Basically A Detective

By Juliana Gray

My T-shirt is a big hit. My friend Erin and I aren’t even  inside the convention yet, standing in a line that stretches almost all the way back to the main entrance of the Hilton

Riverside New Orleans, and already I’m getting a lot of compliments. And I should—my shirt is awesome, black with white text reading it’s always the husband, a pool of red underscoring the final word.

Other attendees have also brought their strong T-shirt game. true crime, wine, in bed by 9, reads one. There’s alexa, i need to hide a body. I see several reading #freeadnan; there’s a panel on that case later today. One woman’s shirt is simply a pink heart surrounding the name paul holes.

Paul Holes is the man we’re waiting to see, a former forensic inves- tigator in northern California and “host” of CrimeCon 2019, where he’s about to give the Thursday afternoon welcome address. Holes was part of the team that used familial DNA to identify and arrest Joseph James DeAngelo, the serial rapist and murderer known as the Golden State Killer, in 2018. He is also a legit snacc, with lean features and icy blue eyes that say, “I have stared down the worst of humanity and brought them to justice, and I’d love to tell you all the details over a bottle of perfectly chilled Prosecco, Juliana.” That is, I really admire his work.

Erin and I make it into the ballroom and find seats where we can see both the podium and one of the Jumbotron screens. There are probably over two thousand people, at least 90 percent of them women. The few guys scattered about look like drag-along boyfriends or husbands, or possibly podcasters.

The Jumbotrons switch to life, blasting us with dramatic music and flicking through a montage of criminals, accused offenders, victims, and survivors—DeAngelo, Adnan Syed, Steven Avery, April Tinsley, Jamie Closs. Applause ripples through the crowd when the screens show a clip of Bill Cosby’s sexual assault conviction. By the time Holes walks across the stage, the crowd is so worked up that we shoot to our feet and scream. This is our Shea Stadium, and Paul Holes is every- one’s favorite Beatle.

* * *

“True crime” used to be synonymous with “soft-core porn,” published in 1930s and ’40s magazines like True Detective, Real Detective, Startling Detective,   Uncensored   Detective—you   get   the   idea.   Most   published both  fiction  and  fictionalized  accounts  of  true  stories,  and  sold  for pocket  change.  These  were  magazines  for  men,  by  men,  their  covers splashed  with  either  raven-haired  bad  girls  luring  innocents  into  sin and  scandal,  or  good  girls  in  peril  and/or  bondage.  Either  way  the women  were  highly  sexualized,  their  lips  crimson,  dresses  covering their no-doubt heaving breasts by means that defied the laws of phys- ics. One of my favorite covers, from Master Detective in 1938, shows a redheaded  woman—OK,  a  dame,  her  green  dress  completely  slipped down from her shoulders and clinging to her bosom only by wishful thinking—staring directly at the viewer. She’s holding a phone to her ear; her hands are loosely bound, the ropes draped over her wrists like bracelets. The painted image is beautifully rendered, but what gets me is the text: werewolf!  the valley of missing men. A couple of other story titles are also listed, but none of them seem to have anything to do with the doll arching her eyebrows on the cover.

Although the golden era of pulp magazines waned after the 1950s, the popularity of true crime among a male audience persisted. Then something started to shift. Some pinpoint the 1980 publication of The Stranger Beside Me, Ann Rule’s firsthand account of her unwitting friendship with serial murderer Ted Bundy, as the beginning of a new trend. Here was a book about crime by a woman, from a female point of view. It was detailed but not lurid, literary rather than sensational, and it sold through the roof.

Others point to TV shows like Forensic Files, which debuted in 1996 and presented crime investigations not as stories of trench-coat-wear- ing detectives pursuing hunches and rescuing (or avenging) damsels, but as science, procedurals where breakthroughs took place in labora- tories rather than in smoky bars. Fictional crime shows like CSI and Law & Order followed, with huge audiences of all genders.

Then came podcasts, and, in 2014–15, Serial. That podcast, investi- gating the problematic conviction of Adnan Syed for the 1999 murder of his former girlfriend Hae Min Lee, became a sensation, spawning online debates and fan theory sites and hours of workplace productiv- ity wasted at the water cooler. As of 2016, season one of Serial had been downloaded over 80 million times.

