15 True Crime Longreads and the Questions We Should Ask Ourselves When Reading Them

(Armin Weigel/Picture Alliance via Getty Images)

“I think one of the reasons these stories are so popular — and they’ve been very popular since long before whatever true crime boom we’re currently in,” Rachel Monroe notes while discussing her book Savage Appetites, on our cultural fascination with crime, is that “they’re very emotionally engaging.”

“Whenever we’re telling these stories,” Monroe continues, “we’re participating in that emotional, social, political conversation, whether we want to admit it or not.”

For all that we can stream entire seasons of docudramas in a single day, true crime stories often take years to report out and get right. Whether the person facing the facts of any given case is a staff writer or a law enforcement official, even full-time, invested professionals can lack the bandwidth or the resources to investigate every life story that crosses their desks, with the undivided attention each of those lives deserves.

Whose life stories aren’t we telling? Has the public heard the whole story, or as much of the story as investigators can access? Is anyone involved being flattened or caricatured? While so many of the most complex cases are cut short by bureaucratic limits, the best true crime reporting attempts to slow us down long enough to consider unique regional factors, historical context, human rights, and our own evolving biases. Systems, policies, and legacies contribute to any individual tragedy. If a story about what happened is too short, the storyteller might be omitting all three.

“The most balanced true crime isn’t actually true crime,” Soraya Roberts writes in a column on the genre’s recent renaissance and its crossover into advocacy. When nonfiction feature writing is at its most effective, a well-told story has the power to impact some of our most flawed systems — especially when a story helps overturn a wrongful conviction — by bringing new dimensions or closure to an unjust process.

There are hundreds of true crime longreads out there, but the following stories all made a lasting impression on me, through first, second, and third reads over several years. It takes time to read each of these stories, and their length reflects the attention and care that the writers devoted to mastering each case’s unique set of facts, chronologies, characters, and contradictions. They all center people, prioritize research, and exhaust as many angles as they can, to tell as complete a story as possible.

If true crime stories do call up universal emotions, it’s because we can recognize ourselves and our mistakes somehow, from the perspective of our relative safety. We all fear anything that can devastate the people we love. But when that fear starts to tip the scales of justice, stories like these remind me to consider, most of all, what crime does to families — and to keep the image of my own chosen family in mind, whenever I’m asked to consider punishment.

* * *

Promethea Unbound (Mike Mariani, The Atavist Magazine)

Yearian led Jasmine into a spacious room lined with textbooks and file boxes, then picked her up and set her in a chair opposite his desk. She swung her legs up and down, her feet nowhere close to touching the floor, before settling with her knees pulled up to her chest. As Yearian talked, Jasmine kept looking at a pink slinky perched on a shelf.

Why, he asked, had she inquired about the accelerator melting down? Jasmine answered matter-of-factly: Particles moving nearly at the speed of light create an enormous amount of thermal energy that must be contained. The professor followed up by asking her about the physics principles behind a pendulum. Jasmine described oscillation, conservation of energy, and frictional damping. This is the real deal, Yearian thought.

He called Georgia into the office. “You have an extremely bright child,” he said. “How did she learn so much?” Everything Jasmine knew, Georgia explained, she had taught herself.

The Innocent Man (Pamela Colloff, Texas Monthly)

On April 12, 1987, Michael Morton sat down to write a letter. “Your Honor,” he began, “I’m sure you remember me. I was convicted of murder, in your court, in February of this year.” He wrote each word carefully, sitting cross-legged on the top bunk in his cell at the Wynne prison unit, in Huntsville. “I have been told that you are to decide if I am ever to see my son, Eric, again. I haven’t seen him since the morning that I was convicted. I miss him terribly and I know that he has been asking about me.” Referring to the declarations of innocence he had made during his trial, he continued, “I must reiterate my innocence. I did NOT kill my wife. You cannot imagine what it is like to lose your wife the way I did, then to be falsely accused and convicted of this terrible crime. First, my wife and now possibly, my son! Sooner or later, the truth will come out. The killer will be caught and this nightmare will be over. I pray that the sheriff’s office keeps an open mind. It is no sin to admit a mistake. No one is perfect in the performance of their job. I don’t know what else to say except I swear to God that I did NOT kill my wife. Please don’t take my son from me too.”

