo Escobar, this book is a must read and a welcome addition to the books we have now about the man who entrenched himself permanently in the history of Colombia.

“It is impossible to even imagine how much money remains put away somewhere, probably never to be discovered. People who managed millions of dollars got killed without telling anyone where the money was hidden. Or they took the money and disappeared when Pablo was killed. I feel sure there are undiscovered coletas in houses all throughout Colombia—but also in New York and Miami, Chicago and Los Angeles, and the other cities in which Medellín did business. I am also certain there are bank accounts in countries whose numbers have been lost and forgotten and never will be opened again.” 

-Roberto Escobar


The Killing of Tupac Shakur: Who Did It and Why? – Cathy Scott

scottAt 4:03 p.m. on September 13, 1996, rap star Tupac Shakur (1971-1996) died from gunshot wounds he received on September 7 while riding in the passenger seat of a BWM driven by former Death Row Records CEO Marion “Suge” Knight on the Las Vegas strip. Shakur was twenty-five years old and left behind a complicated legacy that remains a top of discussion in rap music culture. I remember with vivid clarity the shock that was felt when his death was announced and have always believed that a part of the rap music genre died with him that day. Officially his murder is listed as unsolved and an open case by the Las Vegas Police Department. Off the record, it has been alleged and believed that Crips gang member Orlando “Baby Lane” Anderson (1974-1998) pulled the trigger of the gun that ended Shakur’s life. The case is filled with rumors, mysteries, and chilling facts. Journalist Cathy Scott stepped into this murky world to set the record straight on Shakur’s murder.

Anderson was never charged by Las Vegas Police for Shakur’s murder but the physical altercation between the two earlier that night at the MGM Grand Hotel did provide a highly probable motive. He had been attacked and beaten by an entourage composed of Shakur, Knight, and affiliates of Death Row Records, who were visiting Las Vegas to attend the Mike Tyson – Bruce Seldon boxing match. The incident was captured on camera and the footage is widely available on the internet for those who have yet to see it. After the shooting on the strip, Anderson was questioned but not detained by police. In interviews following the rapper’s death, he maintained his innocence, and any secrets he did have went with him to his grave when he himself died from gunshot wounds on May 29, 1998. For a more thorough examination of Orlando Anderson’s story, I recommend Lolita Files’s ‘Once Upon a Time in Compton, which provides a more detailed analysis of the raids by the Los Angeles Police Department and Compton Police Department on Anderson’s homes and the evidence that was seized. The information is based on the work of former Compton Gang Unit detectives Tim “Blondie” Brennand and Robert Ladd.

It should be noted that no “smoking gun” exists here in the book. If it had, Scott would have certainly been heralded as the person who finally revealed the truth. Instead, the book is a thorough and chronology of the events that night, the subsequent investigation, and the relevant murder of rapper Christopher “The Notorious B.I.G.” Wallace (1972-1997), whose death on March 9, 1997, seemed to indicate that it was open season on rappers. Interestingly, I found that although I have followed the Shakur case since the shooting, there were things that I learned here that I had not previously known. Further, Scott does not subscribe to any conspiracy theories, thus removing any trace of bias in the book. She is the investigative reporter relaying to the reader what she discovered.

Before discussing the murder, the author sets the stage by exploring the background of Death Row Records and its founder. Readers who have watched the documentary ‘Welcome to Death Row‘ will be familiar with the label’s history and the role of convicted drug dealer Michael “Harry O” Harris. The documentary is far more extensive in the amount of information provided but Scott includes the right amount here to provide an overall picture of how Suge Knight accumulated power in the American music industry. The life of Tupac is also discussed and anyone who has not seen the film ‘Tupac Resurrection‘, should view it either before or after reading this book. In 1995, the lives of Knight and Shakur crossed paths when the CEO offered Tupac a way out of prison. Contrary to widely held belief, Suge Knight did not bail Tupac out of jail but did facilitate the move. The truth about who bailed him out can be found in this New York Times article. Before their meeting was over, Tupac promised that he would put Death Row on the map. He did not exaggerate.

On September 7, 1996, Shakur attended the short-lived boxing match between Tyson and Seldon. While walking through the lobby, his entourage spotted Anderson standing by himself. The story that has persisted over the years is that Trayvon Lane whispered something in Tupac’s ear that caused him to take off running towards Anderson. Investigators later learned that Anderson was part of a group that had assaulted Lane and taken his Death Row chain and medallion and the Lakewood Mall in July 1996. To this day there is speculation regarding what Lane said since he has never given interviews and Shakur is deceased. What is clear is that Tupac was intent on getting to Anderson. Following the assault at the MGM, all hell broke loose as shots were heard on the strip. Police rushed to the scene to find Shakur and Knight wounded. The author goes through the events minute by minute capturing the chaos that ensued. She also reveals that multiple cars did chase the white Cadillac seen by witnesses but there is no further mention of what happened as a result. Finding witnesses willing to talk proved to be a challenge for investigators but one member of the rap group “The Outlaws” named Yafeu Fula (1977-1996), did tell detectives that he was able to see the shooter’s face. The lost opportunity to utilize his knowledge is an additional tragedy in the book and his fate will leave readers speechless.

There was one part of Scott’s discussion of Orlando that did stand out with regard to the lawsuit filed by Anderson against Shakur’s estate and Afeni’s countersuit. Both were pending at the time of Anderson’s death but there had been a surprising turn of events in the case hours before his death. Anderson was no saint, but it is hard to answer the question as to who he really was. The facts presented by Scott stand in contrast to the street reputation of “Baby Lane”. On the A & E show ‘Who Killed Tupac‘, his brother and cousin adamantly stated that Anderson did not shoot Shakur. While reading the book a sense of gloom overcame me due to the story serving as an example of the black-on-black violence that continues to plague inner-city neighborhoods. The author is mindful of this and includes statistics that are sobering. As relayed by Scott,

Statistics show that black-on-black gun violence has been the leading cause of death for black youths 15 to 19 years old since 1969. From 1987 to 1989, the gun homicide rate for black males 15 to 19 increased 71 percent. Of the roughly 20,000 murders committed each year in the U.S. between 1991 and 1995, 50 percent were cases involving black victims.

After Shakur was admitted to the hospital, the level of craziness continued to escalate. Due to Shakur’s notoriety, the hospital found itself a target of the press, prank callers and enemies of the slain rapper. In the years since this book was published, YouTube has become a powerful platform for video presentations and multiple people affiliated with Death Row Records have spoken publicly about the events in Las Vegas. Kenya Ware was a stylist for the record label and Shakur. She spoke with him shortly before the shooting and stated in interviews that as they sat on the Las Vegas strip stunned, passing cars continued to taunt the Death Row entourage. It is not clear if Scott knew this at the time, but she does recall discussions she had outside the hospital with more than one person who told her that they knew who did it and the shooters were not from Las Vegas. That explains the retaliation shootings discussed in the book that erupted across Compton, California in the wake of Shakur’s death.

