Novel 3: Act I, Chapter 6, Scene 5b

TOC page here.

In the previous part of this scene, the guy from the Kidney Foundation talked about his four employees who use his white van. So of course Diana and Mustapha have to follow this lead, even though they know it’s probably not going to take them anyplace useful. This means for me as a writer it’s time to have fun:

Diana expected a guy called Clint to be a scrawny white guy from the North Georgia mountains, but Clinton Gardner was a jovial black guy with a body by KFC. And country black, not city black, something she didn’t see that much. “I seen that on the TEE-vee,” he said. “And you’re saying he got picked up in our van? No way. Who gonna do a thing like that? Not me. Jesus knows I got issues, but I ain’t going to do nothing like that to a man. Not a woman, neither.”

Diana said, “Well, I sure hope not. Your boss gave us paperwork that you said you brought the van back at nine o’clock that night. Two nights ago.”

“Yeah. Me and Ahmed here,” he jerked a thumb at the tiny guy in the oversized Falcons jersey, “had us a long day.”

“We got ourselves stuck on 285,” said Ahmed, who looked and talked like an Atlanta hip-hopper. “It was a parking lot, yo.”

Mustapha said, “So, nine o’clock, then what? You lock up and leave?”

Gardner said, “No way, man: job ain’t done. We gots to leave the truck empty and the clothes sorted out, so the other crew can take over in the morning.”

“How long does that take?”

“Quick as we can, man. Mr. Eddie, he cool about letting us use the office, so we put some elbow grease into the job, then watched the last three quarters of the game on the TV there.”

Diana said, “But you guys were alone.”


Ahmed said, “Oh, right: you looking for an alibi. I was using the computer in Mr. Eddie’s office to Skype with my grandma.”

Mustapha said, “And she’ll confirm that for you?”

He shrugged. “If you can speak Pashto, man.”

This is how to have fun in three hundred words. Neither of these guys is a suspect; but we get to learn a little about both of them. Clint might have beat up a guy, and we don’t get to see if he really does write like a first-grader, but unless these two are super-geniuses masquerading as minimum-wage workers, they didn’t kill Alex Dawson. So instead of dispensing of them with just some paperwork, I get to make them into people, real people you might relate to; and this is what keeps a lot of readers reading. Plus, the last line is just gold.


The Archetypal Atlanta Crime (3)

Short update: unsurprisingly, the young man with the piercing between his eyes was captured not long after running from Michael and Whitney Lash’s home, where Michael Lash was shot and seriously wounded. Again, let’s look at that sketch:








I speculated at the time that this guy would get caught quickly, and he did. Brandon Jerome Smith, welcome to the Big House. At least you got caught first, and get to dime out your pals for a reduced sentence. But let’s give kudos to the Atlanta Police for getting this guy quickly: the two grand you spent on the reward hotline was well worth it. We’ll leave you with the police chief’s words:

“He was 18, young and dumb… If I can be as crass as that,” said Chief Turner. “I mean where was he going to go?”

The arrest comes a couple of days after police released surveillance video and a sketch of one suspect in Monday’s home invasion on Sumter Street.

Novel 3: Act I, Chapter 6, Scene 5a

TOC page here.

In the last scene, we got a vivid story from a homeless man. Now, let’s hear a guy with a job and a place to live tell one:

Mickey Strauss from the Kidney Foundation was the picture of long-term fatigue and stress. He took one look at the sketch and sighed, then handed it back and massaged his temples. “Man, I do not need this. Y’all are going to take the van, impound it and keep it for like a month, aren’t you?”

Diana said, “Probably not a whole month.”

Mustapha said, “Right now, we just want to look at it, maybe follow up with your records where it was the other night. Were going to need a list of whoever has access to the van, too.”

“Sheeit. There’s two teams of guys that use it.” He looked across the office at the ancient filing cabinet, bursting with papers. “You just made my day. This is the thing on the news, right? You want just the Muslim guys? One of’em’s on the truck now. Ahmed; but he’s about as Muslim as you are.” He looked Mustapha up and down. “As I am. The other team, they’re both Muslims, from Africa. But different ends of Africa.” He caught Diana’s look. “We’re a nonprofit, we pay crap, we get new immigrants. Good people, hard workers. I don’t see either of them killing a bum. Not like that, anyway.”

Diana said, “What do you mean?”

