Longreads Best of 2017: Crime Reporting

We asked writers and editors to choose some of their favorite stories of the year in various categories. Here is the best in crime reporting.

Jeff Maysh
Contributor to The Atlantic, Los Angeles Magazine, and The Daily Beast. Author of The Spy with No Name.

Dirty John (Christopher Goffard, The Los Angeles Times)

I love a good villain, and my baddie of the year was John Meehan, a hazel-eyed Casanova who hid his murky past behind fake surgeon’s scrubs and a kaleidoscope of lies. This wannabe mobster lured a moneyed Orange County divorcée into a toxic relationship, creating an elevated psychodrama that recalled Gone Girl. Delivered as a six-part narrative on the web, Dirty John was also accompanied by a six-part podcast. Both were irresistible. Goffard’s spare prose kept this thriller racing towards its bloody end — the kind of murderous climax we were promised at the start of S-Town but never received — one that made an unlikely hero of a seemingly meek fan of The Walking Dead. Bravo to Goffard for divining this epic yarn from local news to national attention, and for his terrifying portrait of Meehan told through the eyes of his victims. This is the genius of the domestic horror genre: The monster is no longer under the bed but between the sheets.

Rachel Monroe
Contributor to The New Yorker, New York Magazine, and The New Republic. Author a book on women, crime, and obsession will be published by Scribner in 2019.

The Tragic Story of a Texas Teen and the Marines Who Killed Him for No Reason (Sasha von Oldershausen, Splinter)

 This May marked 20 years since a Marine sniper shot and killed Esequiel Hernandez, Jr., a soft-spoken teenager who was tending his goats in the rural border outpost of Redford, Texas. Von Oldershausen not only does an admirable job of attempting to reconstruct what happened that day in 1997, she also explores the ramifications of the fatal shooting on the community and uses it as a springboard to discuss how militarization inflects daily life along the border. “The moment you employ the rhetoric of war, it becomes a battle zone,” one of von Oldershausen’s sources tells her. “And this is what they did in Redford. They made war on the United States by killing Esequiel.”

Sarah Marshall
Contributor to Buzzfeed, The New Republic, and the Life of the Law podcast.

‘I Am a Girl Now,’ Sage Smith Wrote. Then She Went Missing (Emma Eisenberg, Splinter)

Eisenberg describes in heartbreaking detail how both the police department and the broader community of Charlottesville failed to adequately investigate the disappearance of a trans girl of color. Her reporting illuminates systemic injustice by taking the reader into the hearts and minds of the family and friends Sage Smith left behind. The article is both deeply reported and deeply felt and gives the reader the space to reckon with the questions they cannot answer. Yet perhaps the most remarkable thing about Eisenberg’s work here is her ability to show Sage Smith to the reader not as a victim, but as a person. “Every clubgoer leaned closer when Sage spoke,” Eisenberg writes, “as if they were campers pulled to a fire.”

Reyhan Harmanci
Editor, Topic

Carl Ichan’s Failed Raid on Washington (Patrick Radden Keefe, The New Yorker)

While it may not have been the juiciest crime story this year, Patrick Radden Keefe’s precise and damning piece on Carl Icahn’s stint in the Trump Administration chilled me more than I could have imagined. This is how the world works: We’re being taken for fools while the Masters of the Universe move from private to public positions. I can only hope to read about more financial crimes in 2018 that get appropriately punished.

Reeves Wiedeman
Contributing editor, New York Magazine

Unusual Suspect: The Rise and Fall of Owen Hanson, Former USC Athlete and Alleged Drug Kingpin (Eric Nusbaum, Vice)

I like this piece because it tells the rollicking story of a USC football player turned international drug kingpin, complete with a strange cast of characters (just wait until R.J. Cipriani shows up.) It also captures something universal: that pretty much anyone is capable of turning to the dark side.

Melissa Gira Grant
Writer in residence at Fair Punishment Project’s In Justice Today, author of Playing the Whore: The Work of Sex Work

A Most American Terrorist: The Making of Dylann Roof (Rachel Kaadzi Ghansah, GQ)

Rachel Kaadzi Ghansah intended to report on the lives of the nine people Roof killed at the Mother Emanuel AME Church in Charleston. But as the trial dragged on, she couldn’t get Roof out of her head. Reading this now, it is impossible to put any distance between Roof, the white supremacist groups on the march in American cities this year, and the reporting that sometimes made spectacles of their violence. Without it appearing exceptional or unimaginable, Rachel Kaadzi Ghansah tells Roof’s story through the racist ideas of those who said they never even took Roof seriously.

