It was a beautiful afternoon in August 1994 and I had driven up from New York City to Cornish, New Hampshire, where J.D. Salinger lived. I was the latest in the army of fans, among the millions of people who had read The Catcher in the Rye since its publication in 1951, to travel to Cornish in hopes of catching a glimpse of Salinger, now in his fourth decade of being the literary world’s Greta Garbo — famous for not wanting to be famous.
Some fans who made the journey got more than a glimpse of the reclusive writer. On a street in nearby Windsor, Vermont, Betty Eppes, a reporter from New Orleans, had a strained yet extended conversation with Salinger, which she secretly tape-recorded. Her account of the interlude appeared in The Paris Review. Michael Clarkson, a “super” fan, was bold enough to approach Salinger at his home. The description of their strange encounter ended up in The Niagara Falls Review.
On that trip in 1994, I was not lucky enough to interact with Salinger, but I did manage a sighting of him as he drove out of his driveway in his car, heading into town. I had been studying Salinger’s life and career for years, but that passing moment triggered six years of research and writing that culminated in my book Salinger, published in 1999. I was apprehensive about writing the book, since Salinger’s colossal effort to block the publication of A Writer’s Life by Ian Hamilton was legendary in literary and legal circles.
My book was announced, but there were no legal maneuvers from Salinger. The book appeared — still nothing from Salinger, not even a threatening letter from his lawyer. Finally, I spoke to one of my confidential sources, who was so close to Salinger I suspected he cleared with him each time he talked to me. Why no legal fireworks? “He likes your book, Paul,” the source said. This seemed odd, since in my book’s opening pages I provided, for all those fans like myself who wanted to make the pilgrimage to Cornish, a detailed set of instructions on how to drive to Salinger’s home.
After the initial publicity surrounding its publication, Salinger sold steadily through the years, largely to Salinger fans. Then, five years after it was published, I received an unsolicited email. It was short and to the point: “I just read your excellent biography of J.D. Salinger. Please call me.” A number was provided. The email was signed “Shane Salerno.” Researching him, I discovered he was an A-list Hollywood screenwriter whose credits included commercial hits like Armageddon and Shaft. As a writer, I had never had a positive experience in Hollywood, where meetings often end with all parties agreeing to do a deal yet no deal ever materializes. Still, there was something intriguing about the email’s pithiness. I picked up the phone and called.
Any writer enjoys hearing his work praised, but Shane was especially effusive. He had bought a used copy of my book at a bookstore because he loves books; he had a 5,000-book library, he said, in his home in Los Angeles. He started reading my book and couldn’t put it down. He finished it in one day. He was so moved by the way I told the story of Salinger’s life he wanted to turn my book into a feature-length documentary.
Here was the kicker. Shane wanted to keep the project top secret, since Salinger was alive — and litigious. A documentary, even one based on a book he liked, would be too much for him to bear. To ensure absolute secrecy, Shane was going to finance the film himself. In Hollywood, no one — I repeat no one — finances his own movie. The fact that Shane was willing to start writing checks convinced me he was serious. I worked out a deal with him and sold him the film rights to my book.
Before long, Shane started work on the film. I was happy to provide introductions to the sources I used for my book — Tom Wolfe, Leila Hadley, among others — and Shane interviewed any who was willing to talk on camera. But then Shane didn’t stop. He kept interviewing people — from writers like E.L. Doctorow and Gore Vidal to film stars like Philip Seymour Hoffman and Martin Sheen. One year faded into the next. An initial budget of several hundred thousand dollars ballooned into $1 million, then $2 million, then more. I can only imagine the backbreaking work Shane put in as he wrote and produced other projects — Oliver Stone’s film Savages was just one — to keep the cash flowing to finance Salinger.
So many years passed I decided Shane had turned into a character like the one played by Michael Douglas in Wonder Boys — the novelist who could never finish his novel. Then I saw a rough cut of what Shane was doing. I was stunned. He was trying to make a documentary like none before it. If he could pull this off, he would have something extraordinary.
On Tuesday night, a decade after I received the unsolicited email, I saw the premiere of Salinger in New York. Cinematically engrossing and emotionally gripping, the film paints a complete portrait of the man and the artist. It is difficult enough to bring a person to life on film, but it is especially hard when that person has tried to destroy any biographical trail of himself. Yet there it all was — photographs, artifacts of his life, reminiscences by friends and lovers. And for any fan of Salinger, the film’s ending will leave you breathless.
What was especially affecting for me was seeing my book on the screen. Watching the footage of the roads in and around Cornish, I remembered driving those roads myself so many times in the past — the roads Salinger himself had driven. Friends of his I interviewed — like Ethel Nelson, who helped with his children when they were young — were hauntingly emotional as they remembered Salinger. Episode after episode from his life, so vivid in my mind when I wrote them, played out live before me, fully realized on film.
