Forensic Files proudly advertises its standing as the longest-running true-crime series on TV. Originally narrated by the magnificent Peter Thomas, the series serves up perfect twenty-minute stories of crime and justice.
But not all the episodes focus on murder, or even crimes. A good portion of the early-season episodes focused on mysteries beyond the scope of human justice.
Below are 9 episodes from Seasons 1, 2, and 3 that actually didn’t feature murder:
The Girls Are Gone: The True Story of Two Sisters Who Vanished, the Father Who Kept Searching, and the Adults Who Conspired To Keep the Truth Hidden Michael Brodkorb and Allison Mann
Wise Ink Creative Publishing
335 Pages, with Notes
***I don’t normally do trigger warnings, but this one will be hard on survivors of childhood abuse.***
Parental Alienation: The Unaddressed Abuse
When I agreed to review The Girls Are Gone, I had no idea what I was getting myself into. I had no prior knowledge of the crime it portrayed–the 944-day disappearance of Samantha and Gianna Rucki in the midst of their parents’ bitter divorce–and I had no idea just how wrenching the details of the crime would be.
This is not a book that focuses on gory or gruesome details of crime scenes. In fact, this is the rare story of abduction that has a happy ending. And we know that ending from the very start–this is not a “who dunnit?”
What this book by Mr. Brodkorb and Ms. Mann is–is a forensic accounting of family dissolution. Much of the book is taken directly from court transcripts and media reports, giving an unvarnished look at the rather unsavory antagonists in this story.
David Rucki, a Minnesota resident, found himself defrauded, deceived, and betrayed by his then-wife of twenty years, Sandra Grzzini-Rucki. Without his knowledge, she divorced him, stole his assets, and began a ruthless campaign to take their five children from him by slandering him and manipulating their children.
Ms. Mann’s involvement in the case began as a paralegal for the firm representing Mr. Rucki. Mr. Brodkorb became involved later on, as a journalist covering the case, and who eventually helped along its resolution. Both did so under a barrage of threats, vexatious and frivolous legal challenges, and an all-out smear campaign.
I was unaware of “parental alienation” before I read this book. I learned that parental alienation is a manipulation of children against one parent by the other, often in the context of a custody dispute. In the book, the courts described Grazzini-Rucki’s behavior–attempts to obstruct court proceedings and put false claims of abuse in her five children’s mouths–as abusive because it attempted to deprive her children of a parent.
This culminated in her absconding with her two oldest daughters and leaving them in the care of “Bible-based” caretakers on a remote ranch for the next three years.
So, Where Are the Adults?
Grazzini-Rucki was assisted by a ragtag army of ‘activists’ and ‘bloggers’ who are convinced that family courts infringe on….something or other. The book suggests some of this vigilante army is inspired by conservative Christian beliefs in the sanctity of the family.
Because nothing says ‘family values’ like parental abduction.
It is this army of vigilantes that has been harassing Mr. Brodkorb and Ms. Mann up to this very day, as of November 2018. On their website, Missing in Minnesota, the pair detail the latest attempts of the vigilantes to harass Mr. Brodkorb’s wife and minor children.
We are left wondering which of these characters is mad or bad–which of them are mentally unwell and which of them are using the unwell ones.
Perhaps then this is why the book relies so heavily on court transcripts, which sometimes makes the narrative drag.–with a horde of litigation-happy convicted felons out to get you, the most blunt version of the truth is your best defense.
This is a difficult book to read.
Its content is heavy. At times, the narrative is weighed down by the inclusion of court records.
But the court records are only annoying because one wants to know what happens next. Desperately wants.
I agree with the authors: this is a story that needed to be told.
4/5 stars: A solid book, despite pacing flaws. Looking forward to more from the authors.
2/5 ‘fraidy cats: This same abuse scenario–coming to a family court near you. 3/5 ick-factor: Disgusting, aiding-and-abetting human beings
Evil Genius: The True Story of America’s Most Diabolical Bank Heist A Netflix Original, 2018
Directed by Trey Borzillieri and Barbara Schroeder
Written by Barbara Schroeder
A few months ago, I was searching for a documentary on a case I knew only as “the Pizza Bomber” and was surprised I could find nothing aside from some local news clips saying the mastermind had died in prison. Shortly, Evil Genius would come to fill the void.
The good and the bad of this series can both be summarized in one word: understatement.
