In this epic, seven-part feature from the Dallas Morning News, Scott Farwell tells the story of Carol Blevins, a heroin addict and “Aryan Princess featherwood” (property of a gang member) who became the FBI’s most important confidential informant during a massive, six-year investigation into the Aryan Brotherhood of Texas — an organized crime syndicate responsible for over 100 murders and a huge drug trade. Blevins’ keen eye for detail helped take down 13 members of the gang. Not only does she suffer post-traumatic stress from her undercover work, the gang has signaled the “green light” on her assassination in a bid for revenge.
She lived with the ABT, gathering information the Cold War way – by sleuthing, connecting dots, memorizing detail.
Her spy work offered broad views (the ABT’s strategy for moving meth with Mexican cartels) and small insights (serial numbers on stolen guns).
In covert text messages, she pre-empted murders and interrupted robberies. She led police to drug drop houses, snapped photos connecting criminals to unsolved crimes, and prepped police when it came time to arrest men predisposed to violence.
Carol’s work sealed 13 convictions, contributed key information to at least 16 others, and juiced the careers of her government handlers.
The feds use most spies like matches – to strike fast, burn hot and flame out. Others fill disposable roles in sting operations, as drug buyers or middlemen who fence stolen property.
But agents say the most valuable CIs augur deep inside, where they learn to live in another skin, to lie and believe the lie, to infiltrate silently and investigate invisibly – like a colorless gas filling an empty vessel.
Carol was like that. She would do or say or risk anything to gain favor with the feds.
Then they cut her loose.
Medical records suggest Carol suffers from a range of mental illnesses — bipolar disorder, borderline personality disorder and post-traumatic stress disorder — as a result of her work as a confidential informant.
Most of the time my mom and I are a secret team, keeping secrets from my dad. She tells me we’re going to take the city bus because her car is getting fixed and this sounds like a great adventure. We take the bus to her friend’s house in Providence and she leaves me there in the living room, where I watch television until the room begins to darken.
I am good at keeping secrets. I am good at telling lies. I’m so good that years later, when I’m an adult trying to find out more about my mother’s life and death, I’ll have trouble with my own memories: Did I know we were on the bus buying drugs? Did I understand the danger we were in? Did I really believe we were in this together?
Another time, Mom drives me in Grandma’s car to a small house with long steps leading up to the front door from the street. She takes the keys from the ignition and tells me to wait in the car. She leans over and pats the space beneath the dashboard, telling me to get down there and stay until she comes back. “I’ll lock the doors,” she says.
In the real world, my mom’s body will remain off the side of the highway, undiscovered for five months.
When Julian Pierce, a member of the Lumbee tribe, ran for North Carolina Superior Court judge in 1988, he ended up dead on his kitchen floor, but his murder helped unite African-Americans and Native Americans in a segregated county known for corruption and wrongful sentencing. One TV producer has been piecing together Pierce’s murder ever since.
Mitigation specialist Jennifer Wynn investigates the upbringings of defendants to humanize them enough to convince at least one juror to bypass the death penalty for a life in prison without parole. Wynn shares the stories of three of her clients — men charged with murder — whose lives are marked by poverty, substance abuse, untreated mental illness, and extreme child neglect. Read the full story by Elon Green at Mel Magazine.
Jennifer Wynn’s job is to make jurors feel sympathy for people who’ve committed unspeakable crimes
“We hear all about the victims,” Jennifer Wynn told me recently, “but we never hear about the defendant’s story.”
Wynn, cheerful and salty, is a mitigation specialist. She is engaged by defense attorneys, mostly in capital cases, to investigate and compile the life story of the defendant. The material Wynn gathers, often heartbreaking and brutal, is used to convince the jury to deliver a sentence other than death. (In non-capital cases the same person is called a sentencing advocate, and they similarly argue for a less-severe sentence.
She has now done mitigation work on 30 murder cases, 25 of which were death penalty-eligible, and won them all.
When people share with you their deepest, darkest secrets — the worst things they’ve done — they need validation. These are people who, for the most part, have been told their whole lives, You’re a piece of shit. They’re bullied, they’re picked on, they’re shot at. Then they act out, and society says, See, you are a monster. Then, people like me come in and say, No, you’re not a monster, and you still do deserve to be part of the human race. The system is fucked up, and I tell them that. It’s the first time they’ve ever heard that.
Mitigation specialist Jennifer Wynn investigates the upbringing of defendants on trial — often for their lives — to humanize clients in a bid to convince at least one juror to bypass the death penalty for a life in prison without parole. Wynn shares the stories of three of her clients — men charged with murder, whose lives are marked by poverty, substance abuse, untreated mental illness, and extreme child neglect.
Adrian Daub’s fascinating essay in the LA Review of Bookson the Stephen King classic IT — now 30 years old — reveals that the real horror of IT wasn’t Pennywise the supernatural clown, but our own, entirely human ability to forget the horrors of the past.
I realize now that I can’t even remember when I finally picked up one of these errant copies of It and started reading. But perhaps that’s a strangely appropriate mode of reception for a horror novel that reserves its greatest terror for the vagaries of memory. It features relatively little of the kind of horror that has protagonists shining their flashlights into dark corners to face unseen abominations. Instead, it dwells on the horror of having lived with something terrifying all along, of having become blind and numb to it. It strikes me only now, rereading the book decades later in English, that there’s something distinctively American about the pervasive, dreamlike fog of amnesia that envelops the town of Derry, Maine, in King’s novel. Not for nothing does It make its home in the town’s sewers; as one character puts it: “Nobody knows where all the damned sewers and drains go, or why. When they work, nobody cares.”
“No one will be safe until many, many more have died.” In a dispatch from Manila, James Fenton describes the current war on drugs in the Philippines and two types of killings: “buy-bust” operations and EJKs, or extrajudicial killings.
Still looking for some post-election inspiration? Try watching Heathers, and/or standing in front of a classroom. Pete Coviello pens an essay on “loving your students, hating your enemies, and Winona.”
In order to highlight the powerful nonfiction that print literary magazines consistently publish in America, here is Sarah Viren’s essay from the Memphis-based journal The Pinch. It tells the strange story of a rich real estate heir who stood trial for murder, and how the author came to know him by inheriting his furniture. This essay won the journal’s annual nonfiction prize.