True Crime Gets Its Close-Up

TWO TRUTHS AND A LIE

A Murder, a Private Investigator, and
Her Search for Justice
By Ellen McGarrahan
368 pp. Random House. $28.

“I was totally in favor of the death penalty until I witnessed Jesse Tafero’s execution,” writes McGarrahan, who watched Tafero die in 1990 as a young staff writer for The Miami Herald. In her article, she noted how the electric chair malfunctioned, with flames and smoke visible above Tafero’s head covering; soon after that, she quit journalism, worked in construction, then became a private investigator. She found herself drawn back to Tafero’s execution and even more urgently to the crime that led him there: a double murder of two law enforcement officers at a Florida highway rest area at dawn in February 1976. Had she witnessed the execution of an innocent man?

“Old murder cases are like coffins,” McGarrahan writes. “You have to be careful, opening them up.” This one is particularly puzzling. The state trooper Phillip Black and the visiting Canadian constable Donald Irwin were shot at close range while checking on a beat-up Camaro full of sleeping people: Tafero, his girlfriend Sunny Jacobs and her two children, and their friend Walter Rhodes. There’s a good reason to believe each of the three is the murderer. Two truckers saw gunfire explode from the back seat, where Jacobs was. Tafero was apprehended with the murder weapon strapped to his hip. And Rhodes, who had gunshot residue on his hands, confessed — before he recanted, confessed again, recanted again, and so on.

Jacobs wound up being freed, writing a memoir and participating in a play about her life titled “The Exonerated” (although she was not technically exonerated). She maintained her innocence, presenting herself as “a hippie peace-and-love vegetarian,” but as McGarrahan finds in her investigation, all of them were doing enormous amounts of cocaine (enough, Rhodes wrote, to make you feel like “Superman and Einstein and Casanova all rolled into one”) and dealing even more. They were associated with the so-called Dixie Mafia; their circle included murderers, extortionists and one colorful jewel thief.

McGarrahan’s obsession with rooting out the truth in the case leads her (and her unfailingly loyal husband) to Florida, Ireland and Australia, where she tracks down any detail that might potentially help her know what happened. It’s not a triumphant story.

After all, she writes, “your gut instinct isn’t always right. Sooner or later, I have come to find out, everyone gets fooled.” At one point she writes that she’s wrecked her life with her quest for the truth. Some of those McGarrahan talks to feel she’s wrecked theirs; one yells at her, “What you are doing is pointless and hurtful.” It feels like an accusation that could be aimed at the entire true-crime genre, no matter its intentions. “Two Truths and a Lie” is often extremely entertaining, but there’s a deep pain in its core.

CONFIDENT WOMEN

Swindlers, Grifters, and Shapeshifters of
the Feminine Persuasion
By Tori Telfer
352 pp. Harper. $26.99.

“There’s no point in denying it; the women in this book are extremely charming,” writes Telfer, an author and podcaster whose beat is women in crime. In her latest effort, Telfer profiles those whose misdeeds are more of the grifting than the murdering variety. “Her victims almost never end up dead,” she writes. “Almost never!” (One of Telfer’s con artists most familiar to New York readers will be Sante Kimes, who started out as a poor kid with an “obsessive and pathological” relationship to money and ended up a murderer.)

Collected here are 13 tales, each around the length of a juicy podcast, about women whose relationship to truth and justice was, at best, a bit wobbly. Some are already well known — the slew of young women pretending to be Anastasia, the lost czarina, or the Fox sisters, whose hoaxes launched spiritualism into stratospheric popularity. Other stories feel newer, like that of Margaret Lydia Burton, a midcentury scammer whose antics sparked uproar in the polite world of cocker spaniel breeders. Their relationship to crime ranges from murderers like Kime, to victims like Bonny Lee Bakly, to more spectacular con artists like the 18th-century Frenchwoman Jeanne de Saint-Rémy, a rabid social climber who leveraged a corrupt cardinal’s desire into a scandal involving Marie Antoinette and the “most beautiful diamond necklace in the world.”

The farther away from our own time and place, of course, the easier it is to find charm and romance in these tales. Still, Telfer narrates them with great verve, grace and even humor. Whether or not we buy her assertion in the book’s introduction that we want to be like the confidence women she profiles (“doesn’t it sound sort of delicious?”), it can be hard to resist the allure of their stories.

THE OFFICER’S DAUGHTER

A Memoir of Family and Forgiveness
By Elle Johnson
224 pp. Harper. $27.99.

Johnson was 16 when her cousin Karen, the same age, was shot and killed during a botched robbery at the Burger King where she worked in the Bronx. Both girls’ fathers were Black men in law enforcement, Karen’s a homicide detective and Elle’s a parole officer. As the family gathered in their grief, Johnson overheard her father and the other men plotting revenge on those who had killed Karen. In the end, three teenage boys were convicted of their parts in the crime; 33 years later, Johnson finds herself pondering whether to write the court on the occasion of the last remaining defendant’s parole hearing.

“The Officer’s Daughter” is a slim, immensely moving book. Johnson, who writes for television (“cop shows and crime procedurals,” she tells us), skips back and forth from her teenage years to the present, telling her story in plain-spoken language and examining her own reactions to Karen’s murder from both perspectives. “If a good girl like Karen could be killed,” she recalls, “then anything could happen. There seemed to be no point in listening to your parents, or doing as you were told.” As an adult, she finds herself thinking about the decades the men have spent in prison: “I wondered what kind of men they had become behind bars. What kind of men could they become, except for prisoners?”

As Johnson contemplates asking the parole board to keep her cousin’s killer locked up, she finds herself remembering different events; on her mind most of all is her father. “He was controlling yet protective,” she writes, “and sometimes someone to be protected from.” Johnson ponders pain caused by the killer, her father, even herself, especially after losing the religious faith that once provided a framework. When you live in a family forever experiencing “the background buzz of lifelong mourning,” the only way to peace is to find a path to forgiveness.

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