Journalist Christopher Goffard of TheLos Angeles Times may be the bard of crime in Orange County, California. Last year, his six-part series “Framed” told the story of fear and loathing in an Irvine PTA. His 2017 opus is “Dirty John,” a seven-part series — and podcast — that unravels the life of a con man as he takes on his final victim.
When Debra Newell met John Meehan for a first date, she thought he was handsome and kind, but shabbily dressed and a little strange. He said he was a doctor, an anesthesiologist; he always wore medical scrubs but he never seemed to go to work. When they married in Las Vegas less than two months later, she kept her family in the dark. It was only after she learned about his past that she began to fear for her life, and the lives of her children.
An abandoned house in Accomack County, Virginia. Beginning in 2012, dozens of fires were set in the area, where the poverty rate is around 20 percent. (Bonnie Jo Mount/The Washington Post via Getty Images)
In the middle of the night on December 15, 2012, Lois Gomez sat up in bed. She thought she heard something. She listened. Nothing. Maybe she was wrong, maybe she hadn’t heard anything. She went to the kitchen for a drink of water. It was two or three in the morning, only a few hours before her shift at Perdue and her husband’s shift at Tyson. Now she definitely heard something. A banging on her front door — which in itself was odd; friends and family knew they always used the side entrance — and someone yelling: “Your garage is on fire! I’ve already called 911!”
She stood frozen in the kitchen trying to process the information. Christmas lights, she thought. Her outdoor Christmas lights were halfway up, but she and her husband had recently decided to visit his family in Texas for the holiday and she’d been trying to figure out whether to bother with the rest of the decorations, which were meanwhile stored in the family’s detached garage, which was now on fire. Christmas lights, along with the expensive music equipment for her son’s rock band.
It had been a rough couple of months. For one thing, she wasn’t getting along with her next-door neighbors. She’d been close with the woman who’d owned that house before, Susan Bundick. They brought each other dinner sometimes, or stood and chatted in their backyards. But one Sunday afternoon, Lois was outside emptying the aboveground backyard pool to close out the summer season, and she saw the police were at Susan’s house. They told Lois her neighbor had died. Now, Susan’s daughter lived in her mother’s old house and things weren’t as pleasant. Tonya was fine, kept to herself, but Lois had a few run-ins with Tonya’s new boyfriend, a squirrelly redheaded guy whose name she didn’t know. He’d done a few little things, like dumping a bunch of branches on their lawn instead of disposing of them like he was supposed to. Once he’d accused her of making racial slurs against Tonya’s kids. The accusation was ridiculous. Lois’s husband was from Mexico, and her four grandchildren were partly black.
She’d also been having nightmares about the arsonist. In one dream, she went into her kitchen late at night and saw someone racing through the yard, an intruder wearing dark-colored sweat pants and a hoodie. “What are you doing?” she called. The figure turned and looked at her but she still couldn’t see his face, and he eventually disappeared behind her detached garage. She woke up and realized it wasn’t real.
Below is an excerpt from the first four chapters of The Fact of a Body, Alexandria Marzano-Lesnevich’s gripping hybrid memoir of a murder case and family secrets. Blending crime reportage with first-person narrative of her own struggles, the braided story wrestles with trauma, violence, and the ways we try to understand the past, especially when those we trust betray us. Our thanks to Marzano-Lesnevich and Flatiron for sharing it with the Longreads community.
Note: This work is not authorized or approved by the Louisiana Capital Assistance Center or its clients, and the views expressed by the author do not reflect the views or positions of anyone other than the author. The author’s description of any legal proceedings, including her description of the positions of the parties and the circumstances and events of the crimes charged, are drawn solely from the court record, other publicly available information, and her own research.
