Tag Archives: investigative journalism

“True Crime” writer makes exposing miscarriages of justice his mission

Justice on Fire: The Kansas City Firefighters Case and the Railroading of the Marlborough Five,”by J. Patrick O’Connor. University Press of Kansas. 352 pages. Hardcover $34.95.

Long-time Naples resident Pat O’Connor presents “true crime” addicts with a treasure trove of juicy information in this case study of the judicial system operating at its worst. What’s criminal in this story is not those who have been convicted and sentenced. Rather, what’s criminal is the systemic failure itself and those whose indifference, ineptitude, or careerist blinders corrupted the process and the outcome. 

Thirty years ago, on a construction project near Kansas City Missouri’s once promising, but then and now impoverished Marlborough neighborhood, disaster struck. A guard on the construction site reported that a pick-up truck was on fire. Then came the news of fierce explosions and more fire. When the bodies were counted, six firefighters were found dead and the charge of arson was in the smoke-filled air.

Mr. O’Connor pays a great deal of attention to the Marlborough neighborhood and the five residents who were indicted and convicted of the crime. The bad reputation of the neighborhood, in the author’s view provides a prejudicial force from the beginning of the investigation, a force that never ceases to be part of the cause and effect links to the miscarriage of justice.



The author’s sketches of those soon known at the Marlborough Five reveal backgrounds that would also prejudice juries or judges. Arrest records, often for minor crimes, are not evidence – but they can affect attitudes toward the defendants. Somehow, this quintet of characters found trouble of various kinds, and sometimes arrests for other crimes (outside of the arson charge) were used as leverage by the prosecutors.

How does it happen that that “by the time the indictments came down . . . only Richard was not in prison on other chargers?”

That’s how the testimony of jailhouse snitches comes into play, an overused weapon in a rush to judgement that ironically took way too much time. . . .

To read the entire review, as it appears in the the February 14, 2019 Naples, Bonita Springs, and  Palm Beach editions, click here:  Florida Weekly – Justice on Fire

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“Brighton: A Novel,” by Michael Harvey

Ecco. 368 pp.  Hardback $27.99.

This taut thriller tackles the perils of going home again.

A superb crime thriller with all the hallmarks of high-end literary fiction, Michael Harvey’s Brightonemploys — and brilliantly handles — the two-timeline structure. What happened in 1975, and seemed to have been buried there, bubbles up to the surface 27 years later in frightening and grotesque ways. The exposure of secrets, even the threat of exposure, can change lives — mostly for the worse. What happens in Brighton may not stay in Brighton. And yet it doesn’t leave, either.

Michael Harvey

Michael Harvey

The Boston neighborhood of Brighton that Harvey paints is rich in physical detail and cultural character. It might as well be called Blighton for the moral blight that reflects and nourishes the socio-economic blight. The economy of drugs, gambling, extortion, and other criminal occupations is pretty much above-ground — and yet there are secrets.

It’s a place where survival of the fittest is not merely a theory. Brighton is its testing ground.

The novel focuses on the man who got away: Kevin Pearce. Kevin was a high-school hero. Baseball star, outstanding student, pretty much liked by all, he was the pride of Brighton when he suddenly disappeared at the age of 15. The violence he got into with his best friend and mentor, Bobby Scales, would have doomed his great promise. Aided by Bobby, he vanishes and slowly builds a reputable life. Bobby stays behind to sacrifice his future, shielding Kevin’s name.


Bobby’s advice to his friend is never to return.

Brighton’s newspaper readers could have followed Kevin’s success as an investigative reporter who, as the 2002 timeline reveals, has just won a Pulitzer Prize. Unfortunately, the story has connections to Brighton. Loose ends and suspicions bring Kevin back to visit his old neighborhood, where his presence is met with mixed reactions. . . .