But, most importantly, the film echoes my book’s tone of fascination and reverence. I tried to delve as much as I could into Salinger’s life and work, but I was always mindful that I was writing about a seminal American author who had produced one of literature’s most enduring novels. I could be curious but I had to be respectful. The film strikes a similar tone, which is why it is so profoundly moving. A masterpiece of documentary filmmaking, Salinger is an effort worthy of its subject.
As the Trayvon Martin killing in Florida continues to grab national headlines, a case, now playing out in Mississippi, also raises questions about race and justice in America.
To be sure, in this year commemorating the fiftieth anniversary of the Children’s Crusade in Birmingham, President Kennedy’s Civil Rights Speech, and the March on Washington, it is appropriate to note the strides that have been made to overcome past racial injustice. Today, of the 435 members of the House of Representatives, 41 are African American. Well over 600 cities have black mayors. And the country has elected (and re-elected) its first African-American president.
But despite these advances injustices remain. For years, the nation’s prison population has contained a disproportionately large number of African American prisoners. A good percentage of these inmates are incarcerated on minor infractions, such as possession of small quantities of drugs. Worse, some are there under questionable circumstances. Few cases are more dubious than that of Curtis Flowers — a black man who has spent the last 16 years on Death Row in Mississippi for a crime to which he was connected by the most meager of circumstantial evidence.
Of course, Mississippi has a long history of racial incidents, from the Duck Hill lynchings in 1937 to the “Mississippi Burning” murders of three civil rights workers in Philadelphia and the assassination of Medgar Evers in Jackson in the 1960s. Another small town, Winona, achieved notoriety when voting rights activist Fannie Lou Hammer spoke at the 1964 Democratic National Convention and described how, while under arrest in Winona, she was savagely beaten by police. With Winona as backdrop, it should not be surprising, then, that Curtis Flowers’ saga has racial overtones.
It was a horrendous crime. On the morning of July 16, 1996, Bertha Tardy, 59, a local merchant in Winona, and three of her employees were gunned down execution-style in her place of business, Tardy Furniture. Each victim was shot in the head. Tardy and two employees died instantly. The third died in the hospital.
The horrific quadruple homicide shocked the sleepy Southern town. Prosecutor Doug Evans felt intense pressure to find who committed the shocking crime. On the day of the murders, without considering any other suspects, he settled on a 26-year-old black man named Curtis Flowers, a common laborer and part-time gospel singer with no criminal record.
Two weeks earlier, Flowers had worked for Tardy for three days but quit after he damaged three golf cart batteries he was transporting for Tardy’s husband. Flowers’ unclaimed payroll check lay on Tardy’s desk on the day she died. In addition, on the morning of the murders, a .38-caliber handgun was stolen from a car belonging to one of Flowers’ relatives — the same type handgun used to commit the murders (although it was later established that bullets fired from the gun did not match those found at the crime scene.) Finally, a bloody footprint near one of the victims was made by a Grant Hill Filas sneaker, size 10-and-a-half. An empty shoebox for the same size and make sneakers — but not the sneakers themselves — was found in the duplex Flowers shared with his girlfriend, who told police the shoes, long since worn out and discarded, belonged to her teenage son, not Flowers.
No murder weapon was found. Flowers’ fingerprints did not appear at the crime scene, on the sneakers shoebox, or on his relative’s car. When he was first interviewed by police, Flowers was wearing Nike sneakers, not Filas. Upon interrogation, Flowers had no blood splatters on his clothes. He passed a lie detector test. Still, based on scant circumstantial evidence (a check, a relative’s stolen gun, and an empty shoebox), plus profoundly conflicted eyewitness accounts some observers of the case claim were fabricated, Flowers was arrested and charged with four counts of capital murder. He said he was in his duplex at the time of the murders, but since he was there alone he had no alibi.
What has followed is Doug Evans’ relentless, Javert-like prosecution of Flowers that has now consisted of six trials, making Flowers one of a handful of people in American history to be prosecuted six times for the same murder charges. The first two trials, both resulting in conviction, were overturned on appeal by the Mississippi Supreme Court, citing prosecutorial misconduct. A third trial ended in a conviction that was reversed by the higher court, now because “the state engaged in racially discriminatory practices during the jury selection process.” Evans had used similar tactics in the first two trials to insure that those juries were predominantly white as well.
For the next two trials, Evans seated racially balanced juries reflective of Winona’s population. Both trials ended in mistrials, with all of the white jurors voting to convict and all of the black jurors voting to acquit. Indeed, Evans had consistently played up the case’s racial undercurrent, one that harkened back to ghosts of the past: An angry young black man, compelled by what he perceived to be an affront — loss of employment and money — got his revenge by massacring his former — white — employer as well as three of her employees.