The boy wears sweatpants the color of a Louisiana lake. Later, the police report will note them as blue, though in every description his mother gives thereafter she will always insist on calling them aqua or teal. On his feet are the muddy hiking boots every boy wears in this part of the state, perfect for playing in the woods. In one small fist, he grips a BB gun half as tall as he is. The BB gun is the Daisy brand, with a long, brown plastic barrel the boy keeps as shiny as if it were real metal. The only child of a single mother, Jeremy Guillory is used to moving often, sleeping in bedrooms that aren’t his. His mother’s friends all rent houses along the same dead-end street the landlord calls Watson Road whenever he wants to charge higher rent, though it doesn’t really have a name and even the town police department will need directions to find it. Settlers from Iowa named the town after their home state but, wanting a fresh start, pronounced the name Io-way, even as they kept the spelling. The town has always been a place people come for new starts, always been a place they can’t quite leave the past behind. There, the boy and his mother stay with whoever can pay the electricity bill one month, whoever can keep the gas on the next. Wherever the boy lands, he takes his BB gun with him. It is his most prized possession.
Now it is the first week in February. The leaves are green and lush on the trees, but the temperature dips at night. Lorilei, Jeremy’s mother, isn’t working. She rented a home just for the two of them—their first—but the electricity’s been turned off. Her brother Richard lives in a sprawling house up on the hill, but she isn’t staying with Richard. Instead, Lorilei and Jeremy are staying with Lorilei’s friend Melissa, Melissa’s boyfriend, Michael, and their baby. The baby is two years old, old enough that he wants to play with the boy and screams when he doesn’t get his way.
People often spoke of Pierce’s opponent, District Attorney Britt, in a whisper, as though he were the Voldemort of Robeson County. Stories of Lumbees and African Americans being coerced to plead guilty in court were as common as the ramshackle tobacco barns that dotted the landscape.
“It’s hard to comprehend how unwholesome and suffocating the system was,” testified Maurice Geiger — an attorney and founder of a nonprofit that monitored Robeson’s courts — in 1991. In a review of thousands of cases from the 1980s, Geiger estimated that at least 1,000 innocent people were wrongfully convicted every year; he also found that Britt’s office used a range of aggressive ploys to force guilty pleas. The court calendar was manipulated to make defendants appear in court for days or weeks on end while they waited for their cases to be called. Others were tricked into signing forms that waived their right to counsel — often easy to do, given the county’s adult illiteracy rate of 30 percent.
I’m entranced by the moment our secrets become our confessions. Over the past three years, I’ve confessed my fair share: Coming out as queer. Coming out as non-binary. Sharing crushes, deep-seated fears and ridiculous hopes with my friends, my partner and my boss. In these six stories, a drunk driver confesses via viral video; an ex-Catholic returns to confession; and a high-school cheater reveals her indiscretions. Elisa Albert writes about her training as a doula, and I respond with my own doubts. Finally, acclaimed essayist Leslie Jamison reviews two collections of deeply personal writing from Sarah Manguso, David Shields and Caleb Powell.
After a night of heavy drinking, Matthew Cordle killed Vincent Canzoni in a drunk-driving accident. Overcome with guilt and on the brink of suicide, Cordle made an earnest video through the organization because I said I would, confessing what he’d done. Alex Sheen, the creator of because I said I would, thought Cordle’s confession might get 100,000 views and provide some solace for Cordle. He underestimated a bit—2.6 million people watched Cordle’s video. His viral confession impacted the victim’s family, Cordle’s family and Cordle’s trial. Read more…
The following excerpt appears courtesy of Verso Books. The passage—the book’s opening chapter—details a single terrible crime, which Rodriguez Nieto uses as an inroad to discussing Juárez’s emergent culture of crime. Verso writes:
Sandra Rodríguez Nieto was an investigative reporter for the daily newspaper El Diario de Juárez for nearly a decade. Despite tremendous danger and the assassination of one of her closest colleagues, she persisted. She didn’t want the story of her city told solely by foreign reporters, because, in her words, “I know what is underneath the violence.” This book traces the rise of a national culture of murder and bloody retribution, and is a testament to the extraordinary bravery of its author. Among other things, The Story of Vicente is an account of how poverty, political corruption, failing government institutions and US meddling combined to create an explosion of violence in Juárez.