The good of the filmmakers’ understatement is that allows the horror of the events to speak for itself.
In August 2003, pizza deliveryman Brian Wells died on live TV when a bomb strapped to his neck went off. He had claimed that he had been kidnapped at gunpoint and forced into a bomb-holding collar before being sent on a bank heist/hellish scavenger hunt. His body suffered further indignities in death; authorities decapitated him rather than risk damaging evidence: the collar that held the bomb.
This is all we know for sure, Evil Genius tells us, and it is horrible. While intriguing, the series cannot be called “entertaining” as much as “edifying.” This is an exploration of suffering and evil, and that alone. No glitz or unnecessary gore.
The understatement of the series also allows viewers to inhabit the uncertainties of the crime and the ambiguities of the suspects. The main question the series poses, without ever fully resolving to my satisfaction, is as to whether Mr. Wells was, as he claimed, kidnapped and forced to rob the bank. The alternative is that he was a double-crossed participant in a criminal ring headed by Marjorie Diehl-Armstrong, a woman as brilliant as she was disturbed. The question as to whether Diehl-Armstrong, the titular “evil genius” was mad, bad, or some combination of both is another ambiguity that the four-part series explores.
The understatement and suggestion can bog down the series. With each episode clocking in at about forty-five minutes, the series felt twice as long. There is a lot of information to process. While the filmmakers to present all the evidence to preserve the ambiguity of the situation, the series would have benefited from some heavy-duty pruning.
3/5 stars: A good series hobbled by serious pacing issues. 2/5 ‘fraidy cats: Evil acts, but nothing that will creep up on you at night. 2/5 ick-factor: Unsparing description of postmortem mutilation and mistreatment
Currently I’m inside at my desk, listening to the rain fall as this new storm moves across my neighborhood and into Boston. No snow, so far. Just a day of rain.
I’m thankful it’s quiet, because I nearly died in the last Nor’easter, which blew through Friday into Saturday, spawning confusion, panic, and #windmaggedon.
As I never tire of harping on, I grew up in Texas. I’ve lived through hurricanes, the worst of them being Ike. I’ve lived through two weeks of late Houston summer with no air-conditioning in the wake of said hurricane. (I know, I know, first world problems).
I fulfilled my childhood goal of becoming a storm chaser when I nearly drove into a tornado crossing I-10 somewhere between El Paso and San Antonio. It came at us we didn’t go to it.
Easter weekend one year I spent huddled under the staircase with my sister as the sky turned green. The door into the garage was ripped from its hinges and thrown across the yard.
New England weather doesn’t scare me.
Polar vortex? Chilly.
Nine feet of snow in five weeks? Impressive.
Whatever fresh hell came through town last weekend? Utterly terrifying. Read more
It’s a wonder it’s taken me so long to review a proper podcast, given that most of the time I “watch” Forensic Files now I just put it on to listen while I do the dishes or laundry.
The transition to a “proper” podcast is an easy one, and I am grateful to the team behind “Kim Knows Nothing” for giving me the push. The selfsame Kim Moffat of the title reached out to me and suggested I review the podcast she co-anchors with Stacy Snowden.
It’s hard not to smile at this woman-led weekly production. As their rather elegantly laid-out homepage proclaims “Stacy knows most things” and “Kim knows nothing.” (The bloody purple kitchen knife is also a nice touch, given the topic and tone). Only begun in October of last year (2017), the podcast has in a few short months found its stride.
True-crime enthusiast Stacy does the research on “serious crimes”, which she then relates to Kim, a pop-culture maven who provides “ridiculous commentary.” Read more
The Johnstown Flood: The Incredible Story Behind One of the Most Devastating Disasters America Has Ever Known David McCullough
Simon & Schuster, 1968
268 pages of narrative, 302 with apparatus
Having read Isaac’s Stormjust before this, I am pleased to announce:
The Great American Flood Book Face-Off
Spoiler alert: Isaac’s Storm wins, hands-down.
Mr. McCullough’s 1968 book is an account of the 1889 flood that killed at least 2,000 in and around Johnstown, Pennsylvania. While the Galveston Hurricane of 1900 was an act of God colliding with the hubris of Man, the Johnstown flood was the result of only the hubris (and stupidity) of Man.
