Longreads Best of 2014: Crime Reporting

We asked a few writers and editors to choose some of their favorite stories of the year in specific categories. Here, the best in crime reporting.

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Ashley Powers
Freelance journalist in Miami and a former national correspondent for the Los Angeles Times.

By Noon They’d Both Be In Heaven (Hanna Rosin, New York Magazine)

Kelli Stapleton is a Michigan mom who admitted to a particularly heinous crime: trying to kill her 14-year-old autistic daughter, Issy, via carbon monoxide poisoning. In a lesser journalist’s hands, she could have ended up a caricature, but Rosin tells her story solely in shades of gray. One minute your heart breaks for Kelli, and the next you fume at her apparent selfishness. Kelli spent years on an exhausting form of therapy for her daughter in hopes of coaxing out “the Isabelle that was in there.” Instead, Issy grew into a sometimes-violent teenager who repeatedly knocked Kelli unconscious. Kelli blogged about her struggles, ostensibly to raise awareness, but her look-at-me tone convinced her husband’s family she was more interested in fame than mothering. I’ve read the story several times, and I still don’t know what to make of Kelli. But I can’t stop thinking about her.

The Dead Zoo Gang (Charles Homans, The Atavist)

This tale opens with a heist at a university in Portugal; the thieves ignore the stuffed peacock and lion and manatees in a natural-history collection and run off with two rhinoceros horns. Frankly, the phrase “rhinoceros horns” was all I needed to keep reading, but Homans’ deep dive into international horn trafficking grows more twisty and bizarre by the chapter. Authorities blame a handful of itinerant, wealthy Irish families known as the Rathkeale Rovers. (After rhino heads belonging to Ireland’s National Museum are stolen, the bandits earn a second nickname: the Dead Zoo Gang.) In the course of the story, we careen through Vietnam, Colorado, the Hague and several European countries, and learn about poaching, tarmacking (it’s a thing) and class warfare in rural Ireland. It’s one hell of a romp, the literary equivalent of racing through a fun house.

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Amy Wallace
Editor-at-large for Los Angeles magazine and correspondent for GQ.

Gone Girls (Mike Kessler, Los Angeles magazine)

Disturbingly (and rivetingly) well-told from six points of view, this piece pulls back the curtain on something most of us don’t want to believe happens here in the First World: the pimping out of children, most of them black or brown, all of them marginalized. “The younger the child, the higher the cost,” explains the story, which is devastating in its portrayal of how poor children are especially vulnerable to being exploited.

The Craigslist Killers (Devin Friedman, GQ)

I’ll read anything Devin Friedman writes. He’s the master of so many kinds of long form, from genre-defying celebrity profiles (read him on Jeff Bridges) to sociological analyses that will make you squirm (he once spent 24 hours in a Las Vegas “superclub,” with hilarious and revolting results). This piece, though, about two guys who used a Craigslist ad to lure a certain kind of downtrodden American man into their web of horror, is anything but funny. More than a murder story, it’s an examination of human nature.

As Devin writes: “One thing about humans is that they will put up with all but the most absurd and alarming events once they’ve signed on to a situation. There is in fact a moment when the teenage girl could jump out at the stoplight once she starts to get the smell of bad magic on the guy who said he’d give her a lift home, when the homeowner could close the door on the man at the front steps whose face isn’t composed right at all. But if you don’t bail right away, chances are you will be along for the entire ride, however windy and gruesome and never-ending it turns out to be.”

Let that be a lesson to us all.

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Sarah Stillman
Staff writer at The New Yorker.

Blood in the Sand (Matthew Power, Outside)

“Blood in the Sand,” a murder-tale-plus-foreign-dispatch by Matt Power, which ran this past January in Outside magazine, reads like a challenge to true-crime writers tempted by the genre’s easy conventions: Don’t be lazy. The story investigates the murder of Jairo Mora Sandoval, a 26-year-old Costa Rican sea turtle conservationist who was beaten and asphyxiated last year, apparently at the hands of roving turtle-egg poachers. But Power doesn’t stop at the obvious tick-tock reconstruction of the crime. As a result, the story offers a useful model for how to treat a brutal murder not just as an object of meticulous, obsessive inquiry—the way many argue, say, the Serial podcast does—but also as an entry point into tangled social issues we’d otherwise ignore: the effects of profiteering on an endangered species, most notably, and the high-stakes persecution of those who defend said species from extinction. (This persecution occurs not just at the hands of organized crime, but also at the hands of government and business interests worried about scaring off tourism dollars. Power pursues both fearlessly).