Sarah Weinman
News editor for Publishers Marketplace, contributor to The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, The Los Angeles Times, and The Washington Post. Writing a book on the real-life crime that inspired Lolita.

The Mystery of Leslie Arnold (Henry Cordes, Omaha World-Herald)

Most of my favorite crime stories of 2017 featured bylines that I’ve no doubt will appear elsewhere on this list, so I wanted to look beyond the national magazine landscape and find a more regional story. I specialize in mid-century crimes, so I was already game for Henry Cordes’ three-part Omaha World-Herald feature on Leslie Arnold, a 16-year-old boy who killed his parents in 1958, buried them in the backyard, started his prison sentence — and then escaped a decade later, never to be seen again. This terrible crime turns into something more haunting, the nexus of family tragedy and correctional malfeasance. Cordes’ reporting is methodical and dogged, understated and humane, as one would expect of someone who has lived with a story for two-and-a-half decades. I wonder if we’ll ever know what happened to Leslie, but more pressing are the people he left behind to grapple with his crimes and his flight.

Matt Giles
Contributing editor and head fact checker, Longreads

Name of the Father (Tim Struby, Victory Journal)

Jarrod Tillinghast was one of the top boxers in the Northeast, launching left-handed cannons that decimated other would-be contenders in the 156-pound division. But Tillinghast wasn’t just known in Providence or Boston for his skill on the canvas —  he was also the son of Jerry Tillinghast, a notorious enforcer for mob boss Raymond Patriarca and a suspect in a handful of murders. Boxing was supposed to be the younger Tillinghast’s out, and Struby masterfully weaves the drama of a life caught between the streets, the ring, and his father’s shadow.

Danielle Tcholakian
Staff writer, Longreads

Portrait Of An American Mass Shooting (Melissa Jeltsen, HuffPost)

America’s Mass Shooting Problem Is A Domestic Violence Problem (Melissa Jeltsen, HuffPost)

The Day Domestic Violence Came To Church (Melissa Jeltsen, HuffPost)

Melissa Jeltsen has one of the most heartbreaking beats imaginable: domestic violence. Because of that, she’s had a front-row seat this year to the overlap among perpetrators of mass shootings and men who commit daily, habitual violence against those closest to them. She has the invaluable skill of writing beautifully about a difficult subject without sacrificing a crime reporter’s adherence to facts.

In “Portrait of an American Mass Shooting,” Jeltsen devoted several months to the murders of seven people in a small town in of Mississippi, several of whom were members of the same family. “The high death toll made national headlines briefly and then faded out of the news cycle,” but Jeltsen stayed on the story, unraveling the details of how an abusive and controlling husband finally succeeded in isolating his wife and children from their family and community.

With “America’s Mass Shooting Problem Is a Domestic Violence Problem,” she partnered with her colleague Sara Ruiz-Grossman to tell the stories of all of the mass shootings since 2015 in which the alleged killer targeted a family member or intimate partner, or had a history of domestic violence. Many of these tragedies never even made the news. As she wrote in yet another story, “The Day Domestic Violence Came to Church:”

We call it domestic violence, but the name may contribute to the problem. Merriam-Webster defines domestic as “of or relating to the household or the family.” Domestic chores, domestic happiness, it says. Private, not public. Everyone knows that domestic means shhhh. It means it’s nobody’s business until it is.

In that last story, she covers another small-town mass murder, when a disgraced ex-Air Force veteran obtained a gun he should never have been able to purchase and brutally murdered 26 people in a small church in Sunderland, Texas — all to destroy his girlfriend’s life.

Ethan Chiel
Fact checker, Longreads

The Sorrow and the Shame of the Accidental Killer (Alice Gregory, The New Yorker)

Alice Gregory’s story about the psychological, social, and sometimes legal consequences of accidental killings is sometimes digressive but unrelenting. Gregory takes the time to lay out what it’s like for those who’ve accidentally killed someone to live with what they’ve done. The piece is fascinating not just for the stories its subjects tell, or its wide-ranging consideration of the moral problems involved with accidental killings, but for its willingness to forego clean resolutions.