Best Tales of Texas Ghosts Docia Shultz Williams Republic of Texas Press 1998
Night. South Texas. A La Quinta hotel room. Circa 2007.
I have never been so terrified of the ceiling. My mother and sister are sleeping in the room, but that doesn’t comfort this twelve-year-old at all. A streetlight shines through the cracks in the curtain, reflecting a pale pool of light onto the ceiling. Shadows lurk at the edges of the pool, draping down to cover the bathroom door.
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
Because of your unwavering support, I have decided to devote more time to this blog, making sure to get work out to you on a weekly basis.
(For real, this time, I swear)
To help support my work, I have launched a page on Patreon!
For those of you unfamiliar with Patreon, it is an online platform that allows fans to become patrons of their favorite creators. (I hope I might be one of yours, dear reader)
In exchange for their monthly pledge, patrons get access to rewards, in addition to extreme bragging credit. You are following the footsteps of the Venetian Doges and the Medicis by supporting the arts!
With less murder, of course.
For just $1 a month, patrons will receive a mention in a special edition of this blog every month they are a patron. If you are interested in your business or organization taking the credit, reach out to me by DM on Patreon.
$5 a month gets you access to a weekly patron newsletter and plenty of behind-the-scenes looks into my creative process: drafts, inspiration sources, angst. It’s more of the writing you know and love, even before your patronage helps me produce even more of the writing you know and love.
There’s a virtuous cycle here, you see.
Patreon is going to be especially important for me so I can put together a real, physical “To-Review Queue” have the resources to buy all the books, etc. It will also keep me accountable to a schedule and order for reviews.
Because when you owe people money, you type faster.
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
The Looming Tower: Al-Qaeda and the Road to 9/11
Written and Narrated by Lawrence Wright
Random House Audio 2006
16 Hours & 31 Minutes
Lawrence Wright’s The Looming Tower is a book that political science professors will be assigning to freshmen for the next twenty years or more. When discussing my interest in counter-terrorism with a professor, my callow sophomore self off-handedly said “I’d like to write a book about the intelligence failures that led to 9/11.” His response was “That’s already been covered pretty thoroughly.”
Undoubtedly, my professor was referring to Wright’s comprehensive work, which is the closest you can come to reading the 9/11 Commission Report as a narrative.
This is a book I meant to get to for some time, listening to it in fits and starts since. I was finally spurred on by the release of a Hulu miniseries to finish the audiobook during my commute over the last month.
The enormous breadth and depth of The Looming Tower–spanning seventy years and covering everything from the nuances of Medieval Islamic philosophy to the geography of tiny Egyptian villages–becomes something of a liability when translated to an audio format. Read by the author, the text is read exactly as intended in an even, yet never boring, voice.
However, as the text covers dozens upon dozens of names, many with variable English spelling, I found myself wishing I had bought the physical book for future reference. Jumping from topic to topic and time to time, there is a disjointed, but not disorderly, quality to the book. Perhaps this is just a fault of perception in my visually-focused brain.
In a book this detailed, it is difficult to draw out favorite or most important moments, but I will try.
First: the importance of diversity, or even just an understanding of the world, in national security.
Before 9/11, the FBI had less than ten Arabic speakers. A particularly affecting moment is when Ali Soufan, then a young FBI agent, cracks the lone survivor of the Nairobi embassy bombers in the immediate aftermath of 9/11. A practicing Muslim who was born in Lebanon, Soufan debates the failed suicide bomber in Arabic on the Quran and Islamic law, eventually forcing the bomber to admit he has murdered innocents, many of them fellow Muslims going about their daily lives.
The bomber then tells everything he knows about the structure and membership of Al Qaeda.
Second: if there was ever a title of deep meaning, it is this one.
On a cursory glance, the tower of the title refers to the Twin Towers of the World Trade Center. Indeed it does. However, it is also a reference to a Quranic verse and Bin Laden’s perversion of it. In a video message to the nineteen hijackers, Bin Laden quoted this verse as an oblique reference to the specifics of the plot, ignoring its actual meaning.
The verse (4:78) reads, in Ahman Zaki Hammad’s wording, as:
Wherever you may be, death will overtake you at the pre-ordained time–even if you are in lofty towers.