High above the steel-mill town of Johnstown, Pennsylvania, a number of Gilded Age millionaires (among them Andrew Carnegie) founded a hunting club for “the better sort”. This mountain retreat included an artificial lake, stocked with bass that wardens zealously guarded from locals, that had been formed by building an earthen dam across a stream.
It turns out the dam was a rather amateurish construction, poorly maintained.
On 31 May 1889, it burst, unleashing tons upon tons of water into the valley below. Several smaller communities vanished entirely, while the larger Johnstown became a scene of apocalyptic devastation that haunted a generation.
Johnstown is one of David McCullough’s earlier works. While it has been almost a decade since I read John Adams (2001) and 1776 (2005), I remember them being both richly detailed and fun to read. Johnstown is also thoroughly detailed, but the prose is rather dry.
There are some touching vignettes of families, and plenty of the social and political context of the disaster, but they come across rather flatly.
The hunting club and its members were never charged for the disaster; suits against them were dismissed. While McCullough does allude to the absolute injustice of this, and the survivors’ realization that larger forces had caused their suffering, he does not dwell on this. I am one to prefer a more polemical tone, a fault though that may be.
McCullough does do an excellent job illumining a rather forgotten brand of American bigotry: persecution of Hungarians (and anyone who vaguely looked Hungarian). Like the Irish and the Italians, Hungarians were accused of taking away good jobs for lower pay, being vulgar, and otherwise failing to assimilate and become WASPs (White Anglo-Saxon Protestants).
In the aftermath of the Johnstown flood, the yellow press accused Hungarian laborers of cutting fingers off the dead to steal wedding rings, among numerous other crimes. Artistic representations, featuring very swarthy, poorly dressed “Hungarians” accompanied the screaming articles.
Of course, these stories had no basis in fact. Very little looting followed the flood, done by Hungarians or otherwise.
The stories of Hungarian persecution particularly resonated with me because, a generation after the flood, my Hungarian ancestors arrived in the industrial towns of Western Pennsylvania. They too were called “bohunks.”
Writing in the 1960s, perhaps the theme of racial/ethnic discrimination struck McCullough as particularly important to bring to the fore of his book, while, writing today, in this New Gilded Age, another author might address issues of wealth and power more thoroughly.
If you are interested in the Johnstown Flood, you will find this book useful. If you could use entertainment, you will likely not be interested.
2/5 stars: I wanted to like it more…but it’s a little boring. 3/5 ‘fraidy cats: Do you know who’s inspecting your local dam? 2/5 ick-factor: Lots of dead bodies, not much description.
Isaac’s Storm: A Man, A Time, and the Deadliest Hurricane in History Erik Larson
Crown Publishers 1999
273 pages of text, 323 with notes
As wind shook my apartment on Thursday, as the cyclone passed overhead, I forgot for a moment if I was in Boston, with snow pelting against the windowpanes, or in Houston, with rain, trees, and shingles threatening to break through the plywood covering our windows.
Watching footage of dumpsters and ice floes streaming through downtown, and hearing news that parts of New Hampshire will be colder than Mars tonight, I decided it was time to delve into a disaster book.
“And in a single day and night of misfortune…
the island of Atlantis sank beneath the sea”
I grew up on the flat, hot, humid coastal plains of Texas. A favorite summer destination for my family was Galveston, the barrier island about an hour south from Houston on I-45. When rain threatened our day on the beach, or we were already too sunburned for our own good, one of our indoor activities was a locally produced documentary film about the Great Storm of 1900. As a child, I was fascinated and horrified by the story of how an unanticipated September hurricane killed at least 8,000 and knocked Galveston from its position as Queen City of the South. It remains the deadliest disaster in U.S. history in terms of human lives.
That is my only complaint about the book I am about to review. For historical accuracy, the subtitle should conclude “the Deadliest Hurricane in American History.” I understand that the publisher had to sell copies, however.
Isaac’s Storm is a work of nonfiction that centers on Isaac Cline, the chief weatherman of Galveston in September 1900, husband, father, scientist, and upstanding citizen. While nonfiction, Isaac’s Storm rises to narrative and descriptive heights that most fiction authors only dream of reaching. Without burdening readers with cumbersome and slow backstory, Erik Larson recreates Isaac, his family, his fellow-citizens, and his time with a historian’s scrupulous attention to detail and novelist’s gift for characterization and conjecture.