Now, My Favorite Murder, the comedy true crime podcast hosted by Karen Kilgariff and Georgia Hardstark, has over 19 million monthly downloads and has sired innumerable imitators, some of whom are here at CrimeCon. A search for “true crime” on the podcast service Stitcher yielded over 500 results. Prestige TV documentary series like The Jinx and Making a Murderer enthralled millions of viewers. And while the demographics vary by show and by medium, the majority of true crime consumers are women.

Which brings me back to CrimeCon, where Erin and I have waited about  20  minutes  for  the  sloth-like  hotel  bartender  to  turn  his  atten- tion to us. While we wait, we chat with other women hovering with credit cards in their hands; they’re all pleasant and excited. basically a detective, reads one’s T-shirt. Erin and I had been planning to get beers, but we change our orders after seeing the sloth fill her plastic to-go cup to the rim with sauvignon blanc.

Wine in hand, we make our way to a room that I later find out holds 1,200 people to hear a presentation on Elizabeth Short, the so- called Black Dahlia, and her iconic 1947 murder. Again, the audience is almost all female, as is the presenter, Dr. Anne Redding, a professor of justice studies at Santa Barbara City College. Redding is excellent, detailing Short’s biography against a compelling slide show: Short as a girl, a fiancée, a heartbroken and vulnerable soul adrift in Los Angeles. “I bet she’s a great teacher,” Erin whispers. I nod and sip my wine.

But later, my brain starts to itch, and I check the schedule of events. Of the dozens of cases being discussed this weekend, I count only three that center around male victims; two of those cases involve men being wrongfully convicted. These three, plus the panel on Serial’s Syed, also seem to be the only cases involving people of color. While the consum- ers of true crime stories may have changed, the kinds of stories we consume have not. We still want to hear about dead white women.

* * *

Erin is one of those lovely folks who seem to connect with and genu- inely like all sorts of people—until you see her with a dog, and realize she’s only been tolerating your tiresome, two-legged presence until a representative of the superior species shows up. So it’s a given that we’ll have to attend at least one of the presentations by Professional K-9 Solutions, a New Orleans company that provides obedience train- ing for pets and special training in odor detection (narcotics and explo- sives), tracking, and bite apprehension for dogs in law enforcement.

Coming to CrimeCon was my idea, and Erin has generously been keeping me company and allowing me to choose most of the sessions we attend. Now, she’s the one craning for a better view while I hang back and sip my (second) drink. The first K-9 demonstration was com- pletely full, with people turned away at the doors; this one has about two hundred people circled around the trainer. He’s talking about the dogs, their training and breeding, and himself. He wears cargo pants bulging with pockets, no doubt holding leashes, poop bags, and treats for very very good dogs. He keeps talking, pleased to be the center of so much female attention, and the audience strains with anticipation. Bring out the dogs. Erin is practically quivering.

Finally another trainer brings out Kiki, a young Belgian Malinois. “She’s an explosive dog,” he says proudly. Erin stands on a chair to watch while he leads Kiki through her exercises, stacking and rear- ranging stacks of identical wooden blocks and asking Kiki to identify which contains the substance she’s been trained to detect. Kiki does pretty well, but she’s distracted by the crowd.

The trainer takes Kiki back and brings out Max, another Malinois, handsome and alert. He’s trained in narcotics, and repeats Kiki’s rou- tine with the blocks, but identifying a different substance. At the end, the trainer lets attendees come over one at a time to pet Max. The dog knows when he’s on duty and when he’s off; as soon as the trainer sig- nals quitting time, Max is all tongue and belly, rolling delightedly on the floor. I try to get a good picture of Erin, but she’s too busy having fun to pose. I end up with a lousy shot of her making a kissy face while Max licks her chin.

* * *

Downstairs on the main level, both restrooms have been allocated for women’s  use,  and  I  smirk  each  time  I  walk  past  the  row  of  pristine urinals. Other women catch my eye and laugh, too; there’s an oddly festive air, like a bridal shower. Women walk in small groups or pairs; several  appear  to  be  mothers  and  daughters.  Some  wear  matching outfits, like black leggings decorated with yellow crime scene do not cross tape or my partner in crime shirts with pointing arrows.

murderino  shirts,  named  for  the  fans  of  the  My  Favorite  Murder podcast, are by far the most popular. Another reads the owl did it, a deep reference for fans of the documentary series The Staircase. Another woman’s  shirt  reads  i’m  a  threepeat  offender,  the  back  listing  the locations of the three CrimeCons.