To read the entire review, click here: Brighton: A Novel | Washington Independent Review of Books


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Forgiveness: It’s something we should do for ourselves

Review by Phil Jason

Triumph of the Heart: Forgiveness in an Unforgiving World, by Megan Feldman Bettencourt. Hudson Street Press. 288 pages. Hardback $25.95. Forthcoming Avery trade paperback $16.00.

So many of us are weighed down by negative emotions without truly realizing how much damage they are doing to our quality of life and to those around us. We carry the hurts of real and imagined slights. We continue to agonize over our parents’ having been distant when we needed them or having been harshly judgmental when we longed for acceptance – if not praise. We can’t get past a betrayal of confidence, a two-timing spouse, a boss or teacher who plays favorites and didn’t value our worth. 0triumph-of-the-heart

If we are subject to physical abuse, or injured by a texting driver, or crippled on the battlefield or in competitive sports, we carry the anger until it becomes more devastating than the original incident. How can be overcome the rage and grief if a child or wife or parent gets shot to death during a robbery? Our resentment keeps eating us alive.

We simply cannot forgive.  Why should we?



Ms. Bettencourt tells as why and how.

The first of many illustrative stories in this inspiring book is about Azim Khamisa, who in January of 1995 received a phone call telling him that his twenty year old son, Tariq, had been shot dead. The murderer, a fourteen year old gang member named Tony, had fired on Tariq while attempting to rob him. The healing relationship between Azim, Tony, and Tony’s grandfather, one that dramatically introduces the psychological benefits of forgiveness and the means to exercise it, sets the tone for the rest of the book. Azim founded and administers the Tarik Khamisa Foundation, a model educational institution for putting endangered youths on the right path. Azim turned his loss into something magical, and his forgiveness of Tony and friendship with Tony’s grandfather were part of the process, as was a form of meditation.

Ms. Bettencourt learned a lot by witnessing Azim in action. In fact, her own problems, she discovered, needed to be addressed through the process of forgiveness so that she could reclaim her life. . . .

To read the entire review, as it appears in the February 17, 2016 Fort Myers Florida Weekly and the February 18 Naples, Bonita Springs, and Punta Gorda/Port Charlotte editions, click here:  Florida Weekly – Bettencourt

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“Run You Down,” by Julia Dahl

  • Minotaur Books. 304 pages. Hardcover $24.99.

This page-turner of a mystery, set in an ultra-orthodox Jewish community, brings a mother and daughter together at last.

It would be hard for author Julia Dahl to match the impact of her novel from last year, Invisible City, let alone provide a fresh experience with a story that mines a similar milieu: the mysterious death of a woman in New York’s Hasidic community. However, she has done it — in part by having left the door open for a continuation of the earlier work’s underplot: a young woman’s quest to find the mother who abandoned her as a baby.
One would suspect that Run You Down was in development even before Invisible City was published. In the later book, tabloid stringer Rebekah Roberts, a half-Jewish woman raised in Florida by her Christian father, Brian, has taken a step up the ladder at the New York Tribune. She’s doing rewrite, an indoor job, rather than chasing around the city investigating possible stories. Rebekah is also fighting a severe bout of depression in the aftermath of her first major assignment.

Her roommate, Iris, is pushing her to get help.Rebekah meets with her friend Saul, a retired policeman and the one person of her acquaintance (besides her father) who’d known Aviva, her mother. Aviva had contacted Saul about possibly getting in touch with her daughter. Saul passed on the message, but Rebekah’s nerve failed when it came to picking up the phone; too much fear and anger, too many unknowns.While wrestling with this problem, which is pulling her into a dangerous withdrawal state,

Rebekah agrees to meet Levi, a man from the Haredi (extreme orthodox) world. Levi’s young wife, Pessie, has recently died, but he suspects something has gone wrong with the investigation of her death. (Echoing the circumstances in Invisible City, Pessie was rushed to the funeral home without an autopsy being done.)Levi can’t find out how she died . . .