Inside the hospital, the scene was somber and tense. Scott brings the past alive and discards anything that is hearsay. Her possession of the official autopsy report placed her in a position to stick to the facts of how the rapper died. Stories about Tupac’s final days at the hospital are endless and filtering truth from fiction is a challenge. However, she sticks to the facts and keeps the story streamlined and void of useless gossip. In doing her due diligence as a reporter, Scott spoke to hospital personnel who revealed the absurd phone calls they received. After Shakur died, the number of calls increased, and what the callers were in search of speaks volumes about human nature. Afeni Shakur (1947-2016) had flown to Las Vegas after learning her son was shot and endured days of agony before the end came for him. But she might not have known at the time that her work on behalf of her son was just beginning. Scott discusses Afeni’s actions after her son’s death and her contributions to his legacy. Sadly, Afeni passed on May 2, 2016.

The elephant in the room is the feud between Shakur and Wallace but the author refutes any claims that Bad Boy Records CEO Sean “Puffy” Combs played a role in Shakur’s death. In fact, the entire book is filled with clarifications of long-running rumors with no basis in fact. One rumor is the belief that Suge Knight orchestrated the hit. I never believed the theory nor did the author. Knight, who is serving a twenty-eight-year prison sentence on unrelated charges, has always denied being behind the shooting. She also puts to rest conspiracy theories that claim Shakur is alive after having faked his own death. This book was published in 2002, nine years before the publication of former Los Angeles police officer Greg Kading’s ‘Murder Rap‘ in which Orlando Anderson’s uncle Duane “Keefe D” Davis reveals how Shakur was allegedly killed. Scott was not aware of these claims at the time she wrote this but further complicating matters is that Davis’s claims are unable to be verified as the three other people whom he said were in the car are deceased. Personally, one part of Davis’s story that always bothered me was if he participated in the murder, then why were there no attempts on his life that we know of? And why haven’t Las Vegas police arrested him if he is confessing to being part of the murder? I do not know if Scott will publish a follow-up to his book or a revision addressing Davis’s claims, but if she does, it will be an enjoyable read. Kading has made a name for himself on the matter, but I strongly recommend readers listen to a podcast called ‘The Dossier’ which focuses on the murder of Christopher Wallace and its connection to Shakur’s death.

In recent years, interest in the murders of both rappers has increased and it is remarkable that more than twenty years later, we are still talking about their lives. Both are tragedies in which two young men died far too young. I will never forget the sense of loss felt when their deaths were announced and the realization that rap feuds had moved from the records to the streets. On one of the busiest nights of the year on one of the busiest streets in the country, Shakur was shot and killed in front of hundreds of witnesses, yet his murder remains unsolved as the television show of the same name shows. We may never know the full truth about the shooting that took his life, but this is the story of his murder as it happened in September 1996. Highly recommended.

“I’m not saying I’m gonna change world. But I guarantee that I will spark the brain that will change the world. So keep your head up. Do what you gotta do. And then inside of you, I’ll be reborn“.                    – Tupac Amaru Shakur


The Making of Lee Boyd Malvo: The D.C. Sniper – Carmeta Albarus and Jonathan M. Mack

MalvoIn October 2002, a series of murders occurred between the states of Maryland and Virginia, and the federal District of Columbia that spread fear and panic across the United States. News reports of a sniper moving across the area and striking at will, left law enforcement scrambling and citizens seeking arms and shelter. I remember watching the nightly news in anticipation that the police had captured the person(s) responsible for the crimes. On October 24, 2002, the nation felt relieved when John Allen Muhammad (1960-2009) and Lee Boyd Malvo were arrested while sleeping in their Chevrolet Caprice near Myersville, Maryland. Both were tried and convicted, with Muhammad receiving the death penalty and Malvo being sentenced to life in prison due to his age at the time of the murders. Muhammad was executed on November 10, 2009, at the Greenville Correctional Center in Jarratt, Virginia and Malvo remains in prison today.

Malvo’s age drew intrigue from doctors and legal analysts with all wondering how a seventeen-year-old kid could have committed unimaginable crimes. John Allen Muhammad had become a second father to Malvo and had deeply influenced Malvo’s thoughts but what was not fully understood was how and why he was able to control his under-age conspirator. Carmeta Albarus is the president of CVA Consulting Services, Inc. and was hired during the investigation into the crimes to find information on Malvo’s background. As part of her work, she met with Malvo extensively and served as an advisor throughout his trial. This book is her explanation of what she discovered as the pieces of his life came together.

To understand Lee Boyd Malvo, we must travel back in time to the Caribbean nation of Jamaica where Malvo was born on February 17, 1985, to Leslie Malvo and Una James. The story is typical at first, but it soon becomes clear that trouble is brewing between Malvo’s parents. They eventually part ways and as the author shows, Malvo’s life was never the same again. Prior to reading this book, I did not know what Albarus reveals in this book. Malvo is a textbook case of the dangers that exist due to broken homes. The relationship between Malvo and his mother Una is unquestionably the root of the issues that came back to haunt both in later years. As I read the book, I could not believe what transpired between the two and the number of missed opportunities to provide Malvo with the foundation a child needs. However, there are times when Malvo knew his actions were wrong and he even admits to them. Further, Albarus was able to get close to him due in part to their shared Jamaican ancestry. This undoubtedly helped her gain Malvo’s trust and access to the demons that haunt him to this day. But even she could not have fathomed the level of dysfunction that existed because of a fractured relationship between mother and son and a dark figure eager to unleash a reign of terror.

Readers will notice that Malvo is never in one place for too long. His arrival in Antigua changed his life and set into motion a series of events that culminated with Malvo pulling the trigger on innocent victims. Una’s absence from Antigua could not have come at a worse time for John Allen Muhammad had also arrived on the island and from the start, he makes himself known as a disciplinary who can connect with the youth and influence their actions and thoughts. The information Albarus uncovered is overwhelming, yet it also explains why Malvo was drawn to the mysterious Muhammad. I knew that Muhammad had been in the military but there were details of his personal life of which I was not aware. He too was haunted by his past and Antigua served not only as a recruitment station but also as a place of refuge from America. However, he is without question the antagonist in the book. Had the two not been arrested, the number of victims would have been far higher. The two drifters found what they were looking for in each other and before long, a son would be lost, a father gone, and a nation would find itself on high alert.