A warning: the excerpt below contains graphic violence.Read more…
In 1982, mere weeks before leaving Hawaii, author Linda Spalding had been summoned to serve as a juror on the murder trial of Maryann Acker. She ran five minutes late on the day the jury convened to reach a verdict; the judge promptly dismissed her and an alternate took her spot. Acker was found guilty and has spent the next 30 years in prison.
In this piece from Brick Magazine, Spalding reflects on memory, her own quixotic quest to help reverse Maryann’s conviction, and the outsized effect complete strangers can have on each other’s life.
A few months later, I spent three afternoons with Maryann behind the razor wire and chain-link fence at the California Institution for Women,where she had spent twenty-two years of her life. Because of the murder conviction in Hawaii, the California parole board considered her a serial killer, and with a life sentence they could hold her indefinitely. During those first visits I told her she had seemed frozen as she sat in our courtroom all those years before, never shaking her head or wiping her eyes. Never shouting. Never bursting into tears or insisting on her innocence. Even so, I had identified with her then, and now I watched her closely, trying to decide if my belief in her innocence had been justified.
This wasn’t Beirut. Mardiros put in long hours. He tweaked the menu; his mother tinkered with the spices. It took a full year to find a groove. The first crowd of regulars brought in a second crowd, and a buzz began to grow among the network of foodies. How did they make the chicken so tender and juicy? The answer was a simple rub of salt and not trusting the rotisserie to do all the work but raising and lowering the heat and shifting each bird as it cooked. What made the garlic paste so fluffy and white and piercing? This was a secret the family intended to keep. Some customers swore it was potatoes, others mayonnaise. At least one fanatic stuck his container in the freezer and examined each part as it congealed. He pronounced the secret ingredient a special kind of olive oil. None guessed right. The ingredients were simple and fresh, Mardiros pledged, no shortcuts. The magic was in his mother’s right hand.
“Though Alice said that her sister had never written the book, for years Harper told Tom Radney that it was near completion. In 1997, Radney told a newspaper reporter, “I still talk to Nelle twice a year, and every time we talk, she says she’s still working on it.” Madolyn Radney told me that while Lee procrastinated Tom persisted. “He’d call her and she’d say I’m just about finished with the draft, or it’s just going to be perfect, or I’ll send it to the publishers tomorrow,” she said. “He even went up to New York to get his files, and she told him it was headed to the publishers.”
“He was so trusting,” Radney said of her husband. “He gave Harper Lee everything he had: notes, transcripts, court documents. And she took it all with her.” None of it, the family says, was ever returned, and Tom Radney’s generosity has bothered the family since his death. Beyond hoping that Lee might still publish “The Reverend,” the family has tried to get Radney’s files back.
The Jinx—a six-part documentary miniseries about alleged murderer and real estate scion Robert Durst—aired its final episode this past Sunday, a day after Durst’s real life arrest for the murder of his close friend Susan Berman. Berman was killed in 2000. In 2002, Ned Zeman profiled Durst (and his alleged crimes) for Vanity Fair. The excerpt below offers a window into Durst’s early friendship with Berman:
The second influence was Susan Berman. Acerbic and lively, talking a mile a minute, controlling the room, Berman was, by almost any standard, an exotic. She had shiny, black Louise Brooks-style hair, and she had stories. She’d spent her childhood in Las Vegas and Hollywood, where her classmates included Liza Minnelli and Jann Wenner. Her late father, Dave Berman, had run the biggest hotels on the Las Vegas Strip—the Riviera, the El Dorado, and, most notably, the Flamingo, where his only daughter’s portrait hung over the reservation desk. That Dave Berman had been a confederate of Mob bosses Meyer Lansky’s and Bugsy Siegel’s—that, in fact, he was a notorious gangster whom one detective called “the toughest Jew I ever met”—was Susan’s obsession. Bobby was fascinated. They’d both lost their mothers. They both had paternal issues. They became fast friends. He doted on Susie, as he called her.