Enrique’s Journey (Sonia Nazario, The Los Angeles Times)

His mother never returns, and that decides Enrique’s fate. As a teenager—indeed, still a child—he will set out for the U.S. on his own to search for her. Virtually unnoticed, he will become one of an estimated 48,000 children who enter the United States from Central America and Mexico each year, illegally and without either of their parents. Roughly two-thirds of them will make it past the U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service.

Many go north seeking work. Others flee abusive families. Most of the Central Americans go to reunite with a parent, say counselors at a detention center in Texas where the INS houses the largest number of the unaccompanied children it catches. Of those, the counselors say, 75% are looking for their mothers. Some children say they need to find out whether their mothers still love them. A priest at a Texas shelter says they often bring pictures of themselves in their mothers’ arms.

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

I had come to Charleston intending to write about them, the nine people who were gone. But from gavel to gavel, as I listened to the testimony of the survivors and family members, often the only thing I could focus on, and what would keep me up most nights while I was there, was the magnitude of Dylann Roof’s silence, his refusal to even look up, to ever explain why he did what he had done. Over and over again, without even bothering to open his mouth, Roof reminded us that he did not have to answer to anyone. He did not have to dignify our questions with a response or explain anything at all to the people whose relatives he had maimed and murdered. Roof was safeguarded by his knowledge that white American terrorism is never waterboarded for answers, it is never twisted out for meaning, we never identify its “handlers,” and we could not force him to do a thing. He remained inscrutable. He remained in control, just the way he wanted to be.

Could an Ex-Convict Become an Attorney? I Intended to Find Out (Reginald Dwayne Betts, The New York Times Magazine)

After meeting with J., I sat in my office with his file, a thin sheaf of no more than a dozen pages. I pulled out my own criminal record. One hundred-odd pages spilled from the accordion folder. I stared at the documents scattered across my desk: my neat cursive on the handwritten confession; a faded yellow summons demanding my mother appear in court, as if my crime belonged to her; the sentencing order consigning me to prison. The prison scrubs that J. wore, the jail cell that held him, the early mornings when deputies would take him shackled and cuffed to court, connected us. I wanted him to believe that the worst of what might happen could be overcome. But I wasn’t sure if that was true.

The Spy Who Couldn’t Spell: How the Biggest Heist in the History of US Espionage Was Foiled (Yudhijit Bhattacharjee, The Guardian)

Whatever nostalgia he might have felt for his old school was tinged with bitterness. It was here that he had suffered some of life’s early humiliations: taunted by classmates for his apparent dimwittedness; held in low esteem by his teachers. If they remembered him at all, they would remember him as the boy who had difficulty reading. The boy who was so bad with spellings. His bearish frame may have protected him from physical bullying, but combined with his severe dyslexia and his social awkwardness, it had also cemented his image as a dolt.

That image had stuck with him, despite a successful career in US intelligence, where he had been given access to some of the country’s most valued secrets. Being underestimated – by family, classmates and colleagues – had been the theme of his life, a curse he had borne silently since childhood. But for the mission he had now embarked upon, it was a blessing. None of his co-workers or managers in the intelligence community could have imagined that he of all people was capable of masterminding a complex espionage plot.

What Do We Owe Her Now? (Elizabeth Bruenig, The Washington Post)

I wanted to understand why it had to be as bad as it was — why she wasn’t just doubted but hated, not simply mocked but exiled — and why it had always lingered on my conscience like an article of unfinished business, something I had meant to do but hadn’t. I wanted to look directly at the dark things that are revealed when episodes of brutality unfold and all pretense of civilization temporarily fades, and I wanted to understand them completely.