A while back, in an interview on craft, Power told fellow travel writer Rolf Potts: “I always fantasized about being the great sort of archive-diving investigative reporter who finds a trail of clues in some trove of documents and reconstructs a riveting narrative…but I’ve found I’m not really temperamentally suited to that.” Then he added, “I’m trying to learn.” In “Blood in the Sand,” Power shows he was either bluffing, or an absurdly quick student. He draws on mountains of documentary material to reconstruct Mora’s final days and hours—court files, emails, cell-phone texts, and more. But it’s Power’s first-person maneuverings in Costa Rica that make the story memorable to me. His fearlessness isn’t flaunted, so much as lightly tucked into the story’s smooth transitions: One moment, he’s describing Mora’s final hours on the beach, collecting sea turtle eggs in a plastic bag for transport to a sanctuary; the next, Power is flying towards that very same beach, then “walking for three hours alongside an escort of five officers from Limón’s Fuerza Pública, kitted out with bulletproof vests, sidearms, and M4 carbines.” He chases the story in every direction, but never gets scattered. Instead, he leads us like a seasoned guide from the darkness of the beach, with anti-poaching volunteers in headlamps; to official police headquarters, with cops under troubling siege; to Twitter, where the President of Costa Rica promised “no impunity” in Mora’s murder, but hadn’t yet delivered.

The toughest thing about re-reading “Blood in the Sand” is that the controlled passion of its implicit argument and the just-show-up authority of its narrator remind me of how much we lost, as a community of writers and readers, with Power’s death. Returning to the story now, I lingered on the tenderly-constructed scene in which one of Jairo Mora’s colleagues, Vanessa Lizano, saw Mora’s mother at the young man’s funeral, and asked for her forgiveness. Lizano had been carrying with her a deep guilt at her perceived roll in enabling Mora’s dangerous work. “Sweetie,” Mora’s mother replied, in words that now seem hard to shake, “Jairo wanted to be there. It was his thing.”

[Editor’s Note: Consider donating to NYU’s Matthew Power Literary Reporting Award, which was created to remember Power and support promising new writers to bring forward an unreported story of significance.]

The Hunt for El Chapo (Patrick Radden Keefe, New Yorker)

I thought that writing on Mexico’s drug war couldn’t get much more engaging than Patrick Radden Keefe’s treatment of the Sinaloa cartel in The New York Times magazine several years ago. In that piece, “Cocaine Incorporated,” Keefe examined the outsized business success of Mexico’s Sinaloa cartel, whose leaders—despite the “vaudevillian goofiness” of their nicknames, a la “Fatty” and “Shorty”—constitute some of the world’s richest, savviest corporate figures. Keefe’s secret, simple as it sounds, was taking narco-moguls seriously as intellects, inventers, and transnational entrepreneurs.

Then, this spring, Keefe went ahead and proved me wrong, with his piece on the February capture of Joaquin Guzman Loera (aka “El Chapo”), the Sinaloa’s mythic honcho and one of the world’s most wanted drug lords. At a point in time when most U.S. readers had effectively tuned out the scale of drug-war violence in Mexico, Keefe made the topic gripping again, through the suspense of his piece on Guzman’s final moments as a free man this past February. The story wasn’t just compelling for its surreal color—the fact, for instance, that Keefe got officials to describe El Chapo’s “prodigious” consumption of Viagra thus: “He ate it like candy.” What makes the story list-worthy is that it lures the reader in with the suspense of pursuit, but keeps us there with deeper questions that have only grown more timely—for instance, what does it means that torture was a likely part of the operation, and that the Mexican security forces with which U.S. officials sometimes cooperate on these sorts of raids have a reputation for what Human Rights Watch describes as “beatings, asphyxiation with plastic bags, waterboarding, electric shocks, sexual torture, and death threats”?

Reading “The Hunt for El Chapo” in the wake of the 43 disappeared students in Iguala, and the broader news of brutality unleashed not just by cartels but by certain Mexican authorities, is a useful reminder of just how much the country demands our more committed curiosity, and our will to care. There are many stories left to tell there—and also, it’s worth noting, many Mexican journalists across the country, like Marcela Turati and Anabel Hernandez, who’ve been risking their lives daily to uncover them.

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Longreads Editor’s Pick (Julia Wick)

Finding Marlowe (Daniel Miller, Los Angeles Times)

Did Samuel B. Marlowe—Los Angeles’ first licensed black private detective—provide the inspiration for Philip Marlowe and Sam Spade, two of noir’s most iconic characters? Louise Ransil, a former Hollywood executive who has spent years researching Marlowe certainly thinks so. But because this is Hollywood she also has a vested interest in being right—she’s peddling a script based on his life. Writing for the Los Angeles Times, Daniel Miller digs deep into Marlowe’s life to try and verify her claims. What makes “Finding Marlowe” especially wonderful is Miller’s creative form-follows-function take on the subject matter: the piece itself is a mini-noir, relayed in rich, distinctly Chandleresque prose.