The first was in Indianapolis in 2017, attended by about 1,500 peo- ple. In 2018, about 3,500 attended in Nashville. I’d wanted to catch that one, especially since it was so close to where Erin lives in Tennessee, but couldn’t, and I still regret missing it. Joe DeAngelo had been identified as the Golden State Killer and arrested just weeks before, and  the already scheduled panels featuring survivors of his attacks and family members of his victims suddenly became giddy celebrations. Billy Jensen and Paul Haynes, the investigative journalists who, after Michelle McNamara’s sudden death, helped to complete her phenom- enal book on the Golden State Killer, I’ll Be Gone In the Dark, were there to provide updates on the case. Paul Holes made unscheduled appear- ances and seemed stunned to find himself mobbed by fans, the hashtag #hotforholes trending on Twitter.

This year, the mood is light, but I can’t help feeling that we’re missing a bit of 2018’s magic. Erin and I head into Podcast Row,  a  hall where exhibitors—mostly podcasters who look like The Simpsons’ Comic Book Guy—have set up tables and are giving away stickers, koozies, and other swag. There are maybe 50 tables: True Crime Garage, Missing Maura Murray, Southern Fried True Crime, Dark Poutine, The First Degree, Martinis & Murder, Wine & Crime, and others.

The back corner is cordoned off for the official CrimeCon store. Books, shirts and hoodies, wine cups, my pawtner in crime dog bandannas, and other merch cram the wire shelves and tables. Erin and I pause over the basically a detective mugs, but in the end I grab an i’m only here for an alibi T-shirt. We both buy my weapon of choice corkscrews that will later be confiscated by TSA, their tiny foilcutting blades forbidden in our carry-on bags.

There’s a security camera mounted on the wall, and a guard at the cordoned entrance, to prevent the crime fans from shoplifting.

***

Since this is New Orleans, Erin and I have spent weeks sending each other links to restaurant menus, and I lined up our brunch reserva- tion a month in advance. And since this is New Orleans, we decide to skip the long walk through heat, humidity, and panhandlers; instead we take a Lyft to a blessedly air-conditioned restaurant in the pretty Irish Channel neighborhood. We sip bellinis—mine splashed with peach juice, Erin’s with passion fruit—while a jazz quartet plays. It’s  all very ladylike until our massive breakfasts arrive and we tear like wild hogs into the food. The poached eggs over fried green tomatoes (mine topped with crab, Erin’s with crawfish tail) are silky and crispy and absolutely drenched in butter, and I sop my plate with a biscuit the size of my foot.

After that calorie bomb, exercise seems like a good idea, so we stroll up Magazine Street, popping into boutiques and gift shops whenever we see something interesting or need to cool off in the AC. The side- walks throng with tourists and families and the ubiquitous panhan- dlers. Most of them, here and downtown near the Hilton, are men, many of them clearly suffering from mental illnesses. Some call out for change and are easy to ignore. Some lurch at us alarmingly. One shirt- less man, his eyes rolling back in his head and his arms straining back as if tied behind him, comes at me so aggressively that I step into the road to avoid him and shout “No way, man!” He continues weaving down the block as if he never heard or saw me.

Now, on Magazine Street, I see a worn man shambling toward us and move aside on the walk. He swerves at me and yells, “I’m gonna put my dick into you!” Erin and I pretend we didn’t hear and walk on.  I think, At least he’s direct.

***

“What’s wrong with the men?”

“Dude, we’ve been asking ourselves that all weekend,” I mutter.

This rhetorical question comes from Dr.  John  White,  a  former cop turned neuropsychologist presenting “Serial Killers Among Us,” breaking down offender demographics by gender,  ethnicity,  behav- ior, and background. White is trying hard to follow Dr. Henry Lee, a legend in forensic analysis who worked on seemingly every famous case in the last 30 years: O. J. Simpson, JonBenét Ramsey, Vince Foster, Kathleen Peterson, the D. C. sniper, the mass graves of Muslims killed in Yugoslavia, the Kobe Bryant rape case, on and on. If you’ve ever seen an episode of Forensic Files, you’ve seen Dr. Lee. In his presenta- tion, Lee was charming and avuncular, the World’s Most Interesting Grandpa. White is corny and strained. He keeps addressing the audi- ence as “ladies.” It’s not going well.

As White moves through his PowerPoint, he apologizes for text describing a victim as a prostitute. “I haven’t had time to change it     on the slides,” he says, “but the politically correct term now is ‘sex worker.’” There’s a polite smattering of applause—our podcasts have taught us to avoid language that degrades or dehumanizes victims— but White doesn’t sound thrilled. He moves quickly, clicking through case after case; each time the word “prostitute” appears on the screen, the audience flinches.