The writing style used in the book is fluid and does not exude bias or condemnation. In fact, Albarus does an excellent job of analyzing Malvo and letting him speak for himself about his turbulent life. But at no time does she absolve him of guilt and confronts him on several things. He murdered innocent people, but this book poses the question, would he have done so had his home been stable and he had not John Allen Muhammad? The evidence presented by Albarus strongly indicates that he would be a free and functional adult today had his circumstances been different. It is rare for youths of Malvo’s age at the time of the murders to commit such heinous crimes and when they do happen, people are left to wonder why. In profiling Lee Boyd Malvo, Albarus tackles the tough questions getting to the root of the issues he had. And those issues played a significant role in his inability to think independently, walk away from Muhammad and confront the unresolved issues between him and his mother. To be fair, there were people who tried their best to help Malvo while enduring the wrath of his mother Una. Despite their efforts, the young Malvo never found a haven. And as Albarus states frankly:

“We believe that if even one person had stood up for Malvo to keep him in a positive foster placement, such as with the Maxwells, free from his mother’s constant disruption of the positives in his life, he would not have been susceptible to Muhammad’s machinations.” 

The book is not an attempt to lay blame for the crimes elsewhere. It is a thorough discussion of what happens when we fail children. My brother and I were lucky to have both parents at home as kids and we are more fortunate today to still have them in our lives. The late rap star Tupac Shakur once said that “you need a man to teach you how to be a man”. Truer words have rarely been spoken. Malvo himself is cognizant of the role his own father played in his development. Albarus notes that:

“As I tentatively brought up the subject of Malvo’s life in Jamaica, he spoke passionately about his biological father, Leslie Malvo. “He gave me balance. My dad was the nurturer.” That balance was upset when the bond with his biological father was broken.” 

Towards the end of the book, I could not help thinking that there somewhere out there is another Lee Boyd Malvo who is in danger of falling into the wrong hands. The key is reaching him or her before it is too late. For Lee Boyd Malvo, that time has passed, and he has the rest of his life to think about the actions that led to his permanent incarceration. The families of the victims will never fully heal and the names of John Allen Muhammad and Lee Boyd Malvo will remain infamous for an eternity. If you remember the D.C. Sniper attacks and have unanswered questions about the relationship between Malvo and Muhammad, this book is highly recommended.


The Wrong Carlos: Anatomy of a Wrongful Execution – James S. Liebman and the Columbia Deluna Project

carlosOn the evening of February 4, 1983, twenty-four-year-old Wanda Lopez arrived at the Sigmor Shamrock gas station in Corpus Christi, Texas, to begin her shift as a gas station attendant. She never finished that shift. After noticing a suspicious male brandishing a knife, Lopez called police not once but twice before she was savagely attacked and fatally wounded. In less than one hour, police arrested twenty-year-old Carlos Deluna and charged him with the murder. Deluna entered a plea of not guilty and chose to stand trial where he was convicted and later sentenced to death. On December 7, 1989, he was executed at the Texas State Penitentiary at Huntsville. Prosecutors had secured a conviction and put forth the notion that justice had been served in the State of Texas. However, Deluna maintained his innocence from the start and stated more than once that he knew who did kill Lopez. The name “Carlos Hernandez” became an area of interest, yet officials claimed that no such person existed, nor had he been incarcerated in Texas. But were they telling the truth? And was justice served in Deluna’s execution? James S. Liebman and the Columbia Deluna Project examined the Lopez murder and the fate of Carlos Deluna to uncover what really happened and find the truth behind a dark story that will send chills down the spine of readers.

Before reading this book, I was not familiar with Carlos Deluna or the murder of Wanda Lopez. But that quickly changed as I began to read this unsettling and thought-provoking account of the justice system failing to deliver due process. The book focuses on the Lopez murder early on as expected. From the start, the crime itself makes no sense and we learn early that a couple of the witnesses whom the police questioned remained haunted by that night. And their admissions regarding what they saw or thought they saw that night, set the stage for the saga to come, and presents the basis for doubt of Deluna’s guilt. After presenting the subsequent statements of witnesses to the crime, the authors take us back to that night in February 1983 when Wanda Lopez lived her last moments. Readers sensitive to graphic descriptions of violence and crime scenes may find this part of the book difficult. However, the scene and actions of forensic investigators will have enormous consequences later in the story, when the authors review the collection of vital evidence.

Deluna was assigned legal counsel and the job of defending him fell on Hector De Peña and James Lawrence. De Peña had no experience in defending a capital murder defendant, but Lawrence was an experienced trial lawyer. To their credit, De Peña and Lawrence do their best to mount a defense but come across naive to the determination of prosecutors to see their client convicted and sentenced to death. Despite the State’s imposing presence, De Peña and Lawrence also made mistakes in defending their client. Deluna insisted all along that he was innocent and was adamant that Carlos Hernandez was the man responsible for Lopez’s death, yet it seemed as if no one took him seriously. But just who was Carlos Hernandez and was he as dangerous as Deluna stated?

I have read accounts of countless murder suspects, but few come across as deadly and cold-blooded as Carlos Hernandez. Frankly, the man was pure evil and his propensity for violence towards women is chilling and on full display in the book. He is undoubtedly the darkest figure in the story but incredibly, he was well-known to law enforcement and had committed offenses before and after Lopez’s murder. And as readers will learn, prosecutors were aware of his existence but made no attempt to present him in Deluna’s trial. Deluna’s counsel failed to follow leads that might have taken them to Hernandez. As someone who works in the legal field, I found myself staring in disbelief at the legal practice conducted by the prosecution and defense. And I kept asking myself why a man like Carlos Hernandez was allowed back on the streets of Texas when authorities knew how dangerous he was? And why did Deluna’s lawyers fail to call witnesses who could have provided the jurors with vital information about Deluna’s personal issues and Hernandez’s existence?

I warn readers that Hernandez is a dark figure, but the mini biography provided by the authors does provide explanations as to why he became a monster. To say that his family was dysfunctional would be an understatement. As for Deluna, the authors also provide a biographical sketch of him, and his back story explains his own path in life. Surprisingly, the two men both named Carlos were not strangers to each other and it is this part of the story that seemed to be lost on all counsel. As I read, I kept scratching my head at the missed opportunities to locate Carlos Hernandez and put an end to the mystery. And considering the multitude of crimes that Hernandez committed and his own admissions, it does make one wonder how he evaded punishment so many times. There was more to his story than the State wanted defense counsel to discover. The authors provide another crucial piece of evidence in their assessment that directly addresses the eyewitness testimony: side-by-side photos of both men. When I saw the photo of both men side-by-side, I could not tell them apart and would have picked “the wrong Carlos” myself. Without the aid of DNA technology, eyewitness testimony and forensic evidence were the tools of the trade, and the police made a mess of both.