“You ever had the pleasure of working around that shelter, Detective? Shit, what am I saying? You’re a cop: of course you know about that shithole. And I call it a shithole after, what? Twenty-three years now of working in charity. You cannot park a truck or any other vehicle within a block of that place, or those bums will break in and steal you blind—and if it’s locked up too tight, they’ll dent it, or piss on it. That lady who used to run it, the one who wouldn’t pay the water bill? She once told my wife that she encouraged them to pull shit like that, because she got off on pissing off rich people. Which, I’m all for that. But it’s not their cars getting broken into.” He looked at his phone. “Crap. What I mean is, I can see just about anyone going after some of the bums down there with a tire iron, but that creepy stuff?”

He slumped in his chair, took a deep breath. “The non-Muslim guy is the one with the temper. Clint. He’s got a record.” Diana must have made a face. “And part of the charity here is getting people who have made mistakes back on their feet.”

Mustapha said, “What did he do?”

“Beat up the guy who was f… sleeping with his wife. Now that was expensive. He’s done anger management, twice, but I can still maybe see the tire iron thing. But that Islamic hoodoo? Shit. Clint writes English like a first-grader.”

Two teams of guys use the van, so four suspects, five if you count Strauss, which Diana and Mustapha won’t, right away. Part of the intent here is to once again paint Peachtree-Pine as something other than a standard-issue homeless shelter: someone like Strauss, who’s spent his working life in underpaid do-gooder positions and has a file cabinet with actual paper to show for it, ought to be pro-PP, but he’s not, because he’s lived it. Complexity. But Strauss points us to Clint, even if Clint seems an unlikely suspect.


Kendrick Johnson (4)

In the previous post on this topic, I listened to the brief interview with Branden Bell, the son of an FBI agent in Valdosta GA, who is alleged to have had an ongoing conflict with Kendrick Johnson, a highschool classmate of his who was found dead about two years ago in the highschool gym. Johnson’s death was ruled an accident, but there are red flags all over the investigation, so much so that the US Attorney’s office raided Bell’s and his father’s home and the local sheriff’s office, looking for evidence of tampering or obstruction. This investigation is ongoing.

Bell and his younger brother Brian offered to weirdly involved WSB reporter Mark Winne “unscripted” (I really doubt this) interviews without their lawyers present. I can’t imagine a competent lawyer NOT telling his adolescent charges never to say anything other than “no comment” to police or press, but this is what we have to work with. Branden Bell’s interview was short and not obviously dishonest; today, we’ll watch the first of Brian’s two, where he responds to the allegations of obstruction, and see what we can extract from it.

The video is short (2:48), but significantly longer than his brother’s.

  • Bell begins by recounting his feelings when police burst into his Akron OH dorm room to begin the search. He’s good at “confused”. He also has a real slur to his voice: he speaks with “vocal fry” and doesn’t articulate well. He says, “What did we do?” as if he wouldn’t be aware his family was under investigation.
  • He then recounts the marshals’ taking his phone and extracting the passcode from him. “Lack of affect” characterizes him well. “I’ve got nothin’ to hide,” is his go-to phrase.
  • Winne asks him if he’s tampered with any witnesses. This is kind of funny to Brian, or maybe it’s embarrassment masquerading as funny, as many people have the habit of doing. “Not that I know of” is his answer. But watch his eyes: this is at 1:15 in the video. They keep flicking left (i.e., his right) just before he answers.
  • Winne then hems and haws, and says, “If you laugh, people are going to read something into that,” then repeats the question. This is a terrible interviewing technique, by the way. Bell says “No” to Winne’s repeated questions, but to “Have you destroyed any evidence?”, the humor comes back. There’s a disconnect here between Bell’s tamped-down voice tone and his flickering eyes.
  • Winne asks how Bell felt with marshals in his dorm room. Bell says, “I broke down, honestly.” It is very much a cliché to say that whenever someone uses “honestly” or one of its synonyms, they are misrepresenting themself.
  • Winne recounts Bell’s (impressive) football statistics, and then says “You broke down and cried?” [WTF?] Bell seems at his most honest here, saying “Yes”.
  • Winne asks Bell if he “thought it was over”, and again Bell seems pretty on point. “My dad said it was going to get worse before it gets better.”

