Longreads Best of 2015: 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.

* * *

Chris Vogel
Articles Editor at Boston magazine.

The Great Cocaine Treasure Hunt (Daniel Riley, GQ)

This is easily one of my favorite stories of the year, regardless of genre. Sure it has buried treasure, 70 pounds of cocaine, and a questionable undercover sting in the Caribbean, but it’s also a tale about the power of story and good story telling. I’m pretty sure I emailed Riley’s opener to more people this year than any other, which starts like the seductive thrum of a GTO:

Good Goddamn, the way Julian told that story. It was the sort of story that imbued the mind with possibility. That lingered like campfire smoke in a sweater.

But it wasn’t just the particulars of the story—Julian burying the million-dollar stash of coral-white cocaine he’d found washed up on the beach in Culebra—that captured Rodney Hyden’s imagination. It was the sounds of the story—the slithering South Carolina accent, the whistly snicker at parts that weren’t funny to anyone but Julian. And the picture of the storyteller, too. The silver hair down around Julian’s shoulders, the big Gandalf beard distracting from his slight frame, the bare feet, and always that Mason jar of wine that kept bottoming out and filling right back up again.

I mean, c’mon.

What Happened After My Kidnapping (Bradford Pearson, Philadelphia magazine)

What ever happened to the gunmen who kidnapped and threatened to kill me? Pearson has the balls to find out in his deeply personal quest to make peace with the night three teenagers from West Philly robbed him at gunpoint and took him hostage. Using long stretches of forceful dialogue, Pearson summons blunt details that resonated with me—I once was mugged in a Philadelphia parking lot and Pearson’s depiction of the assault made my hairs stand on end. But I never expected such a wallop of heart and humanity when Pearson finally comes face to face with his attackers nearly a decade later. This is a story that sticks.


Erika Hayasaki
Freelance journalist and former LA Times national correspondent who teaches literary journalism at UC Irvine.

The Untold Story of the Silk Road (Joshuah Bearman, Wired)

When it comes to nonfiction narrative technique and style, this story has it all—multidimensional characters, intimate reporting, twists and turns. That’s why I assigned it to my UC Irvine students for our class, “Narratives in the Digital Age.” Many said it was their favorite story on the syllabus. Here are some of their responses explaining why:

— “…a fantastic tale of libertarianism, corruption, revolution, cybercrime, duality of self and challenging the very construct of control vs. freedom.”
— “The raw fact-by-fact retelling of the story, along with the incredibly detailed descriptions of both places and people, gave the story a ton of life and made it easy to picture…it was poetic, and it definitely left me thinking about what had just happened once I finished reading.”
— “The narrative plays out much like a movie and is very cinematic and grandiose in the exposition of its plot. It is more than just an interesting story; it is an insight into the mind of Ross Ulbricht’s greatest accomplishment and libertarian social experiment.”

This Is What They Did for Fun (Albert Samaha, Buzzfeed)

It was modern-day lynching that made new headlines, but Buzzfeed crime writer Albert Samaha recognized a deeper story had yet to be told. He focused his reporting on the partner of the victim, and the aftermath of the horrific murder. This approach elevated the piece from tragic crime story to emotionally resonant character-driven narrative. It is an important and compelling read about one couple and the events that ripped them apart. It is also an important history lesson on racism in today’s America.


Steve Kandell
Executive Editor, Features at BuzzFeed, where he’s worked since 2012 overseeing longform feature assignments.

The Strange Case Of Anna Stubblefield (Daniel Engber, New York Times Magazine)

Most anyone who works on stories like this for a living will attest that the true gauge of success is, traffic aside, the degree to which it seems like people are talking about them. And for a few days this fall, everyone I knew wanted to talk about this story and better, to argue about it: Could Anna, a married researcher truly have fallen in love with her subject, DJ, who has severe cerebral palsy and, according to the state, the mental capacity of a toddler? Or, as the story itself seeks to examine, could DJ really, as Anna insists, have fallen in love with her? Engber did not get to speak with Anna Stubblefield, who was convicted of first-degree sexual assault and could spend 40 years in prison for twice having sex with DJ, yet still masterfully recreates this impossibly complicated relationship as it unfolded during her trial. Central to it all is “facilitated communication,” a polarizing means of expression for the severely disabled that blurs the line between science and wishful thinking.