Otherwise, I thought, they could at any time pull me under. And I could watch mutely while something like this happened again.

What Happened at Brian Holloway’s House? (Jay Caspian Kang, Grantland)

There are two stories about the party in Stephentown. The first, the one we already know, stars an accomplished, morally stout man who took a stand against a horde of teenagers whose minds had been destroyed by Molly and social media. But that redemption saga holds up for about as long as a quick, three-minute segment on the news or a newspaper column about these goddamn kids these days. Prod just a little bit more, even gently, and Brian Holloway’s quest to save 300 lives starts to fall apart.

The second story about the party in Stephentown is worse.

The Delay (Rachel Monroe, Esquire)

It wasn’t until 9:07 P.M. that the Navajo Nation Police Department finally requested an Amber Alert from the Federal Bureau of Investigation. However, Amber Alerts are typically initiated by state police, not the FBI. The lack of clarity about who was supposed to set the alert in motion meant that—for several crucial hours—no such process was taking place. Sometime after midnight, an FBI agent contacted the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children. They, in turn, contacted the New Mexico State Police, formally launching the Amber Alert process.

When Nez finally made it home that night, his wife couldn’t stop talking about Ashlynne. Sweet little girl, she said. She’s so petite. She’s so small. Hours later, they were jolted awake by the simultaneous buzzing of their cell phones. The automated text message informed them that an Amber Alert had been issued for Ashlynne Mike. It was 2:30 A.M., eight hours after Gary Mike had first reported that his children were missing.

Death at a Penn State Fraternity (Caitlin Flanagan, The Atlantic)

Tim Piazza’s case, however, has something we’ve never seen before. This time the dead student left a final testimony, a vivid, horrifying, and inescapable account of what happened to him and why. The house where he was so savagely treated had been outfitted with security cameras, which recorded his long ordeal. Put together with the texts and group chats of the fraternity brothers as they delayed seeking medical treatment and then cleaned up any traces of a wild party—and with the 65-page report released by a Centre County grand jury, which recommended 1,098 criminal charges against 18 former members and against the fraternity itself—the footage reveals a more complete picture of certain dark realities than we have previously had.

Once again, a student is dead and a family is shattered. And all of us are co-authors of these grim facts, as we grant both the fraternities and their host institutions tax-exempt status and allow them to carry on year after year with little change. Is it time we reconsidered what we’re doing?

The Counterfeit Queen of Soul (Jeff Maysh, Smithsonian Magazine)

Hardy’s “Aretha Franklin Revue” played three small towns across Florida. After every performance, “Aretha” dashed to her dressing room and hid. On the strength of these smaller shows, Hardy eyed bigger towns and talked of scoring a lucrative ten-night tour. Meanwhile, he fed Jones two hamburgers a day and kept her locked inside a grim hotel room, far from her boys, who were being cared for by her mother. Even if she’d been able to steal away to call the police, she might have felt some hesitation: In nearby Miami just a few months earlier, a “blacks only” rally had turned into a riot where police shot and killed three residents, and left a 12-year-old boy with a bullet hole in his chest.

In Fort Myers, the promoters booked the 1,400-seat High Hat Club, where the $5.50 tickets quickly sold out. Hardy’s impostor had fooled a few small-town crowds, but now she had to convince a larger audience. He dressed Jones in a yellow, floor-length gown, a wig and heavy stage makeup. In the mirror, she looked vaguely like a picture of Franklin from the pages of Jet. “I wanted to tell everybody beforehand that I was not Miss Franklin,” Jones insisted later, “but [Hardy] said the show promoters would do something awful to me if they learned who I really was.”

When Jones peered out from backstage she saw an audience ten times larger than those she’d seen at any church or nightclub. “I was scared,” Jones recalled. “I didn’t have any money, no place to go.”