As with Brenden’s interview, it’s Winne that stands out more than the man he’s interviewing. Some odd questions here: Winne seems real sympathetic. Brian Bell is ambiguous: it’s real hard to tell how much of what he’s saying is coached or gleaned from overhearing his elders. It’s hard to tell how much of his affect is football player, how much stage fright, how much dishonesty.

What really stands out to me is the disconnect between his low affect voice and his flickering eyes. Does this mean he’s lying? Not necessarily: it’s only 2:48 of video feed. Someone might be over there to his right: but is that person coaching him, or holding up a sign? Or baking cookies or whatever? Or just holding one of the lights? Not nearly enough information to tell. He’s not convincing at all, but he’s not obviously not convincing, either.

All of this really makes me wonder who cooked this stunt up and what the hell it’s supposed to do. Reassure us these kids are innocent? I’m not reassured—but it should be noted that neither am I much moved in the opposite direction. These two kids could be totally innocent of actual tampering or obstruction, and yet there could still be a structure of privilege protecting itself all around them.

Novel 3: Act I, Chapter 6, Scene 4

TOC page here.

In the last scene, Diana used TV to spread the message about the white van; in this one, she’s doing more traditional detective work:

The minister took a long look at the sketch in its plastic sleeve. “That’s an expensive van, is my first thought.” She handed it back to Diana. “If we had a van like that we would have had a big argument about whether we could better serve the community by selling it and using the money to fund more services.” She handed an apple to the next man in line. “How’s your foot, Raymond?”

“Taking it day by day,” said the man as he shuffled down the line.

“We’re Unitarians,” said the minister to Diana. “We argue about everything.”

Diana said, “What if you had a member who owned a van like that and donated its use?”

“Well, that’s certainly possible.” Another man, another apple. “Here you go. Not in our case, but I can see a church or other group doing that. I don’t know of a specific one, if that’s what you’re about to ask me.” More apples, more soft words of encouragement. “Your typical church is going to prefer the sort of van with seats… you know, I think this is the most thought I’ve ever given to vans.”

As she handed an apple to the next man in line, he gestured at the sketch in Diana’s hands. “That’s the old Reaper’s van, isn’t it?” This guy was as grimy as the typical street resident, but his gaze was steadier.

Diana said, “We really don’t think it’s the Reaper.”

“Oh, he’s out there waiting for us all. You know where I seen a van like that? Moving clothes around.” He noticed he was holding up the line and stepped out. “You know how they got them bins here and there, where folks can drop off clothes that are still okay to wear?”

“Oh, you’re right, Keith,” said the minister. He waited for her to continue, but she said, “Go on.”

“Sure. Well, that bin, it’s like one of them big mailboxes, right? Once you dump the clothes in, the lid shuts up and you can’t reach back in there. The van comes by ever so often, the two guys lift up the outside of the bin to get at the can inside. You follow me?” At their nods, “Well, this been a real cold winter, on account of that global climate change. So one day maybe three, four weeks ago, I got me a good place to sit out the day in the sunshine, and one of them bins is right across the street. Along come these two clowns from Peachtree-Pine and start messing with the bin.”

Diana said, “Do you stay at Peachtree-Pine?”

“Hell, no. I mean, no, ma’am. Place ain’t safe: they got no rules. Well, til Ms. Claire come along, but she still ain’t cleared out all the bad apples.” He stopped, and looked at them both, expectantly.

“Go on,” said the minister.

“Oh: yeah. You see, the bin is too big and the lid’s too high for you to reach in. But if one fella boosts the other one up there, the second guy can drop hisself in the bin. First guy holds open the lid, guy inside passes him some fresh clothes. You see, them bin guys don’t reckon on how homeless men are real clever, and can get in anywhere. Like raccoons.”

“We cuter, though,” said the next man in line.

“Speak for yourself, Gary. So the one fella’s in there looking for last year’s Christmas sweater, and along come the bin guys in they big white van. The guy outside takes off, the lid flips closed, you can’t hear nothing from inside cos it’s full of clothes, so when the guys hoist that bin to get at the can inside, old Bobby pops out of there and just about scares them both to death. I’m like it’s a Christmas miracle! Them guys was a little pissed off at first, but then they rolled with it: one asks the other, why would anybody throw out a perfectly good black man?”

He bit into his apple, chewed, swallowed. “Course, in truth, Bobby ain’t that good a guy.”