Earlier I mentioned that the crime scene and actions of investigators had an enormous impact on the trial. The way it impacted the trial is explained by the authors who pay close attention to the handling of evidence and the failure to preserve clues that could have proven conclusively the guilt or innocence of the correct person. If you have watched any modern-day crime show such as “The First 48”, then you know the collection of evidence is the primary concern of investigators. Readers will find themselves aghast as the actions of crime scene investigators. I could not believe what I was reading. If new detectives need a case study on what not to do, it can be found here. Though they did not know it at the time, the actions of investigators helped seal the fate of Carlos Deluna.

It becomes clear in the book that Deluna is headed for conviction. The deck is stacked against him. Following the guilty conviction, the next phase of determining whether he should die was a foregone conclusion. However, he and his family never gave up and exhausted the appeals process to secure his freedom. Yet again, Deluna had legal counsel who neither prepared the case appropriately nor sought to find the mysterious Carlos Hernandez who was hiding in plain sight. The book is both spellbinding and overwhelming. And to think that his happened in America where we are entitled to due process is upsetting. If Carlos Deluna was not a poor man of Mexican heritage but a rich man of another background, he might be alive today. And Carlos Hernandez would have found himself on death row.

Admittedly, Carlos Deluna was no angel and had been in trouble with the law himself before Lopez’s murder. However, his cognitive and emotional issues were neglected throughout his life and resulted in him finding companionship with people who only knew violence and dysfunction. Today Deluna would have at his disposal programs and counseling to help with his issues but in 1983 in a poor part of Texas, help was almost non-existent and slow cognitive development was stigmatized. I never met Carlos Deluna, but I now know his story. Despite everything he went through, he left his family with these words that show a man resigned to his fate and adamant about his innocence:

“I want to say I hold no grudges. I hate no one. I love my family. Tell everyone on death row to keep the faith and don’t give up. —Last words of Carlos DeLuna, December 7, 1989, as recorded by the Texas Department of Criminal Justice.” – Carlos Deluna

This is the story of Carlos Deluna, Carlos Hernandez, and a murder in Corpus Christi, Texas that shows how society and the criminal justice system failed those they were designed to protect.


John Wayne Gacy: Defending a Monster: The True Story of the Lawyer Who Defended One of the Most Evil Serial Killers in History – Sam L. Amirante and Danny Broderick

gacy On May 19, 1994, American serial killer John Wayne Gacy (1942-1994) was executed by lethal injection at Stateville Correctional Center in Joliet, Ill, after being convicted of multiple murder charges. It is  believed by some people that there were more victims of Gacy that have never been identified. The truth went to the grave with Gacy but what is on the record are the thirty-three homicides attributed to Gacy during his reign of terror. His attorney, Sam Amirante, had just started his own private defense practice when Gacy sought him out for legal representation. Amirante could not have known that his first client would catapult him into the public spotlight in ways none one could have imagined. This is the story of how it happened and how Amirante’s life changed while he defended one of America’s deadliest serial killers.

I previously reviewed the book by former prosecutor Terry Sullivan titled Killer Clown: The John Wayne Gacy Murders that focused on the efforts by law enforcement and the district attorney to build a case against Gacy. It is an interesting look into how the murder investigation developed and the impact it had on police and the people of Illinois. Amirante’s book is equally as effective but views the case from the other side. Essentially, how do you defend a monster who has just told you about murders that he has committed? After getting himself drunk, Gacy arrived at Amirante’s office for a pre-arranged visit and confessed to his lawyers that he had committed multiple murders, leaving Amirante and his partner speechless. It soon becomes clear that insanity is the only defense. But how do you defend a man who does not think there is anything mentally wrong with himself? There was no “blueprint” in dealing with a client like John Wayne Gacy and Amirante had been given an impossible task. But to his credit, he mounted a defense in the face of enormous evidence that proved Gacy’s guilt, in particular the human remains found in the crawl space underneath his house. Readers may wonder how Amirante was able to do his job knowing that thirty-three men lost their lives at the hands of Gacy. The answer is quite simple and Amirante delivers the explanation showing his belief in the legal system he swore an oath to uphold:

“It’s much easier to hate the bad guy than it is to support the hard reality that if we are to continue to enjoy our freedoms, if our Constitution is to survive, it has to be supported in all circumstances, even when to do so seems hard.” 

Whether he believed Gacy would be found innocent by reason of insanity is not entirely clear. In fact, Amirante explains on multiple occasions throughout the book how the evidence helped seal Gacy’s fate. And in a twist of fate, it was a small photo receipt belonging to Nissan Pharmacy Kim Byers was found in Gacy’s house that unraveled the murder mysteries. And though the receipt belonged to someone who was still alive, it established that Robert Jerome Piest (1963-1978) had been in Gacy’s house. The fallout from that discovery eventually led to Gacy’s arrest and showed America the dark side of human nature.  According to people who knew him, Gacy was well-liked, successful and viewed as a family-oriented person. Neighbors could not believe that the man they said hello to, had been murdering young men and burying them underneath his home and dumping other remains in nearby rivers. But the evidence did not lie and with Gacy’s statements, jurors found it fairly easy to convict him. But to his credit, Amirante was a shrewd lawyer and wins small victories through the trial. Law students and those interested in legal practice will appreciate his explanations of the criminal defense system and the strategies used to save Gacy’s life, if possible.

Amirante does not attempt to exonerate Gacy for his behavior. But he did believe that Gacy suffered from some level issue of mental disability. But his client’s ability to compartmentalize various aspects of his life made defending John Wayne Gacy an insurmountable task. And even when he was convicted of the murders, Gacy was mentally somewhere else. A sentence of capital punishment was handed out, but Gacy appeared to be indifferent to his own fate. As Amirante explains:

“Only one person in the room was dry-eyed, only one. John Wayne Gacy stood at the defense table, bewildered and lost.”

There are mysteries of Gacy’s life that are lost to history.  He is no longer here to explain his past actions in further detail. That may be a good thing as his past deeds are some of the most macabre in American history. Despite his atrocious crimes, he was entitled to due process, a component guaranteed under the laws of this nation. Amirante knew his client was a monster, but he had a job to do as a defense lawyer.  And in this book, he does it admirably, even at great personal sacrifice. His family went through quite an ordeal as detailed in the book and it should not be overlooked by readers, how difficult it must have been for him to defend his client.  To Amirante’s disappointment, Gacy was convicted by a jury of his peers, and I believe rightfully so. Serial killers will always be with us but that should never deter us from understanding how they are created in the hopes that future killers can be prevented. John Wayne Gacy will remain a case study in homicidal rage and a killer that continues to haunt America.  We may not like the legal system at times and might prefer the court of public opinion, but if we believe in the constitution, then even the worst of us are innocent until proven guilty.  This book is a prime example of an attorney who deeply believes in the American legal system and performed a task that many would have avoided. Good read.

“There are two reasons that will cause good men to abandon their long-standing, dearly held morals, values, and principles and revert to more primitive, barbaric practices to resolve conflict. That is when their hearts are filled with anger or when their hearts are filled with fear.” 