In his welcome on our first day, Paul Holes urged us to have fun, but to “remember that these are real victims, real families. Be respect- ful, and don’t glorify the villains.” White doesn’t seem to have gotten that memo. He flashes through explicit photographs of victims’ bodies, sometimes in states of undress, and keeps cracking jokes. He breezes through a case in which the killer undressed his victim, then clumsily redressed her body in an attempt to conceal signs of her sexual assault. “Guys cannot dress women! Amirite?” White quips. After rattling off the horrific details of another case, he cracks, “You’re not gonna find a torture rack at IKEA!”

Erin leans over and whispers, “What do you think the K-9 dogs are doing right now?”

***

The cast of Dateline is here. The hosts of various shows on Oxygen and ABC are here. Nancy Grace is here. I have no interest in seeing any of them, especially the ghoulish Grace, with her parasitic obsession with missing white girls like Natalee Holloway.

Chris Darden, one of O. J. Simpson’s prosecutors, is here. Jan Broberg, protagonist of the bizarre abduction and abuse case detailed in the documentary Abducted in Plain Sight, is here. Debra and Terra Newell, survivors of the predator in the titular podcast and Bravo series Dirty John, are here.

There is almost no one over age 65 and almost no people of color.

***

Saturday is Paul Holes Day, with three chances to see him. We’ve just come from his analysis of a mock crime scene on stage in the main ballroom; later, we’ll watch him and Billy Jensen do a live taping of their podcast The Murder Squad, which focuses on unsolved cases and gives listeners “assignments” to help identify perpetrators and victims. Now we’re in the back of the line for the meet and greet. Probably 200 women are neatly queued in front of us, switchbacked by stanchions and retractable belts. I’m wearing a short black dress and I keep touch- ing my hair as I look across the room at where women take turns pos- ing with Holes, CrimeCon staffers snapping pictures on their phones.

A woman in her early 60s, small and somewhat frail-looking with frizzy red hair, enters the room; she’s escorted by a CrimeCon staffer. A couple of women behind us gasp with recognition and duck under the belts to talk to her. As they chat excitedly and pose for pictures with this woman, I recognize her.

“That’s Kathy Kleiner,” I tell Erin. “She was in the Florida State sorority house when Ted Bundy attacked them. He beat the hell out of her.”

Later I look up the details. Bundy had already killed two Chi  Omega sorority sisters by the time he reached Kleiner’s room. He bludgeoned Kleiner with a log, fracturing her shoulder, shattering her jaw, and causing her to bite partway through her tongue. A year later, still recovering from reconstructive surgery, Kleiner testified against Bundy at his murder trial, staring him down in the Miami courtroom. Nowadays she speaks publicly about her story and advocates for vic- tims’ rights; here at CrimeCon, she’s just participated in a tribute panel to Ann Rule.

And now Kleiner is posing with her arm around a young blonde woman, who seems unsure of what to do after the pictures are taken. The blonde steps away from Kleiner and her expression changes from Instagram grin to a moue of sincerity. She presses a hand over her heart. “So much strength,” she says, slowly shaking her head. Kleiner smiles and says something I can’t hear; a few minutes later, she and her escort leave.

“That was weird,” I whisper to Erin. Her eyebrows quirk up in a look that means “Ya think?”

Later, over stiff gin and tonics and oysters, we talk it out. What, exactly, are we celebrating here? Are we supporting victims and survivors? Pursuing offenders as web sleuths or citizen detectives? Or just hoping to touch celebrity, even in this macabre form? Would there  be  so  many  fans  here  if  the  guests  weren’t  on  television? I wait 40 minutes to have my picture taken with Paul Holes. When he puts his arm around my back and lightly touches my shoulder, I blush like a 12-year-old.

***

By Sunday, we have our routine down pat: walk from our Airbnb toward the Hilton, with a quick stop at the Harrah’s Casino bar for to-go drinks, then slip on our lanyards and join a session. Along the way, we have to walk under the Pontchartrain Expressway, where a tent community has sprung up in the shade of the overpass. Erin and I have dubbed it Sex Offender Alley, but though we pass through it several times, no one there harasses us.

The air feels like lava, and as we near the French Quarter, tourist traffic clogs the sidewalks and roads. Tour buses bearing Mardi Gras World logos barrel past, spewing exhaust. There doesn’t seem to be recycling anywhere, and trash cans overflow with plastic to-go cups and bottles. “The carbon footprint of this city must be off the charts,” Erin growls.

