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The True Crime Stories We Won’t Forget

All true crime stories start as crime reporting, often in the daily newspaper.

Before the narrative is shaped for your streaming device, earbuds or bookshelf, the facts are gathered by a journalist. What happened? Where and when? Who is the victim? And do the police know who did it?

Any journalist who has covered crime has stories they can’t shake. These tales can be harrowing, bizarre, or even, in rare circumstances, oddly inspirational. We asked our journalists to share the ones they still think about, even decades later.

Ellen Barry, Boston bureau chief:

Someone put arsenic in the coffee after a church service in New Sweden, Maine — sickening several congregants and killing one. I was sent up there in 2003 by The Boston Globe, to the far reaches of Aroostook County. It was both quaint and horrific, someone trying to kill their neighbors. Eventually, it emerged that one of the ushers had done it, as revenge for losing a theological battle. As the population in that area drained away, two small Lutheran churches were consolidated into one. Identical to outsiders, the two churches had what was for them a deeply significant doctrinal difference. In one, the priest faced the congregation when blessing the host; in the other, the priest faced the altar. The poisoner had lost that battle. He ultimately killed himself. It was a grim story about the dilemmas of those stretches of our country that are losing population, having to let go of their particular identity.

Lynda Richardson, senior staff editor, Travel:

Eddie Brown began running in a snake-infested Florida swamp in 1952. In the 44 years after he escaped from a chain gang while serving a robbery sentence, Mr. Brown worked, raised children and lived quietly in East New York. But he was always shadowed by the gnawing fear that his past would catch up with him. I covered his case as a Metro reporter in 1996, but lately I’ve been thinking a lot about the chain-gang fugitive, having recently read about the racial horrors of the Jim Crow South in Colson Whitehead’s “The Nickel Boys.”

Eddie Brown’s past resurfaced after he was in a minor car accident and the police ran a routine check that showed he was wanted in Florida. He was taken away in handcuffs. Florida initially requested his extradition, and New York law enforcement officials began the proceedings. Mr. Brown spent nearly 40 days in the Brooklyn House of Detention before he was released on $1,000 bail. It was an immensely satisfying moment to see him walk out of the courthouse, finally a free man, as a sea of news photographers with flashing cameras and reporters — more than I’ve ever seen — awaited him.

Dan Barry, domestic correspondent:

When I worked for The Providence Journal many years ago, I often wrote about the mobsters who were very much present in that Rhode Island city. You knew that this was Bobo’s social club, this was Baby Shanks’s cafe, and this was the place where Old Man Patriarca, the boss, used to run everything. You also knew that two men connected to a certain restaurant had made a guy named Joe Onions disappear long ago — but had never revealed where they had, uuh, laid him to rest.

Fast forward to 2008. One of the men is dead and the other is dying. The police pick him up on a nickel-and-dime charge, and ask, for the umpteenth time, where is Joe Onions buried. To their shock, he agrees to spill.

I have strong ties still to the state, and when I heard about this case, it sounded like a short story — about an old wiseguy who decides to go out by doing the right thing. I had to write it.

Nicholas Kulish, domestic correspondent, Investigations:

The century-old KaDeWe department store stands eight stories tall but looms even larger in the German consciousness. A short walk from the old New York Times bureau where I worked in West Berlin, the luxurious shopping destination is a symbol both of Berlin’s Roaring Twenties and the country’s postwar economic miracle. So when I learned that there had been a jewelry heist — with the thieves caught on the surveillance camera lowering themselves into the store on a rope ladder, evading the motion detectors and making off with millions of dollars’ worth of jewels — I knew it was a big crime story on the biggest stage.

My contacts in the Berlin police department told me that the thieves had made just one mistake, leaving behind a glove at the scene with DNA inside. A good story needs a twist but a great story boasts two: The DNA evidence led not to a single suspect but a pair, identical twins, identified as 27-year-old Hassan and Abbas O. The German justice system couldn’t lock them both up and each could claim the other did it. So, they walked. It may not have been the perfect crime, but it was a pretty sweet alibi.

Alan Feuer, reporter, Metro:

A Bronx man spent 25 years in prison for a rape he did not commit. Why? Because a witness accidentally took the police to the wrong apartment — 16B, not 16C — and the police arrested and prosecuted the man they found there.

Manny Fernandez, Houston bureau chief:

One night in 2006, a police officer in the Bronx responds to a fight at a White Castle. He rolls up and sees a man with a gun kneeling over another man in the parking lot. He tells the gunman to drop the weapon, but the gunman doesn’t respond. The officer opens fire, and the gunman is critically wounded and later dies. The gunman, it turns out, was a fellow officer: An off-duty Bronx policeman who was intoxicated and had just been beaten up by a group of guys at the White Castle.

It’s the mistaken identity that gets me. You can freeze-frame the shooting as the bullet’s in the air and study it: There are worlds upon worlds of fate, mystery and human connection at play. These two officers worked at station houses nearly two miles apart, and yet here they were drawn together in a few tense, confusing seconds in a fast-food parking lot. As I wrote, “In this city, people live their whole lives separated by such short distances and never once cross paths.” I don’t think the officer was ever prosecuted for the shooting. I think it was ruled a justified shooting. But how does a cop live with a thing like that, and move on?

Armando Arrieta, deputy editorial director, syndication:

This unsolved case — in which seven people, including children, were shot point-blank during a robbery inside a bowling alley — has been a cloud over a small New Mexico city near the Mexican border for decades. Four of the victims were killed (a 12-year-old victim shot in the head managed to call 911), and no arrests have ever been made. I grew up in the area, and it has been a source of sorrow and local mythology ever since it happened in 1990. In fact, the brutality of this crime over a few thousand dollars, the massive, multiagency law enforcement response and the fact that no credible witnesses have ever come forward to identify suspects all continues to perplex everyone who remembers that day.


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