ASIN ‏ : ‎ B005HJ9MOE

Manson in His Own Words – Charles Manson with Nuel Emmons


Emmons The name Charles Milles Manson (1934-2017) is among the most notorious in American history.  During August 8-10, 1969, followers of Manson committed a series of gruesome murders that shocked the country and revealed the dark side of human nature.  Though Manson never committed any of the murders himself, he helped coordinate their efforts and provided the encouragement needed for the heinous deeds to be carried out.  Among the victims was Folger’s coffee heir Abigail Folger (1943-1969) and actress Sharon Marie Tate Polanski (1943-1969). Initially, law enforcement was mystified by the crimes, but a break came in the case through the boasting and subsequent confession of Susan Atkins (1948-2009) who was being held on murder charges in the death of Gary Hinman (1934-1969).  Her statements and evidence gathered by investigators lead directly to Manson and others involved.  Manson received a death sentence for his role in the crimes, but his sentence was commuted to life in prison after the California Supreme Court declared the death penalty unconstitutional in 1972. He remained in prison until his death on November 19, 2017.  The general consensus is that Manson was the epitome of evil but who was he behind the scenes?  And how did he have such a hold over so many people?  Was Manson and evil genius or a fraud one would expect to find in the fictional Oz?  Nuel Emmons asked himself similar questions and decided to find out for himself by visiting Manson in prison.  And the result is this book which gives Manson a platform to speak for himself.  

Books of this nature are always subject to controversy because the debate will arise as to how much is the speaker’s own words and what percentage of the book was revised or added by editors.  Emmons explains that he knew Manson from prison where he had served time for a variety of crimes.  By the time he interviewed Manson he had put his own criminal life behind him.  What is clear is that Emmons did visit Manson and had served time with him so there is no reason for me to doubt that he spent considerable time with him.  I am certain that some parts of the manuscript were cleaned up by Emmons and the publishers, but I also believe that Manson did provide a significant amount of the information found in the book. And what I read stands in stark contrast to the image of Manson found in pop-culture. 

Manson begins with his childhood which has been discussed countless times.  An absent father and dysfunctional mother-son relationship set him down the wrong path from an early age and his experiences at the Indiana School for Boys shattered the remaining innocence found in children and young adults.  I warn readers that this part of the book is not easy to read.  We will probably never know the whole truth about Manson’s experiences there, but they did change his outlook in life.  Marriage and fatherhood enter the story and I learned a few things about Manson that I was unaware of before.  But as I read through the book, I began to see how he was failed by those closest to him and those in positions of power who could have changed his life.  He evolves as a creation and reflection of our society.

It is not long in the story before Manson begins to pick up fellow drifters and build a following.  After obtaining a van from a pastor whose daughter he had eyes on, his journey across America kicks into high gear.  And one by one, newcomers enter his circle and begin to follow “Charlie” anywhere he decides.  The word cult might be too strong to describe the situation, but Manson could have easily accumulated the number of followers that believed in figures such as David Koresh (1959-1993) and James Warren “Jim” Jones (1931-1978).  But the question still remains, why did they follow Manson?  From what is found in the book, it is apparent that Manson is no genius and in fact, he points out his failures more than once.  Of course, there are times where Manson makes himself out to be a good Samaritan but even that is up for debate.  His selfishness and lack of direction in life set the stage for his followers to do his bidding even at the expense of their own freedom and the tragic loss of life that came later.   His flock began to see him as almost godlike but the dysfunction brewing under the surface soon rises to the top. The use of narcotics combined with black market money-making schemes soon places Manson in tough positions and the actions of followers Charles “Tex” Watson and Susan Atkins initiated the downward spiral that culminated with the Tate-Labianca murders.  

Manson tries to absolve him of guilt in the Gary Hinman debacle but personally I was not convinced.  But he does admit that he could have prevented the Tate-Labianca murders but chose to do nothing.  And his rational for his followers’ actions is just mind boggling but does reaffirm that widespread belief that Manson was out of his mind.  But perhaps the darkest part of the book is his reaction to all of the murders.  This should remove all doubt that there was a “softer” side to Charles Manson.  This part of the book falls in line with the man we know from the media.  Emmons largely stays behind the scenes as Manson is talking but he does make this statement towards the end which I believe accurately sums up the myth of Charles Manson: 

“The “God” he perhaps was to his followers was turned into a monster for the rest of us. Yet Manson has no superhuman powers, neither divine nor demonic. The image of “the most dangerous man alive” bears little resemblance to the man I have been visiting these past seven years. Perhaps the myth of Charles Manson satisfied our hunger for sensationalism, but certainly it also absolved us of the darker side of the humanity we share with him.”

Charles Manson is gone forever but his ghost and past deeds will remain with us for an eternity.  This is an interesting look at figure who was once believed to be the most dangerous man in America.  Whether that was true or not is up to you. 

ASIN ‏ : ‎ B004I6DD56

Killer Clown: The John Wayne Gacy Murders – Terry Sullivan and Peter T. Maiken

SullivanOn December 11, 1978, Robert Jerome Piest (1963-1978) was finishing up his shift at Nisson Pharmacy when an older man approached him with the offer of a job in his contracting company. Piest told his mother Elizabeth that he would only be a few minutes. That was last time anyone saw Robert Piest alive.  Police would soon learn that the older gentlemen observed conversing with Piest was a local named John Wayne Gacy (1942-1994), a well-respected but peculiar figure who owned a company named PDM Contractors. Gacy initially denied any knowledge of Piest or his whereabouts that night but detectives felt that he was certainly hiding something.  Although he was only a person of interest at that time, none of the detectives could have known then that in only two years, the worst serial killer in American history would be convicted of multiple counts of murder.  Terry Sullivan was Supervisor of the Cook County State’s Attorney’s Third District office and here he teamed up with Peter Maiken (1934-2006) to bring us the inside story of the effort to bring John Wayne Gacy to justice.

I believe that it goes without saying but I will say here that readers should use discretion when deciding whether to read this book. The subject is sensitive and anyone who knows even slightest bit of information regarding John Wayne Gacy, knows that the story does not have a happy ending.  In fact, it is dark, disturbing and one of the most extreme true crime stories that you will ever read.  But that is also what makes it so appealing.  However, if you are not able to read descriptions of violent acts that result in death and post-mortem examinations, then you may want to give this book a pass.  But if you prefer true crime and have questions about Gacy’s story, then you have essentially hit pay dirt.  The book is a good as it gets and from start to finish, and is a roller coaster ride that will leave readers speechless.