The air feels like lava, and as we near the French Quarter, tourist traffic clogs the sidewalks and roads. Tour buses bearing Mardi Gras World logos barrel past, spewing exhaust. There doesn’t seem to be recycling anywhere, and trash cans overflow with plastic to-go cups and bottles. “The carbon footprint of this city must be off the charts,” Erin growls.

When we step inside the Hilton, the transition from boiling heat to frigid AC is at first pleasant, then torturous. Erin and I, who have lived in the South, know to bring cardigans, but we see a lot of attendees bundled up in $35 merch store sweatshirts, the ones that read i’m only here for an alibi.

Here’s where the boyfriends and husbands come in handy. They slip into the sessions late, easing into the seats their girlfriends and wives have saved, delivering sweaters. Boyfriends and husbands deliver cups of beer. Boyfriends and husbands deliver chicken wings. This seems like a good thing, but remember the wisdom of the T-shirt, the lesson of so many crime shows and podcasts: it’s always the husband.

***

So why women? Why are they now the primary consumers of true crime in all its forms? With a quick Google search, you can find dozens of think pieces on this subject. Some point to the vicarious thrill, paired with empathy for the victims. There’s the psychological fascination with deviant behavior, the pleasure of trying to solve a mystery,   or sheer escapism. Others theorize that learning about true crime stories—stories in which the victim is almost always female—makes women feel safer, more prepared.

I can’t answer this question, not even for myself. Consuming true crime does not make me feel any safer or more prepared, but it does confirm a worldview that has grown increasingly dark. I live in an idyllic college town of fewer than 1,000 souls, where many of my neighbors don’t lock their doors—one friend says she doesn’t even have a key to her own house. I feel safe here. I take long, solitary walks on rural roads, often while listening to true crime podcasts. But I bring pepper spray. I keep my doors locked. And in the last few years, I’ve installed additional locks on every one.

***

Our last presentation on Sunday is Dr. Peter Stout, director of the Houston Forensic Science Center. Stout looks to be about 40, his head shaved bald, and he’s refreshingly blunt as he details the shambles of Houston’s previous forensic lab and the changes he and his civilian board have made to improve it. His thesis is that labs should operate independently from law enforcement, and he makes a compelling argument as he breaks down the number of sexual assault kits his
center receives each year, the cost of processing each one, the estimated total cost (a staggering $448,000) of each investigation and prosecution. Despite the dna or it didn’t happen shirts some audience members wear, Stout says that less than 15 percent of the work his lab receives is DNA evidence; the rest is more traditional forensics like fingerprints and toxicology, drug identification, and digital and multimedia evidence.

He also tells us that “the vast majority of evidence that we get from law enforcement in fundamentally flawed,” mislabeled or mispackaged or mishandled. When he slips fake test samples into the mix to check for quality control, Stout says, his staff is often able to identify the fakes because their envelopes are untorn, the addresses correctly spelled.

All weekend, the CrimeCon audience has been urged to get involved, to become citizen detectives, to help identify victims and perpetrators through social media and political activism. Now, Stout asks us to contact our city councils and encourage them to separate police from forensic analysis. The audience seems to take him seriously, and two or three of the women who ask questions at the end work in criminal defense.

Then it’s over. Outside, vendors and podcasters are breaking down their booths. The Professional K-9 Solutions trainer is loitering with Max, so Erin dashes over to say goodbye.

One table has been selling T-shirts, koozies, and stickers to raise  money for the families of 13-year-old Abby Williams and 14-year-old Libby German, the so-called “Man on the High Bridge” victims who were murdered in Delphi, Indiana in 2017. Libby’s cell phone was found at the scene and contained video and audio of the man believed to have committed the crime; the girls knew  they  were  in  danger, and had the foresight to record their killer,  even if they were unable   to escape him. Police have released images and short audio snippets from Libby’s recordings, but over two years later, the suspect remains unidentified.

Now the table staffers, perhaps the girls’ family members, pack up unsold wristbands and other merch. They look tired, carefully unpinning the girls’ smiling photos. How much money did they raise? Will it be enough to help the family keep pushing the case, to keep their loved ones’ story in the public eye? Does this kind of activism do anything to ease the families’ suffering? Will it really make a difference?

Max the crime dog rolls over, exposing his soft white belly to be rubbed.