Murnick recalls learning in 2001 that her childhood best friend, Ashley Ellerin — an ex-girlfriend of Ashton Kutcher’s — had been stabbed to death at 22 in L.A. Ellerin had visited Murnick at college in New York just eight months before. During that visit, Murnick got a peek into the fast life Ellerin had been hiding from her parents and others who’d been close to her growing up.
On our walk from the subway across 110th Street toward my apartment, she told me that her part-time job at Sephora was just something she held on to so her parents would stay off her back. Actually, she was spending more of her time — and making a lot more money — at a strip club, working bachelor parties and pole dancing for tips; occasionally there were arrangements that happened in hotels, too. She relayed the information with the same casual remove she had used to give the waiter her order at lunch: The chopped chicken salad, no onions, honey-mustard dressing on the side.
You had to have a manicure and pedicure every week, she was saying, which was kind of a drag, but even a tiny chip in your nail polish could ruin the fantasy. She usually did light colors or French; once she had put baby blue on her toes and it hadn’t gone over well. Tanning too — religiously. Men expected you to be a certain way, and attempting to work around that was more trouble than it was worth.
I tried to appear blasé, to take it in stride, but what I really felt was utter confusion. Was I angry at her? Was she telling me this to brag? Should I be wearing my concerned hat now, or would that be unfairly judgmental? I hadn’t yet seen any comparable life developments in a friend and didn’t know what it all meant, for either of us or the two of us. Maybe this was good, cool, right — To each her own? You go, girl? — and I was the one with a problem, a prude. Did everything make sense now, or did it all make even less sense than before?
We rounded the corner onto Amsterdam Avenue. Ashley’s confessions were picking up speed — actors, crystal meth, the lease to her car being paid for by some guy in his 50s, how much she charged for an hour. She talked of martinis and pills and being on top during sex; the guys always told you they wanted you to go as slow as possible, but she still found ways to get through it quickly. It was almost as if she needed to get everything out before we entered my apartment, an unmasking in public so we could be on the same page in private.
James Lasdun tells the story of how his Kingston, NY-based dentist, Gilberto Nunez, D.D.S., wound up in prison. Lasdun writes about attending Nunez’s trial for the murder of his lover’s husband — a man he called his friend — with an eye toward the ways in which law enforcement can botch a case by determining too soon that it knows what happened, and how hard it can be to judge someone’s character.
Michael Thevis built a lucrative pornography empire in the 1960s and ’70s only to spend the end of his life in prison. His family opened his personal diaries to a journalist for the first time to get the whole, crooked, tragic story.
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.