Show, don’t tell. Let’s let Keith tell us the story. This is a great way to add useful detail to a scene without either just infodumping or cutting out the detail so it doesn’t look like you’re infodumping. Keith has his own meandering way of speaking, but he’s a good storyteller, and he gives Diana the background in such a way that we start thinking about clothing bins just as much as the minister is about vans.

Keith’s story conceals the fact that there’s only one real piece of information here: vans pick up clothes from bins. But where’s the fun in that? How does a homeless man see a clothing donation bin differently from a civilian? Because remember, one of the central points of this story is that just because you see a homeless guy doesn’t mean you can either judge him as worthless or slot him into a preconceived narrative—even though a lot of the individual stories start to meld into maybe six or eight narratives as you hear more of them. Note that I’m very carefully not giving you a narrative for Keith. How did a guy this lucid end up homeless? You don’t get to know, and this is important when reinforcing the point about not judging.


Kendrick Johnson (3)

Yesterday I posted about this case, where popular Valdosta GA football player Kendrick Johnson was found dead about two years ago in a rolled-up gym mat. His death was declared accidental, with much obvious skulduggery, evidence tampering, and other clear indications of corruption. Johnson’s family filed suit, declaring that fellow student Branden Bell had a long-running conflict with their son; Bell’s father is a local FBI agent, with connections to all the law enforcement personnel in the area. The case stalled until last month, when Federal agents raided Bell’s and his father’s home, as well as the local sheriff’s office, clearly searching for evidence of tampering.

WSB-TV then posted interviews with Bell and his brother Brian, both of whom came forth on their own to speak about the case with reporters. Which is… wow. Today, I’m going to listen to Branden Bell. His brief (0:48) interview focuses on several issues:

  • He answers “No, sir” to reporter Mark Winne when Winne asks him if he had anything to do with any witness tampering or obstruction. He’s at least superficially persuasive.
  • Winne follows up with “Is it possible you said something to somebody?” Bell, a little more comfortable, says, “Once the marshals investigate, as the FBI has done, they will find that their evidence will be… none.” Hard to say if he’s been coached here. He’s calm, even-toned.
  • Winne asks the same question; Bell says “There was no witness tampering on my behalf whatsoever, nor my family’s, because we have nothing to hide. And the truth always comes out.”
  • Winne says, “You’re confident that syllable you’ve told us will stand up to the light of the evidence gathered in the Federal investigation?” Bell says, confidently, “Yes, sir.”

Nothing about Bell is obviously shifty: he looks like Central Casting got a call for White Stoner Bro from Mid-Sized Georgia City, and went with it. Clean stoner, though; not grubby. [Note: I’m talking about his general impression physically, not what he does.] Winne is weirdly emotional, as I mentioned yesterday, and actually talks more than Bell. If this ever becomes a novel (the title will be Positional Asphyxiation) then the trope of the reporter getting too close to the story needs to be front and center.

Let’s go through these four points the very short interview makes. Bell’s first answer could easily be fully true even if there has been obstruction and tampering. Why would he need to have anything to do with it? Other people would take care of him even if he didn’t ask. His second answer… it sounds like something memorized, but it could just as easily be a fairly articulate guy who kind of ran out of words on camera. It happens. But right there, he puts in “as the FBI has done”, we have to keep in mind that his father is an FBI agent. Do we really expect that an FBI investigation was going to reveal something criminal about their own agent, if there were something to be found.

Third answer is the sketchiest, because it sounds the most rehearsed. None whatsoever? The truth always comes out? This is not how a 19yo talks, typically; but of course, the case has almost certainly been discussed around him, so it’s not at all implausible he’s picked up the phrasing from there. Fourth one is just repeating himself.

So IMHO there’s not a lot about this interview that glows red with suspicion. He acquits himself well against some leading questions from a reporter who spends too much time talking and not enough listening. The one thing that really stands out, though, is the “as the FBI has done”. That’s his dad he’s talking about, but WSB doesn’t want to foreground that fact.

Tomorrow, we’ll parse what his brother Brian has to say.

Kendrick Johnson (2)

About two years ago, I wrote about the death of Kendrick Johnson, a popular high school football player from Valdosta, one of Georgia’s third-tier cities. Johnson’s body was found in the school gym, there was some kind of investigation in which third-tier Georgia city cops did about as good a job as you’d expect, and we ended up with a verdict of death by misadventure. I doubt it’s not relevant to the story that Johnson was black. His family sued, and things became sketchy right away:

Dr. Bill Anderson determined the teen died from a blow to the neck, but he also made another discovery: some of Johnson’s organs were missing. His lungs, heart and brain were not there, and the body was stuffed with newspaper.