Through the fog of cigarette smoke and heavy stage lighting, Hardy hoped his hoax would work.

Remote Control (Sarah Marshall, The Believer)

For all the hours she has spent in the public eye prior to this moment, and for the many more hours she will spend there yet, she has been stoic, strong, reserved. She was famous before, for her skills as an athlete and as a performer, but this moment of anguish will make her an icon. Newspaper headlines and magazine covers and reporters and talk-show hosts and families joking in the car and around the breakfast table and on the couch as they watch her on TV will quote her, now and for years to come—or at least they will think they are quoting her. But they will say, without fail, the one thing she didn’t say: “Why me?”

Twenty years later, we are still trying to answer this question. And if we have been mishearing something so simple for so long, we have to wonder what else we have been mistaken about.

The Disappeared (Hannah Dreier, ProPublica)

Miguel walked off toward the woods wearing a pair of black sweatpants and vanished into the darkness. The only clue his family would have to where he had gone and what awaited him there were the 84 Facebook messages he had exchanged that day with Alexander. They were discovered, weeks later, by his teenage sister — not the police.

Miguel was the first of 11 high schoolers to go missing in a single Long Island county in 2016 and 2017, as the street gang MS-13 preyed with increasing brutality on the Latino community. As student after student disappeared, often lured out with the promise of smoking blunts in the woods, their immigrant families were stymied by the inaction and inadequate procedures of the Suffolk County police, according to more than 100 interviews and thousands of pages of police reports, court records and documents obtained through freedom-of-information requests.

Many of the families came from countries where officials have historically looked the other way as gangs and death squads disappear young people. Now they felt the same pattern was playing out again, in the woods of Long Island.

What Bullets Do to Bodies (Jason Fagone, Highline)

The first thing Dr. Amy Goldberg told me is that this article would be pointless. She said this on a phone call last summer, well before the election, before a tangible sensation that facts were futile became a broader American phenomenon. I was interested in Goldberg because she has spent 30 years as a trauma surgeon, almost all of that at the same hospital, Temple University Hospital in North Philadelphia, which treats more gunshot victims than any other in the state and is located in what was, according to one analysis, the deadliest of the 10 largest cities in the country until last year, with a homicide rate of 17.8 murders per 100,000 residents in 2015. Over my years of reporting here, I had heard stories about Temple’s trauma team. A city prosecutor who handled shooting investigations once told me that the surgeons were able to piece people back together after the most horrific acts of violence. People went into the hospital damaged beyond belief and came walking out.

That stuck with me. I wondered what surgeons know about gun violence that the rest of us don’t. We are inundated with news about shootings. Fourteen dead in San Bernardino, six in Michigan, 11 over one weekend in Chicago. We get names, places, anguished Facebook posts, wonky articles full of statistics on crime rates and risk, Twitter arguments about the Second Amendment—everything except the blood, the pictures of bodies torn by bullets. That part is concealed, sanitized. More than 30,000 people die of gunshot wounds each year in America, around 75,000 more are injured, and we have no visceral sense of what physically happens inside a person when he’s shot. Goldberg does.

The Uncounted (Azmat Khan and Anand Gopal, The New York Times Magazine)

In the long hours between operations, when the painkillers afforded moments of lucidity, he tried to avoid ruminating on his loss. He refused to look at photos of his house, but occasionally at first, and then obsessively, he began replaying his and Mayada’s actions in the days and weeks before the attack, searching for an explanation. Why was his family targeted? Some friends assumed that an ISIS convoy had been nearby, but the video showed nothing moving in the vicinity. What it did show was two direct hits. “O.K., this is my house, and this is Mohannad’s house,” he recalled. “One rocket here, and one rocket there. It was not a mistake.”

Basim’s shock and grief were turning to anger. He knew the Americans; he had lived among them. He had always felt he understood them. He desperately wanted to understand why his family was taken from him. “I decided,” he said, “to get justice.”