Similar to most serial killers, Gacy was described as successful, charming and sociable.  His charm is on full display as he engages with a cat and mouse game with the police officers assigned to tail him as a person of interest.  Undoubtedly, much of what she says and does if overly flattering but the seductiveness of his charm when turned on is apparent and gives the book an even darker chill as the descriptions of his crimes come to light.  In an almost Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde routine, John would be friendly, overly helpful and a town role model but the darker John, cruised the streets at night, turning his city into his hunting grounds in which young men were fair game.  And between 1972 and 1978, he engaged in a reign of terror that took the lives of at thirty young men.

The book certainly reads like a true crime story and Sullivan moves us along in chronological order.  But it is interesting to see how the officers on the case and the district attorney’s office worked together to develop their file on Gacy, whom they all suspected of being in involved with the disappearance of Robert Piest.  However, as we see in the book, authorities had no idea at that time, that Gacy was hiding far darker deeds.  As their file grew, detectives began to learn more about Gacy and his criminal past which included a sodomy conviction and prison time at Anamosa State Penitentiary. Detectives began to take note of odd things at Gacy’s house, most importantly personal  items that did not belong to him and a rancid odor emanating from the kitchen and bathroom area.  After obtaining a second search warrant to search Gacy’s house,  detectives and forensic personnel made a grisly discovery that changed American history.  Coincidentally, Gacy had paid a visit to his attorneys’ office and what he would tell them left both men shaking.  The walls were closing in on Gacy and after he was in custody, the true nature of the horror detectives had uncovered became strikingly real.

It was clear to all involved that Gacy had in fact murdered a staggering amount of people, but detectives were also faced with the task of identifying the remains found and finally solving disappearances that had authorities baffled.   And although the crimes are horrific, what is really spine chilling is the casual manner in which Gacy discusses his actions.  He recalls each crime as if it was part of his regular routine and no big deal.  This alone should remove all doubt as to just how cold and calculating Gacy truly was. At some parts of the book, I found myself staring in disbelief at what I was reading.  While I knew of Gacy’s actions, there is a wealth of information that might be new information for some readers.   The story is simply mind-blowing and far better than any documentary I have seen.

After Gacy was firmly in custody, prosecutors then had to come up with a strategy to secure a conviction in a court of law.  Their case was built around Robert Piest but Gacy faced multiple charges of homicide.  And while no one doubted that he had killed, including his own lawyers, the defense’s case rested upon the insanity defense.  This is the crux of the legal action and Sullivan shows the opposing points of view between the prosecution’s experts and the defense’s experts.  As someone who works in the legal field, I am keenly aware of the important of expert witness testimony and how it can make or break a case.  And reading their testimony here, sometimes made the hair on my neck stand up not because of any graphic descriptions but because their words would decide whether Gacy would go to a mental hospital and possibly be released or whether he would meet his maker on death row.  Today we have the hindsight of 20/20 vision and know Gacy’s fate.  But at that time, there was a good possibility that an insanity defense just might work and Sullivan expresses his concern as he discusses the expert testimony.  It is a good analysis of trial procedure in what was unquestionably a high profile case.

Sullivan and his squad of prosecutors eventually prevailed and the final moments in their crusade for justice are captured in the book and show just how much effort went into preparing the case against Gacy.  And for prosecutors, securing a sentence of death was the “icing on the cake”.  On May 10, 1994, John Gacy was executed at the Stateville Correctional Center, near Joliet, Illinois.  But surprisingly, the story was not yet over.  In fact, Sullivan provides a discussion on DNA evidence examined in 2011 that brought even more closure to the families of Gacy’s victims.  Perhaps we may never know the full number of victims and their locations. Gacy took many secrets with him to the grave but he was wrong about one thing, clowns do not always get away with murder.


The Only Living Witness – Stephen G. Michaud and Hugh Aynesworth

20200726_120134On January 24, 1989, the executioner on Florida State Prison’s stepped forward to exercise his duty in carrying out orders of the state.  But this was no ordinary execution. In fact, it was one that no one would ever forget. At 7:16 a.m., Dr. Frank Kilgo declared the prisoner deceased and his announcement provided the conclusion to the final chapter in the life of American serial killer Theodore Robert “Ted” Bundy (1946-1989).  During his incarceration, Stephen G. Michaud and Hugh Aynesworth conducted a series of interviews with Bundy in an attempt to understand thoughts and motives, and to clear up mysteries surrounding his crimes. The result is this intimate look at Bundy through the eyes of the authors who came face to face with a killer who is firmly entrenched in the annals of American criminal history.

It should be noted that the book is not a biography of Bundy.  And although the authors do discuss Bundy’s early life first in Vermont and then later in Tacoma, Washington, the story focuses mainly on his crimes and movements between the 1974 of teenager Lynda Healy and his arrest in Pensacola, Florida on February 15, 1978.  I believe that it goes without saying that the book is not for everyone. Those sensitive to descriptions of violence and the subject matter presented should use discretion.  To be expected, the authors provide details of each crime but at no point is the story reduced to a gore fest. In fact, the graphic details serve mainly as a supplement to the main story and are used when needed to emphasize the true scale of Bundy’s horrific actions.  The purpose of the authors here was not simply to tell what Bundy did but to really explore the man behind the atrocities.  Society has always been fascinated in learning the driving factors behind serial killers.  Bundy is firmly at the top of list and in the future, I am sure that his life will be revisited by law enforcement, forensic psychologists and those who simply have a strong interest in true crime.

The book was originally published in 1983 and updated in 2012.  This explains the Kindle version having comments about his execution which did not occur until 1989, six years after the first version was published. Putting that aside, the story is essentially the same and true crime lovers will be hooked instantly once the book starts.  Michaud begins the by giving a recap of how he and Aynesworth became acquainted with Bundy and the similarities between the lives of Bundy and himself.  The dark part of the story begins with the disappearance of Lynda Healy on January 31, 1974.  Over the next few months, several more women disappeared without a trace and police were left scrambling to understand what happened and why.  The northwestern part of America did not yet know it, but it was the starting place for the cross-country murder spree by the man witnesses said was called “Ted” and who drove a Volkswagen Beetle.

To say that Bundy was a loose cannon is a severe understatement. However, like most serial killers, he was extremely charming and even those closest to him could not imagine him being the monster authorities said he was.  In fact, this quote by former associate Larry Diamond, sums up how most of the people who knew Bundy felt about him:

One who remembered Ted cutting a handsome figure that summer is Larry Diamond. “Frankly,” Diamond told me, “he represented what it was that all young males anywhere ever wanted to be. He held that image. I wanted that image, and because of that I was jealous of him. I think half the people in the office were jealous of him. The males — and all of the women — were taken by him, down to the crease in his trousers. If there was any flaw in him it was that he was almost too perfect.”

