Longreads Best of 2016: Crime Reporting

We asked a few writers and editors to choose some of their favorite stories of the year in various categories. Here, the best in crime reporting.

* * *

Jessica Lussenhop
Senior staff writer for BBC News.

Dee Dee Wanted Her Daughter To Be Sick, Gypsy Wanted Her Mom To Be Murdered (Michelle Dean, BuzzFeed News)

This heart-breaking case of one of—if not the—longest case of Munchausen by proxy is beautifully reported and written with precision by Michelle Dean. The death of Dee Dee Blancharde, as orchestrated by her adult daughter Gypsy, was horrifying and shocking, but Dean paints a detailed portrait that really allows the characters and their inner lives to emerge from the sheer horror of the crimes. Dean reveals that there was so much more to this story than what came out in breaking news reports—this piece was fascinating, troubling and at the end of the day, impossible to forget.


Ben Montgomery
Enterprise reporter for the Tampa Bay Times and author of two books.

Framed (Christopher Goffard, LA Times)

This six-part serial narrative was the most compelling story I read this year. Packed with plot twists and glorious cliffhangers, Goffard tells the strange story of husband-and-wife lawyers who attempt to frame a PTA mom at their child’s school by planting illegal drugs in her car. Their “perfect crime” unravels slowly as detectives pull strings. As Goffard writes, it was “an inexplicable crime that seemed to throb weirdly at the nexus of suburban psychosis and class privilege.” Bonus points to the LA Times, which rolled out the series over the course of a few weeks rather than dumping it online all at once.

A Positive Life: How a Son Survived Being Injected with HIV by His Father (Justin Heckert, GQ)

In 1998, a phlebotomist named Brian Stewart was sentenced to life in prison for injecting his own 10-month-old son with HIV-infected blood. By age seven, few gave the boy any chance to live. He had fevers, a swollen liver, chronic ear infections, no immune system. He had flat-lined twice. His mother even picked out a suit for the boy’s funeral. Against the odds, the boy they called Badger survived and has led a remarkable life. With elegance and empathy, Heckert tells the story of the inconceivable crime and explores who Badger has become in the years since.


Michael J. Mooney
Dallas-based freelance writer, co-director of the Mayborn Literary Nonfiction Conference.

A Positive Life: How a Son Survived Being Injected with HIV by His Father (Justin Heckert, GQ)

So many of my favorite crime stories aren’t just about a criminal act—or really about the criminals themselves. Some of the best stories are about the survivors, and the various extreme aspects of the human condition revealed by their lives. This story, about an amazing young man who goes by “Badger,” is one of those. When he was an infant, Badger’s deranged phlebotomist father injected him with HIV. Heckert’s story, relayed with deft and beautiful prose, recounts not only the act and the subsequent investigation and trial, but the lifelong physical and psychological ramifications for Badger, an unbelievably inspiring human being.

The Reckoning (Pamela Colloff, Texas Monthly)

This story is also about the long-term fallout from an unthinkable, heinous crime. In 1966, Claire Wilson was an 18-year-old college freshman at the University of Texas when Charles Whitman opened fire from the top of the school’s iconic clock tower. Claire was pregnant and in love at the time. Then the sniper’s bullets ripped through both her flesh and the fabric of her life. In cinematic fashion, this story traces the many ways that day affected her over the next 50 years, through a recovery, a marriage, an adoption, and a decades-long search for truth and understanding.


Reyhan Harmanci
Editor at First Look Media; co-writer, with Michelle Dean, of Crime Syndicate, a true crime newsletter.

Dee Dee Wanted Her Daughter To Be Sick, Gypsy Wanted Her Mom To Be Murdered (Michelle Dean, BuzzFeed News)

So, let’s get this out of the way: Michelle Dean’s masterful examination of a young woman who helped kill her mother for some very complicated reasons is already on a lot of people lists, and deserves to be on more.

In Death, an Artist and a Young Woman Meet (Sarah Weinman, The Guardian)

Another friend to crime readers everywhere, Sarah Weinman, published a fascinating story on how the murder of a young woman influenced artist Ana Mendieta, who suffered a tragic fate herself.

The Mastermind (Evan Ratliff, The Atavist)

It’s not a surprise to readers that Evan Ratliff’s incredible Mastermind series on a kingpin-turned-snitch is being adapted into some kind of filmed entertainment. It was sprawling and weird and well worth binging on after a huge holiday meal.

Trump Boasts About His Philanthropy. But His Giving Falls Short of His Words. (David Fahrenthold, The Washington Post)

One of my favorite ongoing crime series was David Fahrenthold at the Washington Post digging into Trump’s charity. It was a slow burn but by the time we got to the giant portraits bought with the non-profit’s money, I was all in.