And continues with:
Yet if any good comes to them, they say in their wavering hearts: This is from God! But if any harm strikes them, they say: This is from you, O Muhammad! Say to them: All things are decreed from God.
In the larger context of the passage, it is clear this refers to the limits of mortal life and God’s sovereignty over the universe. Jewish and Christian readers will find a similar sentiment expressed by Job, who acknowledges God’s control over all things even in adversity:
Naked I came forth from my mother’s womb, and naked shall I go back again. The LORD gave and the LORD has taken away: blessed be the name of the LORD! —Job 2:21
The verse from Surah Al-Nisa’ ends with an admonishment that could well be turned against fundamentalists of all faiths:
What is with these people that they can hardly understand any discourse?
Putting aside my very amateurish exegesis, the conclusion of The Looming Tower singles out one personal tragedy from all the horrors of the 9/11. It is the eerie coincidence of this one tragedy that sticks with me even more than Wright’s detailed research and strong prose. He seems to have provided some of the strongest evidence yet that there is a Providence to the world.
If not a benevolent Providence, at least, then, Fate with a bitter sense of irony.
3.5/5 stars: A very strong book in research and storytelling, but maybe not the best fit for an audio format.
2/5 ‘fraidy cats: You know what’s going to happen and there’s nothing you can do about it, much like the law enforcement officials profiled in the book.
2/5 ick-factor: Despicable human beings of many flavors.
Conspiracy theorists, raving Islamophobes, and ISIS trolls will be summarily banned and digitally keelhauled.
I’m not one much to talk about my personal issues on the internet, but since the events of the last six months have had a major impact on my (lack of) output for this blog, I think I owe you, and myself, an explanation.
There is a lot I can’t tell you, a lot of the details, to protect the privacy of the others involved.
Suffice to say, it involved a lot of death.
There was a brush with physical death, on Easter Monday, in a car accident.
There was a death of self, as this “adulthood” thing forced me to let go of old notions of who I am and who I want to be. This came about largely because of a death of faith, of faith in ideals and institutions that formed me.
There was the death of a friendship. I expected this one to be the worst of all, when I worried about it years ago, or in the last year as part of me, a part unacknowledged, suspected it was coming.
In all, it wasn’t so bad.
You see, the death card almost never means death, at least not physical death.
I don’t believe we can foretell the future, but as a writer I am very interested in the symbolism of the Tarot deck.
The death card of the Major Arcana gets a bad rap for being No. XIII and for being, well, about death, strangely enough. The card shows death, but only because death is necessary for rebirth.
I walked away from the accident unscathed. After five hours in the ER, waiting for the final confirmation that I had not hurt my head, I went home. There I found Sassy, a little confused about why I was late, and very upset that dinner was delayed.
In letting go of what I thought I was and wanted, I have moved forward. Now that school has been out for a few weeks, I have been focused on my first few freelancing assignments. That is the logistical reason for my long silence on this blog. I am excited to be a “real” writer now and a “professional,” in fulfillment of a dream I’ve had since I was four years old.
As for the end of the childhood friendship, I wish it had not gone down the way it did. I know people grow and change. If things had tapered off between us naturally, it would have been much easier to accept.
One of the hardest lessons about growing up is that doing everything right won’t protect you. One of the other hardest lessons is that your effort can’t make up for what someone else won’t put in. It hurt a lot at the time, and it hurts from time to time, but I find myself looking forward to the future.
I get asked why I like my “frightening” and “morbid” crime shows. As trite as it may sound: while you have to be careful not to only see the darkness, you cannot look away from death without ignoring life.
The death card is change. Time is change. Time marches on, trampling over kings like Death’s horse does on the card. Who am I to resist? What point is there in fear?
That said, I’m glad to still be here with all of you.
Bullied to Death: A Story of Bullying, Social Media, and the Suicide of Sherokee Harriman Judith Yates
Released 10 April 2018
This is a hard one to read, folks.
Ms. Yates is not to blame, except in that her gaze is unsparing, the scope of her research unafraid. Ms. Yates tells the story well, but it is the story of a child’s miserable life and rending death.
In September 2015, fourteen-year-old Sherokee (pronounced like “Cherokee”) Harriman stabbed herself to death in a public park, in view of a group of teenagers who had been tormenting her earlier that day.