This description reaffirms that serial killers cannot be identified simply by sight.  They often blend in with society are extremely charming and well-liked.  But under the surface lies a raging monster that preys on the innocent and finds satisfaction through acts of violence and murder.  Bundy fit the profile of the All-American male and very well could have been elected to a high position of power anywhere in the United States.  And that is part of what makes this story so chilling.  In spite of what has been said about him, his IQ was fairly average but he did possess sharp intellect and the gift of persuasion which is on full display in the relationships with several girlfriends and in particular Carole Boone who married Bundy while he was on death row. The detachment Bundy displays from the crimes he committed in his discussions with Michaud and Aynesworth is both chilling and revealing.  His ability to compartmentalize and then rationalize what could be describe as normal human acts as opposed to the dark rages within, highlight the mental dysfunction within his mind.  And his insistence on discussing the crimes in the third person adds another layer of bizarre behavior to the long list of his quirks.

In August, 1975, Bundy’s luck began to run out when he was arrested in Utah.  Soon, it was learned that the mysterious figure from out of state had tried to kidnap Carol DaRonch, the only living witness to Bundy’s insanity.  However, before facing justice in Utah, a series of events in Colorado took place that convinced authorities that the prosecution of Ted Bundy was priority number one.  The section about Colorado will have some readers staring in disbelief. Today, the thought of Bundy pulling the escapades that he did seems unthinkable, but in the 1970s, America was a very different place and the man called Ted was still largely unknown in the days before social media and the internet.  From Colorado, he stopped in Chicago before heading to Florida where he would reach the end of the road.

On January 15, 1978, several women were attacked at Florida State University’s Chi Omega Sorority house. Two were killed and the survivors were left with devastating mental and physical injuries.  The description of the attacks relayed here is nothing short of barbaric.  The events of that night became known as the Chi Omega Murders and in time, the world would learn that Ted was nothing short of a nightmare.  But before he was finished, Tallahassee, Florida would also suffer the Ted Bundy experience and the case of Kimberly Leach should leave readers with no doubt that Bundy needed to be taken off the streets.  After his arrest in Pensacola, authorities had no idea who they were dealing with.  Bundy had refused to reveal his name, undoubtedly due to the charges in several states.  But he finally caves and as authorities in others states learn that America’s most wanted killer is in custody, the walls began to close in on Bundy.  But ironically, it is at this part of the book that the story becomes even more bizarre with turns and twists that are simply surreal.  Between arguing with his own lawyers, acting pro se and making unsolicited outburst during proceedings, it seemed as if he did not truly understand the gravity of his situation.  And even at various points in the book, he makes several decisions that even the most common criminal would know not to make. And considering that he was a law student, it is even more bewildering that he commits the blunders that he does. But I believe that they show just how unhinged and detached from reality Bundy truly was.

There is a good discussion of the trial in Florida but it is quite condensed. I think it was a good decision by editors as it would have resulted in the book draggin out for too long.  The authors do provide just enough for readers to get an idea of what was taking place between as Bundy’s defense began to crumble.  Readers who are interested in the trial and in Bundy’s own words may find the Netflix docuseries Conversations With a Killer: The Ted Bundy Tapes, highly enjoyable.  Although it is not the end all source for information on Bundy, there is a wealth of information on Bundy’s thoughts and crimes.  However, this account by Michaud and Aynesworth is  a good starting point for understand the life and crimes of Ted Bundy.

ISBN-10: 0451127528
ISBN-13: 978-0451127525

I’ll Be Gone in the Dark: One Woman’s Obsessive Search for the Golden State Killer – Michelle McNamara

MMac1When I started reading this book, I was not sure if I should continue as I felt that the subject matter was darker than even I am used to. But something inside of me said to keep going and listen to what the author is saying.  Less than ten minutes into the book, I realized that I would not be putting it down anytime soon.  In fact, the book pulled me in so much that I finished it one day.  I simply could not get enough of the story.  Initially, the book came as a recommendation on Amazon.  Like many others, I was aware of other killers in Californian history.  The Zodiac? Check.  Richard Ramirez? Check.  Golden State Killer? I had no clue about this menace who terrorized southern California in the late 1970s and early 1980s.  But as I read through the beginning of the book, I soon realized that author Michelle McNamara (1970-2016) was about to take me deep inside the story of the “Original Night Stalker”.

I feel compelled to point out that this book is not for the faint at heart. Anyone who is sensitive to graphic descriptions of crime scenes or uneasy reading true crime will probably want to avoid the book.  But for those who enjoy true crime and are curious about a killer that has been overshadowed by the Zodiac and Ramirez, this is the book you have been searching for.  To be clear, McNamara was not a police officer. Yet she spent a staggering amount of time and resources putting together a trove of information that impressed even the most skilled detectives.  She was so respected that she had developed rare bi-directional channels of communication with cold case detectives. And when she died in her sleep on April 21, 2016, she left behind several chapters of this book that were not only saved, but compiled into this gritty and gripping account of the mission to catch a killer.

Out of respect for some victims or possibly at their request, some of the names have been changed as we learned at the end of the book. However, the crimes were real and retold as they happened.  And although more than forty years have passed since some of the crimes have taken place, McNamara’s writing makes it feel as if they happened yesterday.  At first, the crimes seem like isolated incidents until similarities creep up and the invention of DNA testing reveals that more than one crime is the work of a single invidual.  He struck at night, using the element of suprise to inflict physical and sexual assault before disappearing in the night.  His crimes come hauntingly back to life as McNamara tells the story. It is true crime at its best.

The book early on does read like a typical true crime novel until DNA testing enters the picture.  It is at that moment that the book picks up pace and suspense settles in through McNamara’s words.  Det. Larry Pool and Criminologist Paul Holes become her unofficial partners in search of the elusive killer whom they believe will be caught through DNA.  And although suspects do come up, they do not hit paydirt. McNamara is not deterred and even obtained thirty-seven boxes of files from Orange County prosecutors.  The Golden State Killer had become her only goal and she freely discusses the effect the case has had on her life, in particular her marriage to actor Patton Oswalt.   The case becomes her obsession, filling her thoughts as the insomia she developed took hold in late night hours.  And in the days before her death, she was moving full steam ahead and prepared to examine the files she had placed upstairs after unloading two SUVs full of boxes. I believe that there was no doubt in her mind that the killer would one day face justice.

At the time of McNamara’s death, the Golden State Killer remained at large. However, two years after her passing that all changed.  In April, 2018, Joseph James DeAngelo was taken into custody and charged with multiple murders, kidnappings and other crimes. His arrest would have been just another cold case that had been solved. However there was something different this time around.  DeAngelo had been brought to justice through the very tool that McNamara believed was the key: DNA.   The closure of the case is a final testament to her unwavering committment to solving one of the darkest murder mysteries in American history.  Had she not died so untimely, I believe she might have uncovered DeAngelo’s name at some point.   Her exhaustive efforts and this book based on her unpublished writings, is the definitive account of the race against time to stop a lunatic with a thirst for mayhem.  And while I could describe the power of this account in several ways, I think famous author Stephen King says it best:

“What readers need to know—what makes this book so special—is that it deals with two obsessions, one light and one dark. The Golden State Killer is the dark half; Michelle McNamara’s is the light half. It’s a journey into two minds, one sick and disordered, the other intelligent and determined. I loved this book.” —Stephen King

Good read and highly recommended.