For anyone who has visited Galveston, or lived on the Gulf Coast, you will be transported by descriptions of “the susurrus of curtains luffed by the breeze” and “the thudding…caused by great deep-ocean swells falling upon the beach” (8).
The Galveston of 1900, so vividly resurrected by Larson, is a cosmopolitan city, the Ellis Island of the South, home to large communities of German and Jewish immigrants, as well as a (relatively) respected and protected African-American community. Among the most memorable characters Larson introduces is Rabbi Henry Cohen. This pillar of Galveston’s community, revered by his congregation and Gentiles alike, was marital counselor, expeditionary to Southern Africa, and single-handed rescuer of maidens from captivity in a local bordello.
Seriously, he went in swinging and carried the kidnapped woman out on his shoulder to freedom. Someone needs to make a movie about him.
Larson interlaces these human, variable, lively accounts of daily life with brutally objective descriptions of the storm as it forms off the coast of Africa and moves inexorably (and yet inexplicably) towards Galveston. These sections are set apart by black borders along the page; one is tempted to think of Victorian mourning borders on stationery.
Consider Larson’s ecstatic, almost pornographic descriptions of cloud formation:
“It began, as all things must, with an awakening of molecules. The sun rose over the African highlands east of Cameroon and warmed grasslands, forests, lakes, and rivers, and the men and creatures that moved and breathed among them; it warmed their exhalations and caused these to rise upward as a great plume of carbon, oxygen, nitrogen, and hydrogen, the earth’s soul The air contained water: haze, steam, vapor; the stench of day-old kill and the greetings of men glad to awaken from the cool mystery of night. There was cordite, ether, urine, dung. Coffee. Bacon. Sweat. An invisible paisley of plumes and counterplumes formed above the earth, the pattern as ephemeral as the copper and bronze veils that appear when water enters whiskey” (19)
Poetry. Absolute poetry.
Isaac’s Storm is, above all, a tale of hubris. A naive confidence that Galveston would never fall victim to a hurricane, bolstered by Cline’s per-order report to local businessmen that the city was safe; an imperialist belief that brown-skinned Cuban forecasters could not possibly know more about hurricanes than the newly-formed Weather Service’s Washington office; a last-ditch hope perhaps this house would survive the sixteen-foot storm surge when hundreds like it had not been spared.
The most salient forensic aspect of the book comes in the aftermath of the storm. Without refrigeration, electricity, DNA, dental records, or fingerprints, the people of Galveston attempt to identify and bury their dead with dignity.
Those attempts, for the most part, end rather ghoulishly.
Isaac’s Storm closes with its original 1999 conclusion, which raises the specter of global warming and its impacts on hurricane formation. Larson ponders how “a curious quirk in the New York-New Jersey coastline…[could allow] even a moderate hurricane on just the right track to drown commuters in the subway tunnels under Lower Manhattan” (273).
In the years since the publication of Isaac’s Storm, Galveston and the United States as a whole have seen numerous tropical storms and hurricanes, among them: Allison (Galveston/Houston, 2001); Charlie (Florida, 2004); the deadly Katrina (New Orleans, 2005); Rita (East Texas, 2005), which proved that you cannot evacuate 2 million+ people from Houston in an orderly fashion; Ike (Galveston/Houston 2008), which I remembered as the winds whipped my apartment last night; Sandy (NJ/NY 2012), which did flood the tunnels of Manhattan; and this damned most recent hurricane season of 2017, with Harvey, Irma, Jose, and Maria, which have devastated Puerto Rico, Florida, and the City of Houston.
If Mr. Larson were to provide a new foreword to his masterpiece, it should be one sentence:
“You were warned.”
5/5 stars: a nonfiction masterpiece, vivid, cinematic, and brutally timely 2/5 ‘fraidy cats: as other critics, quoted on the dust jacket, have noted, you will fear the sky for days afterwards 4/5 ick-factor: 8,000 bodies in the Texas summer heat. Use your imagination; Larson will leave nothing to it.
Mini-review: I bought this book at the Galveston Bookshop, one of my favorite places in Texas and, consequently, the world. Stop by to enjoy their great selection of used books and new local-interest/local-author titles, as well as their fair and convenient pricing and credit system for selling your own books. I was able to redeem credit, stored in their system, from two years or more ago when I visited over my Christmas break. Isaac’s Storm is available there for $19.95 USD.
(This promotion was done freely and at my own instigation. Seriously, I just love the Galveston Bookshop)