Read the entire review at: Run You Down | Washington Independent Review of Books

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The Riddle of the Aleppo Codex

The Aleppo Codex, by Matti Friedman. Algonquin.  320 pages. $24.95.

This brilliant piece of investigative reporting traces the origins, travels, and controversies surrounding a bound, parchment manuscript know as the Aleppo Codex (or the Aleppo Crown). This manuscript is valued as the most authoritative text of the Hebrew Bible. It was written to be the standard against which later versions of these scriptures were tested. Created about 930 C.E. in Tiberias, it was meant to insure that the Jewish communities of the Diaspora were studying the same text – the same stories, chronicles, prophecies, and laws – word by word and letter by letter. 

Compiled by the scholar Aaron Ben-Asher and scribed by Shlomo Ben Buya’a, the Crown was, perhaps still is, the ultimate book of the People of the Book.

It got around.

First safeguarded in a Jerusalem synagogue, the Crown was taken by Frankish Crusaders during the Sack of Jerusalem in 1099. Through an exciting series of events that Friedman traces with skill and grace, it ended up in Fustat (now part of Cairo) where it was safeguarded by the sizeable Jewish community there. Next, it came under the purview of the great Jewish philosopher Maimonides, who drew upon it in the writing of his magnum opus the Mishneh Torah. Spanish by birth, Maimonides became an influential courtier and physician in Cairo. After Maimonides’ death in 1204, the Crown remained with his descendants until his great-great-great grandson brought it (and other important books) to Aleppo, Syria in the late 14th century.

There is remained “for six hundred years, until the Jews in the land of Islam – the world of Maimonides – disappeared.”

I should make clear that one of the strengths of Friedman’s book is that he avoids organizing by the strict chronology that I’ve been employing.  Rather he moves back and forth, juxtaposing ancient pieces of the story with modern and even contemporary ones, allowing them to interact with one another. He really has two major stories to tell: one is the history and importance of the Codex, the other is the story of his investigation, which peels back layers of ignorance, obfuscation, and raw deceit. One story covers a millennium, the other covers a few years. It’s hard to tell, sometimes, which story is wrapped around which. We are offered an intricate, satisfying weave.

The fulcrum on the broad timeline is 1947, when the deceits that Friedman exposes begin and when the Crown is moved from Aleppo back to Jerusalem.


Friedman meticulously lays out how the Crown survives the Muslim-Arab attacks on Aleppo’s synagogue after the United Nation’s vote to usher modern Israel into being. He then traces the hands through it passed through, its interval in Turkey, and its delivery to the authorities in Jerusalem. Clearly enough, for the nascent Israeli government, the Crown represents part of the nation-building enterprise. Its connection to Jerusalem and Tiberias are, symbolically at least, part of the Jewish claim to the land.

However, once in the hands of the Ben-Tzvi Institute, it seems as though this treasure is sometimes neglected, and at other times purposely made inaccessible. Questions about its condition arise that do not receive convincing answers. Huge sections (including most of the Five Books of Moses) are found to be missing, but just when did these leaves disappear? During the attacks on the synagogue before the Crown left Aleppo? While in Turkey?

In exploring this dilemma, Friedman encounters a conspiracy of silence. Useful facts are few, though there is some finger-pointing. Slowly, patiently, Matti Friedman presses his investigation forward. Eventually, he comes to a conclusion that is consistent with all the evidence he has gathered, including the personalities and opportunities of the principal players.

Friedman’s book is subtitled “A True Story of Obsession, Faith, and the Pursuit of an Ancient Bible.” It delivers on all those ingredients and more as the author orchestrates his materials into a fine, suspenseful symphony of detection and revelation.

This review (under a different title) appears in the September 2012 issues of the Federation Star (Jewish Federation of Collier County), L’Chayim (Jewish Federation of Lee and Charlotte Counties), and the Jewish News (Jewish Federation of Sarasota and Manatee Counties).

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