Online Dating Made This Woman A Pawn In A Global Crime Plot (Brendan I. Koerner, Wired)

One of my favorite nonfiction books of the past few years was Brendan’s The Skies Belong To Us, about the rash of hijacking in the U.S. in the late ’60s and early ’70s—not just because it brilliantly placed these dramatic crimes into cultural context, but because it treated the people involved with them as fully realized humans with complex motivations. And he does all of that here. Catfishing lonely, vulnerable women for profit is about as mundane a con as the internet has to offer, but by focusing closely on the case of Audrey Elrod, a West Virginia divorcee charmed and strung along by, ostensibly, a charming Scottish widower working on an oil rig named Duke (but, in actuality, scammers called “Yahoo Boys” likely based in Nigeria), the story is painful and heartwrenching to read. Driven hundreds of thousands of dollars into debt, and eventually to jail, Elrod is fully and vividly rendered as the answer to the question, “Who would fall for something like this?” The perfect crime is not one that relies on common sense but, simply, the desire for something unbelievable to be true.


Susan Dominus
Staff Writer, New York Times Magazine

Blood Ties (Nathan Heller, New Yorker)

In “Blood Ties,” which ran in the New Yorker, Nathan Heller wrote a piece that starts out with the spareness of a pot-boiler, and ends up reading like a literary essay on the unreliable nature of storytelling. Heller’s subjects are Elizabeth Haysom and Jens Soering, students who fell in love at the University of Virginia, and were both convicted (Haysom as an accessory) in the brutal murder of Haysom’s parents. There is a touch of Edward Albee in the dark, witty letters Haysom wrote describing her desire to do in her alcoholic parents; Soering, who went on to write several books in prison, presents himself as a romantic and tragic hero, who falsely confessed to murder to save the life of the woman he loved. In the end, Heller is dissatisfied by all of the stories he hears from the convicted in their own defense. “We cherish characters in books and shows for seeming like real people, though our sense of what is genuine is shaped largely by what we watch and read,” he writes. “At least one of the people implicated has been hiding the truth with a writer’s mind.”

Troll Detective (Katie J.M. Baker, BuzzFeed)

“Troll Detective,” which Katie J.M. Baker wrote for Buzzfeed, is about the mysterious murder of Jessica Chambers, a young woman living in a small Mississippi town; but it is also about the way that the Internet allowed the outside world to make that particular tragedy its own. Once those outsiders claim a tragedy as its own, Baker shows in vivid detail, they have the right to demand answers, even if it means tormenting the people closest the case, or distorting the facts for the even bigger world watching from a slight remove. Chambers’ story is a troubling and fascinating one in its own right, but Baker brings an anthropologist’s expertise to her examination of how a modern murder plays out online.


Longreads Editor’s Pick: Brendan O’Connor
@_grendan

Where the Bodies Are Buried (Patrick Radden Keefe, New Yorker)

Historically-minded visitors to Belfast might feel inclined to partake in the Troubles Tour, in which cabdrivers and other longtime, knowledgeable residents who may or may not have participated in one way or another in the violence of yesteryear guide outsiders through the northern Irish city. Enormous murals proclaiming allegiances and denouncing enemies, commemorating victories and defeats, are painted on across the sides of people’s homes. Long walls topped with razor wire divide neighborhoods throughout the city—Catholic on one side, Protestant on the other. Tourists consume these places as artifacts, signifiers of a conflict that has come to rest, if not entirely resolved. Patrick Radden Keefe’s “Letter from Belfast” tells another story, one of a generational trauma with which the city’s denizens are still living.

A Manhattan Fortuneteller Cost Him Fortune After Fortune (Michael Wilson, New York Times)

This year, beginning in June, the New York Times’ Michael Wilson wrote a series of stories in his “Crime Scene” column on New York City’s storefront psychic industry. It began when one 32-year-old British consultant living in East Williamsburg, Brooklyn, Niall Rice, went to the police after giving 26-year-old Priscilla Kelly Delmaro and another psychic some $700,000 over just under two years. Delmaro had promised him she could reunite him with the woman he loved. In the midst of her psychic efforts, the woman died; more was required of Rice. (At one point, Rice and Delmaro slept together.) In November, Delmaro took a plea deal. “She somehow said all the right things,” Rice said. “It sounds mad now that I’m saying it.” In a tangential story, Wilson reported on convicted psychics who have gone before parole boards and disavowed their earlier practices.

 

See the entire Longreads Best of 2015 Collection.