For the sixth trial, Evans returned to a predominantly white jury. The result was another conviction, this one handed down, on June 18, 2010, in less than half an hour. What should happen if the latest conviction is overturned on appeal, which could be handed down any day now? A defendant can be tried, Evans told local reporters after the sixth trial, “as many times as it takes.”
What is noteworthy, as the media again focuses on the Trayvon Martin killing, is how little national attention has been paid to the Flowers case, which is taking place within driving distance of where Oprah Winfrey was born and Morgan Freeman lives. Meanwhile, Curtis Flowers remains on Death Row, waiting.
- Published in The Daily Beast
I am not a Texan but I’m the father of a Texan.
I’ll never forget the telephone call. I happened to be on the set of Urban Cowboy, which was shooting in Houston in the fall of 1979, when I checked in by phone with my wife, as I had been doing periodically all day, to learn that she had gone into labor early. I sped across Houston—not a small city—to arrive at Rosewood Hospital just in time to be whisked by the nursing staff into the delivery room. In no time, there she was—my daughter! After a nurse cleaned her off, she handed her to me. She felt so small and fragile as I held her in my arms. The moment—the first time I held my daughter—was and remains the defining event of my life.
I am not unique. Anyone who makes parenthood one, if not the, central focus of his or her life feels the same way. Because of this, from the day of her birth virtually until the day she went off to college, I could tell you, at any given time, where she was and what she was doing. I certainly could for the first three years of her life.
That’s why, I believe, the Casey Anthony first-degree murder trial captured the public’s imagination the way it did, making it a national, even international, sensation that became perhaps the most famous case in American legal history. At the core of this fascination is what Casey Anthony did for the 31 days after either her daughter Caylee went missing, as the disappearance of the child was first reported, or drowned accidentally in the family swimming pool, as the defense argued in the trial itself.
Her actions in those 31 days are actually well documented. On June 16, 2008, the last day Caylee was alive, Casey rented two movies with her boyfriend at Blockbuster, watched them with him at his apartment, and then spent the night with him, as if nothing unusual at all had transpired in her life. Then, over the next month, Casey continued to proceed in a normal fashion. She spent weekends and other nights with her boyfriend, visited nightclubs, entered a Hot Body contest on one night out, went shopping at stores like Target and Ikea, indulged in manicures, and got a tattoo on her shoulder that read “Bella Vita”—the Beautiful Life.
And sadly that’s what Casey thought she was doing for that month after her daughter’s demise—living the Beautiful Life. She never called 911 to report her daughter missing or accidentally drowned. Indeed, she avoided the subject of her daughter at all costs, repeatedly lying about Caylee’s whereabouts when asked by friends. Her mother finally called 911 herself after Casey had eluded her for a month, habitually sidestepping the issue of where Caylee was.
In the trial the defense argued that people respond to tragedy—and express grief—in different ways. Here is the problem. What Casey Anthony did for those 31 days is not an expression of grief, not according to any psychological model I’m aware of for a parent whose child held the central focus of his or her life. And that’s what’s haunting about this case, the reason why it has become the object of such emotional reactions. No loving parent I’ve met would ever—ever—act the way Casey Anthony did for 31 days starting on June 16, 2008. And, for me at least, that fact is not open to debate.
Nancy Grace, the in-your-face, no-holds-barred television personality who has driven much of the coverage of this case for the past three years, has been criticized for being an unapologetic advocate, especially after declaring at the time the Not Guilty verdicts were handed down, “Somewhere out there, the Devil is dancing tonight!” In her life, Grace has filled many roles—lawyer, prosecutor, author—but since November of 2007 she has been a mother. Today, her twins are slightly older than Caylee Anthony was when she died.
In mid-July, I published Accused as a Kindle Single. The piece centers around Tommy Harris, a Houston police officer who was enjoying a decade-and-a-half-long career on the force. All of that changed in the early morning hours of the Fourth of July in 2009 when, through a series of events not instigated by him, he ended up in an altercation in the parking lot of a bar in Stafford, Texas, a suburb of Houston, during which a man, Sylvanus Okhueleigbe, died suddenly.
How he died—and why—would be the focal point of a highly dramatic trial that took place in March of 2011 in Fort Bend County, Texas, where the district attorney is John Healey, an unapologetically controversial public official solidly in the mold of Governor Rick Perry. In the trial, which resulted from a grand jury indictment of Harris for criminally negligent homicide, warring experts argued pointedly over the cause of Okhueleigbe’s death. This was not unusual since most trials find the prosecution and defense disagreeing over the fundamental circumstances of the event that lead to the trial in the first place. What was unusual was this. In a key portion of the trial, the prosecution’s star witness repeatedly committed acts of perjury.