Apocalypse Meow: How a Cult That Believes Cats Are Divine Beings Ended Up in Tennessee (Bob Smietana, Nashville Scene)

Finally, a cult cat story that pal Liz Lopatto brought to my attention. It’s wonderful and a great reminder that alt-weekly stories are often the best stories. (See Sydney Brownstone’s incredible Seattle Stranger reporting on a rapist posing as a porn recruiter, which led to his arrest.) Happy holidays, y’all.


Bradford Pearson
Managing editor at Southwest: the Magazine; writer.

Innocents (Rachel Nolan, Harper’s)

I immediately drop everything whenever Harper’s publishes a new story by Rachel Nolan. (Luckily this is pretty intermittent, as she’s working on her Ph.D. in addition to writing. Slacker.) Last year it was her report on the Dominican Republic’s plan to deport hundreds of thousands of Haitians. This year it’s a blood-roiling walk through El Salvador’s abortion laws, which bring together the medical and legal communities in an effort to not only prosecute women who’ve had abortions, but often prosecute women who’ve actually just had miscarriages. Nolan expertly weaves poverty, religion, geography, feminism, and gang culture into the story of Flor Arely Sánchez, who “left a trail of blood down the mountain.” No story made me angrier this year, which, considering what happened on November 8, is saying something.

Inside Italy’s ultras: the Dangerous Fans Who Control the Game, (Tobias Jones, The Guardian)

Any story that includes the line “who died when a nautical rocket fired by an ultra flew the length of the pitch and hit him in the head,” automatically becomes a Best of Whatever Year contender for me. (Admittedly, it’s a small detail about a well-beyond-tertiary character, but what a way to go: beer in hand, watching your favorite team, rocket searing toward your head.) Through the lens of one particularly ill-fated fan’s life, Tobias Jones details organized crime’s infiltration of Italian soccer, and the impossible task of then trying to extract them. It’s a look into a world—sports, in the broader sense—that many of us look at as a release. For many of the characters in this story, though, it’s all they have. And they’ll fight to the death for it.


Cheri Lucas Rowlands
Story Wrangler, WordPress.com and Longreads

Body on the Moor (Jon Manel, BBC News)

I’m not naturally drawn to crime or detective stories, but this immersive BBC News story unfolded on my laptop screen like a suspenseful, well-paced movie. Manel’s “Body on the Moor” tells the tale of a man found dead last year in Saddleworth Moor, in Peak District National Park in Northern England — a cyclist found him in a peculiar position, in clothing inappropriate for a walk, and with no belongings or forms of identification. Six months later, detectives across England still were unable to identify him — or figure out why he traveled 200 miles to die on the moor. Studying the maps, CCTV footage, photos, videos, and timelines while reading the story feels like you’re examining evidence alongside investigators. It’s a curious case and an engrossing read.


Krista Stevens
Editor, Automattic

Death by Fentanyl (Darren Foster, Cristina Costantini, Fusion)

If you thought “Breaking Bad” was fiction, you’d be mistaken. At Fusion, Darren Foster and Cristina Costantini profile George Marquardt, a science prodigy and self-taught chemist. He cracked fentanyl’s chemical composition to make his own, with deadly consequences in the early ’90s. What I loved about this piece is the penchant for the telling detail. The authors paint a portrait of a mad genius drug manufacturer who is unrepentant and sanguine; Marquardt built his own spectrometer to test the purity of his lethal concoctions but did not know how to turn his phone off and on.

The First Time Texas Killed One of My Clients (Burke M. Butler, Texas Observer)

Attorney Burke Butler meets the family of death-row murderer “Marvin,” to reconcile the boy who made peanut butter pancakes with the person who committed a multiple homicide before he was old enough to buy beer. Marvin’s upbringing was troubled and Butler’s observations offer insight into Marvin’s path and untimely death. His stepfather was violent, his mother was unstable. Marvin’s uncle Frank, on seeing a dead baby bird on the pavement outside the prison on execution day, said, “Sometimes they die young, and the others push them from the nest.” In Marvin’s case, it was both.


Sari Botton
Writer, contributing editor to Longreads, editorial director of the non-profit TMI Project, and owner of Kingston Writers’ Studio.

The Crotchgrabber (Mary Karr, The New Yorker)

After she’s casually groped on the street in Manhattan, memoirist Mary Karr takes action. She follows the guy and calls 911, and it results in him being arrested and spending a night at Riker’s Island. It also leads her to learn, and report on, how common this sort of sexual assault is–a kind our president-elect bragged to Howard Stern about engaging in–and to try and understand the motivations and satisfactions of its perpegrators.


See more from our Best of 2016 series


from Longreads https://blog.longreads.com/2016/12/15/longreads-best-of-2016-crime-reporting/

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