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.
ProPublica senior reporter and New York Times Magazine writer-at-large.
The Disappeared (Hannah Dreier, ProPublica with Newsday)
When eleven high school students went missing in a single county on Long Island in just two years, law enforcement shrugged. Most of the teenagers who disappeared were recent transplants from Central America, and many of them were last seen heading into the woods, lured by the promise of weed. The Suffolk County police department responded with stomach-churning indifference, telling frantic parents that their children had simply run away.
Hannah Dreier chronicles an upside-down world in which one boy’s mother – an envelope factory employee who speaks no English – is left to piece together what happened to her son. Based on more than 100 interviews and voluminous public records, Hannah Dreier’s storytelling is as vivid as it is effortless. She builds upon an accumulation of damning details — like the fact that one Spanish-speaking mother, whose son was murdered, had to pay a taxi driver to interpret for her at the police station. (“He kept the clock running and charged her $70,” Dreier writes.) “The Disappeared,” which was turned into an episode of This American Life, is a devastating work of both relentless reporting and empathy.
Michael A. Gonzales
Contributor to Catapult, The Paris Review, and Longreads.
A Preacher, a Scam, and a Massacre in Brooklyn (Sarah Weinman, CrimeReads)
Fans of vintage New York crime stories will love Sarah Weinman’s brilliant Brooklyn-based tale, a sordid story that only gets worse the more you read. Weinman takes the reader into the mind and home of a con man named DeVernon LeGrand, a pretend preacher who kept a stable of women who dressed as nuns and begged on the streets. Of course, in true pimp fashion, LeGrand took most of their money. After moving his flock to 222 Brooklyn Avenue in 1966, things get worse for the crooked organization as it eventually becomes involved in kidnapping and murder. Although in the early 2000s I lived four blocks away from the scene of LeGrand’s various crimes for thirteen years, I had never heard of him or his house of pain and death until reading Weinman’s wonderfully written piece.
Contributor to The Atlantic, Smithsonian Magazine, Los Angeles Magazine, and The Daily Beast. Author of The Spy with No Name.
Jerry and Marge Go Large (Jason Fagone, Huffpost Highline)
I write about unusual heists from middle-America, so I was game for this Michigan lotto scam story from FOIA-bandit Jason Fagone. In crime writing it’s the characters who make for a good yarn, and I was all-in on this Mom and Pop who used brain-power to beat the system, and the odds.
The Man Who Captures Criminals for the DEA by Playing Them (Yudhijit Bhattacharjee, The New Yorker)
Why actor Spyros Enotiades told his story to Yudhijit Bhattacharjee I don’t know (there must surely be a bounty on his head), but the storytelling was extraordinary. Undercover capers don’t get better than this.
Managing editor at The Investigative Fund.
The Trauma of Everyday Gun Violence in New Orleans (Jimmie Briggs and Andre Lambertson, VICE)
This photojournalistic investigation into how gun violence affects black communities explores how living with that violence can cause post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) just like experience with war can. But unlike with returning veterans, gun violence-plagued communities don’t get the funding or mental health resources to help them cope.
Executive Editor of the Economic Hardship Reporting Project. Author of five books including Squeezed, Branded, and the poetry book, Monetized. She writes The Guardian’s Outclassed column.
Could an Ex-Convict Become an Attorney? I Intended to Find Out (Reginald Dwayne Betts, The New York Times Magazine)
This is fantastic longform that embodies what I think social justice reportage should be today. It combines an under-heard, first-person voice with a gripping true story about one of the most crucial issues in America today, incarceration. Betts, who is a lawyer and a poet, also gives his tale an unexpected literary feel, with a comprehensive gloss on the sociology behind juvenile crime, prisons, jailhouse lawyers, and the limited social possibilities for ex-felons.
Omnipresence (Ann Neumann, Virginia Quarterly Review)
This multimedia criminal justice story is about how too-bright, all-night lighting in housing projects, and faulty design overall, contributes to a troubling level of surveillance in poorer communities under the guise of fighting crime. It makes something as basic as sleeping uncomfortable for thousands upon thousands of law-abiding citizens. I really like this story’s taxonomic, poetic style, as well as how architectural photographer Elizabeth Felicella gives the story a more formalist visual valence than your typical housing piece.
Blood Cries Out (Sean Patrick Cooper, The Atavist)
In the book Popular Crime by Bill James, the author writes that the phrase “something terrible has happened” is “the best title ever for a crime book…those words turn the ‘crime story’ inside out by exposing the human beings standing on what otherwise appears to be a vast and grisly stage.”
We’re hardly ten percent of the way into the story in “Blood Cries Out” before someone uses those words to tell her husband that the unthinkable has occurred: there’s been a murder right across the road. And the vast and grisly stage? Small-town Chillicothe, Missouri, where two men have amicably farmed the same land for years, until one of them wakes up in the middle of the night with a bullet in his face and his wife dead beside him. The wounded man initially suspects his daughter’s abusive boyfriend, but then changes his story and accuses his farming partner, and then his farming partner’s son, which results in the sort of twisty and utterly corrupt legal process worthy of Making a Murderer part three.
The piece is full of letters and depositions and secret meetings and a lot of paperwork, but on occasion, it vibrates with poignantly biblical/Americana-esque undertones, from the title (plucked from Genesis) to lines like, “[the victim’s] murder was an attack on a Christian matriarch, a cherished local archetype. Similarly, [the innocent man’s] conviction represented the denial of an eldest son’s right to live and work on his father’s land.”
Author of The Real Lolita: The Kidnapping of Sally Horner and the Novel That Scandalized the World.
The End of Evil (Sarah Marshall, The Believer)
I published a book and wrote a lot of my own pieces in 2018 — including one for this site — so, oddly, I didn’t keep as good track of longform reporting produced by others (podcasts, however, that’s a different story, but this is Longreads, not Longlistens). But I keep returning to Sarah Marshall’s “The End of Evil” because it makes fresh a story long consigned to easy tropes. Marshall, who also co-hosts the stellar podcast You’re Wrong About… and is one of my favorite true crime writers, gives voice to the myriad of women and girls Bundy murdered, shows him as something far less than an evil mastermind, and demonstrates why, with particular clarity, “the longer you spend inside this story, the less sense you can find.”
Audience editor, Longreads
Checkpoint Nation (Melissa del Bosque, Texas Observer)
When Americans think of “the border” as a narrow and specific line, we neglect the legal reality that the term actually applies to a border zone, a much larger halo covering up to 100 air miles from any U.S. land or coastal boundary. The zone touches parts of 38 states, covering 10 in their entirety — and within that wide rim, anyone can be subjected to a warrantless search at any time. In this signature longform reality check, Melissa del Bosque digs into the history of how Congress vested U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) with alarming, far-reaching powers to search and detain even long-term residents who’ve never committed a crime at surprise, “suspicionless” checkpoints.
Japan’s Prisons Are a Haven for Elderly Women (Shiho Fukada, Bloomberg Businessweek)
In a series of sweet, anonymous snapshots, Shiho Fukada talks to and photographs a growing cohort of Japanese seniors: “otherwise law-abiding elderly women” who have found a solution to the loneliness of aging in the reliable comforts of prison. Almost 1 in 5 women in Japanese prisons is a senior, Fukada reports, and 90 percent of them are arrested for shoplifting. From the simple things they steal (rice, cold medicine, a frying pan) to the circumstances they’re trying to escape (bedridden or violent spouses, invisibility, loss, and financial strain), the details of this story make structural inadequacies to meet the unmet social and healthcare needs of an aging population all too clear.
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