Mary Anzalone, an assistant medical examiner for Harris County, had conducted the autopsy of Okhueleigbe. Five days following the autopsy, well before test results had come back to allow her to render informed opinions, Anzalone had a 38-minute telephone conversation with a police detective assigned to the case. In that call, which she did not know was being tape-recorded, she admitted to being biased against some police officers, suspicious of Harris in particular, and especially angry that he had “lawyered up.” “OK, fine,” she said, “then mine [her final finding] is going to be an asphyxia death, and it’s homicide, and they can explain it later.” Obviously, she had made up her mind weeks before she received all the test results necessary to make an authentic conclusion.
During the trial, defense attorney Aaron Suder asked Anazlone about the conversation. When the tape containing the conversation had been turned over to the defense in discovery, the prosecution had not listened to it, so they did not know the contents. As Suder asked Anzalone a barrage of questions about the conversation, Anzalone answered them enthusiastically but falsely. Once Suder played the tape in open court, Anzalone and the prosecution had to deal with the fact that she had committed numerous acts of perjury. It was bad enough she had failed to wait for adequate information to determine cause of death, but her flagrant willingness not to tell the truth on the stand seemed disturbing. After all, she is a public employee paid by the citizens of Harris County.
On April 7, the Houston Police Officers Union lodged a formal complaint with the Commissions Court of Harris County, the entity that oversees the medical examiner’s office. This prompted an investigation by the Harris County Attorney, Vince Ryan. Robert Soard, an executive assistant county attorney, confirmed to The Houston Chronicle that an investigation of Anzalone was underway. “We are looking into it,” he said at the time, “and interviewing all the appropriate folks.”
Gary Blankenship, the police union president, told the Chronicle reporter Anzalone should be fired. However, Dr. Dwayne Wolf, deputy chief medical examiner, defended her. “There’s nothing wrong with the autopsy report,” he said. “There’s nothing wrong with the way she determined the manner and cause of death.” That may or may not be true, but Wolf never addressed what is not open for debate: Anzalone’s alarming decision to commit perjury.
There’s a reason why Wolf could dodge the subject. For some reason, the complaint filed by the police union stops short of accusing Anzalone of committing perjury. “We believe that impeachment evidence that was brought to light during the cross-examination of Dr. Anzalone by Officer Harris’s attorneys seriously underminded her credibility and the basis of her medical opinions.” The complaint did address the phone call about which she falsely testified. “In the phone conversation, Dr. Anzalone made a number of statements and comments evidencing significant biases and prejudices on her part that directly called into question the integrity of her medical opinions. The comments included statements indicating a personal bias against Officer Harris and his actions, certain racial prejudices on her part indicating a bias in favor of the decedent, and premature opinions and conclusions drawn by Dr. Anzalone about the decedent’s cause of death, undoubtedly influenced by her personal feelings and dispositions in the matter.”
Here’s what’s truly disconcerting about this case. If Anzalone committed perjury in the trial of Tommy Harris, how many more times in how many more cases did she not tell the truth on the stand? How many people have found themselves in prison because of her expert testimony? Have any of them ended up on Death Row? The report from the Harris County Attorney into Mary Anzalone will be released in September, but if Anzalone’s behavior on the witness stand is not addressed whatever the report says will remain lacking.
"As good a biography of Salinger as we're likely to get for a while. Alexander...[has] succeeded in placing Salinger in the context of his times, and in finding in the author's life seeds of inspiration for his fiction."
--The Boston Globe
Bestselling true-crime author Paul Alexander (Murdered, Accused) unravels the sordid narrative of the notorious "Grim Sleeper" serial killer, who left at least 10 women dead and terrorized Los Angeles for more than two decades.
In this true account, Accused introduces us to Tommy Harris, the 14 years veteran of the Houston Police force, his fight with a man outside a bar, a death, and the ensuing homicide trial. The district attorney had boasted, "Anyone can convict a guilty person, but it takes someone really good to convict an innocent one." Did Harris apply a naked choke-hold or did the district attorney and his forensics team set up Harris?
For nearly a quarter-century, the Los Angeles Police Department considered the brutal 1986 killing of Sherri Rasmussen — a beautiful 29-year-old newlywed — as the byproduct of a botched robbery. But this true account reveals a cold case detective's startling discovery in 2009: Sherri had been murdered. And nothing could have shocked the detective more than the identity of the killer — a cold-blooded murderer that the LAPD already knew only too well.
One July morning in 1996, three people were discovered dead and one at death’s door in a furniture store in Winona, Mississippi. Three of the victims were white—including the store owner. That same day, a black man, Curtis Flowers, was identified as the prime suspect. Flowers had worked at the store for three days and had quit under questionable circumstances. But almost no substantive evidence linked him to the crime. A devout Christian and gospel singer, Flowers had no prior criminal record and the barest of motives. Caught between a relentless Mississippi prosecutor and the fury of both African-American and white communities in his town, Flowers has endured six separate trials over more than a decade in a case that remains undecided.