Once Upon a Time in Compton – Tim Brennan, Robert Ladd and Lolita Files

compton1Compton, California has earned a reputation over the last fifty years as a place where people are tough, life is dangerous and unless you are from there, you stay away.  Gangs such as the Bloods and the Crips have proliferated across the city in the wake of the Civil Rights Movement and the dawn of the crack cocaine epidemic in the United States.  In what could rightly be described as a civil war, thousands of black men, women and children have died on the streets of Comptom and in Los Angeles county as gang wars escalated.  In 1888, the City of Comptom had formed its own police department to patrol city limits and at the time of the deadly gang wars erupted, it was pushed to its limit.  Some officers would leave the department for much quieter neighborhoods with lower crime rates.  Others would stay until it was disbanded in 2000.  Among the two most well-known as respected officers were Tim Brennan and Robert Ladd.   The duo have been interviewed numerous times in recent years, expressing their thoughts on Compton, the murder of Tupac Shakur (1971-1996) and his alleged killer Orlando Anderson (1974-1998).  However, there is far more to their story than what we have come to learn on screen and here the two join with Lolita Files, whom some may recognize from the A & E multi-part series Who Killed TupacIn the show she is assisting famed attorney Benjamin Crump who takes another look at the murder of the slain rapper.  This is their story about their lives and time in Comptom as part of a police department located in the middle of a war zone.

Those of us who live outside California may find the gang culture to be both mistifying and tragic.  The Crips, who feature prominently throughout the book, have a long past of their own.  The gang’s formation is rightfully captured by Zach Fortier and Derard Barton in I am Raymond Washington: The Authorized Biography About the Original Founder of the Crips, which I highly recommend to readers interested in the development of the Crips.  Brennan and Ladd became intimately familiar with them and other outfits that compose the fifty-five known gangs of Compton. The two were so well known on the streets that Brennan earned the nickname “Blondie” as a result of a song by DJ Quik.  But just how did the two end up in Compton and become partners for fifteen years? Lolita Files narrates their story in this book that is a both a biography and an investigative look into one of America’s most violent cities.

Files provides a short history on Compton which I found to be very interesting and informative.  The city’s later history is similar to other cities across America where white flight helped give way to the ghettos that developed. Compton is no different and its descent into madness in the wake of the 1965 Watts Riots, is an American tragedy that unfornately is not unique.  However, nothing could have prepared Compton for what would come next and when the gangs arrived, the city was transformed into hell on earth.  It is not long into the book before Brennan appears and we learn about his migration to California where he makes a home in the Compton Police Department.  He is schooled as a rookie and moves up through the ranks.  However, it is not until he meets California native Robert Ladd that the dynamic duo is formed and through their work, become nationally recognized experts on gang culture.

The book is not solely about the two officers but Files also discusses the city’s most notorious gangsters whom Brennan and Ladd became very familiar with.  Nightly gang shootings, drug transactions and even domestic disputes, kept the Compton Police Department busy and Files takes us back in time when Brennan and Ladd found themselves in the middle of open gang warfare.  They are joined by Reggie Wright, Sr., whom some may recall as the father of Reggie Wright, Jr., a former Compton Police Officer himself who later provided protection to Death Row Records through his company Wright Way Security.  The stories are crazy and some unreal but Compton was akin to the wild wild west except the gang members were not using six shooters but heavy artillery designed to cause mass casualties.

Politics play a part in the story as one would expect and some of the events that take place are both head scratching and amusing.  And the takeover by the Los Angeles Sheriff’s Department was the final nail in the coffin and officialy marked an end to the Compton Police Department.  However, before that took place, the gang unit had been making waves and putting a dent in gang activity.  But there were a couple of events that were even too large for Brennan and Ladd.

No book about Compton would be complete without the Los Angeles riots in the wake of the acquittal of several officers who took part in the beating of motorist Rodney King (1965-2012).  The verdict set off riots across the county of Los Angeles and I remember watching the events on television with disbelief and fear of what would happen next.  Files revisits the tragedy and the response to the mayhem by the Compton Police Department. It is a dark time in American history, but one that can never be forgotten, especially by the people of Los Angeles.   By this point in the story, we come to know Brennan, Ladd and other officers in the Compton Police Departmentve very well.  However, the story picks up its pace after a deadly shooting takes place in Las Vegas, Nevada on September 7, 1996.  That night, Tupac Shakur was shot and mortally wounded after an altercation at the MGM Grand Hotel with South Side Crip Orlando Anderson.  Shakur’s death on September 13, 1996, unleashed a wave of violence across Compton between Bloods and Crips that placed Brennan and Ladd on the front lines in the investigation.  Files takes on the role of our reporter and delivers the full inside scoop on the deadly retaliation that took place.  Anderson is also a point of focus and his story is revisited including his own death in May, 1998.

Readers who have followed Brennan and Ladd will undoubtedly find this part of the book to be of high interest. Further, Files has proven herself to be highly knowledgeable  about the crime as evident by her appearance alongside Crump.  The scuffle at the MGM, the events leading up to it and its aftermath are covered completely.  Further, the efforts of former detectives Russell Poole (1956-2015) and Gred Kading are examined in detail.  Viewers of the USA show Unsolved, will be familiar with Kading’s name as well as those who have studied the Shakur case.  The death of rap star Christopher”The Notorious B.I.G.” Wallace (1972-1997) on March 9, 1997, also enters the story and Files discusses it in depth.  The writing is good and I even learned an intersting fact about Duane “Keefe D” Davis which I had not previously known and possible connections between Wallace and the South Side Crips.  I also learned more about Brennan’s interactions with Kading’s task force which had been assembled to learn the truth about Wallace’s death.  Motives for both murders are presented and some viewers may feel that perhaps the simplest explanation is the most likely.  Sadly, both Shakur and Wallace’s murders remain unsolved.

What I have described so far does not come close to acknowledging everything that will be found in the pages of this book.  It is simply a great read about the Compton, and a must-read for anyone who wants to learn more about the city that gangs and rappers put on the map.  There is a cast of characters to be found in the story ranging from former Death Row Records CEO Marion “Suge” Knight to the deplorable racist gang known as the “spook hunters”.  Compton is full of history  and it is still being written.  And only time will tell if its residents can make peace with the past and move away from the violence that has claimed far too many lives.  Great book.