The Georgia Bureau of Investigation claims Johnson’s organs were placed back in his body after the first autopsy, but the Valdosta funeral home that embalmed him said the organs were discarded before the body was sent to them.

The Johnson family filed suit, claiming that a fellow (white) student had been repeatedly harassing and provoking Johnson at school before his death. Video surveillance cameras have footage missing. Here’s the comprehensive Wikipedia article on the story. Enough detail was given about the student to identify him as Branden Bell. It should be noted that Bell isn’t, wasn’t and can’t be a suspect in Johnson’s death, because the verdict was death by misadventure. A month ago, the US Attorney’s office seized electronic records relating to the Johnson investigation from the Lowndes [=Valdosta] County sheriff’s office, and also raided Bell’s and his father’s homes.

Last week, the television arm of WSB, one tentacle of the neoconservative Cox media empire, which also owns the equally woeful and destructive “news”paper the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, broadcasted and published unscripted interviews with Bell and his brother Brian. My eyebrows went straight up. This whole story is absolutely crazy: a pitch-perfect example of how the Southern white good ol’boy network has never died; and this particular WSB story is even crazier, not only because it’s actually addressing the issue, but also because the story is all about the reporter, not the crime. There’s a real unusual number of “I”s in the article, especially toward the end.

There’s also a lot of real strange details in this particular story; but there are two I want to center on right now. One is that the article mentions that Bell and his brother came forward to do these unscripted, lawyerless interviews on their own: the classic “clearing one’s name” scene that in crime fiction is nearly always done by the guilty:

Attorney Ferguson stated that after consulting with the father of Brian and Brandon Bell he had advised them not to make a statement and therefore the pair would not be meeting with investigators.”

Our recent phone conversations with Ferguson suggest he was unaware of the interviews until after we had completed them.

Hang on: y’all went and did this without your attorney knowing? That’s… that’s just bizarre. The second detail is even more telling, and has much to do with how Cox “journalism” functions. You have to scroll halfway down the long article to find out that the Bell brothers’ father is an FBI agent. Wait; what? If these two are just entitled white kids, that’s one story; but if their dad is an FBI agent? There’s a whole world of other inferences out there. This is absolutely crucial to the story and to the reactions of the cops, the coroner, etc. It turns out that when Johnson’s parents filed suit, every single judge in Lowndes County had to recuse themself from the case because of their longstanding contact with the senior Bell.

CNN tells us Bell is an FBI agent right away, because that’s where the drama is located. But Cox slips it in halfway through, leaving the impression, for those who have just skimmed the first few paragraphs as readers are wont to do, that this is just a he-said, he-said thing, instead of the obvious case of enterprise corruption that it is. Now, none of this proves Johnson was murdered or that Bell did it; but the FBI agent dad is the key detail in this story, and it’s pretty characteristic of Atlanta’s terrible corporate “journalism” that the lede gets buried this deeply.

In the next few days, I’ll blog about the interviews themselves and what they tell us about the case. Most of the time, I’m concerned with crime fiction, and it’s hard to deny that there’s a novel in here waiting to be written. But here’s the rare case where the real world is more dramatic, and horrible, than fiction—and it’s worth all our while to keep up with the story, because it exemplifies the deep corruption of the good ol’boy network that still runs Georgia.

The Archetypal Atlanta Crime (2)

Previous post here.

Today, the AJC released a police sketch of one of the robbers in the big local crime story this week. Michael and Whitney Lash, homeowners in a gentrifying neighborhood, came home from vacation, whereupon four young men showed up and tried to rob them, shooting Mr. Lash and wounding him seriously, and waving a gun at Ms. Lash, who was holding the baby. At the time, I bemoaned how difficult this sort of thing is when it comes to writing crime fiction, because the criminals are usually really, really dumb. Let’s take a look at this guy:


Look carefully. The guy has a piercing in the middle of his forehead. Now, I’m no criminal mastermind, but I’d like to think that if I were going to shoot people in the femur and wave a gun at a baby, I’d either wear a mask or take the dang thing out. I’m not trying to belittle the Lashes’ suffering, which is real and considerable, nor the structural economic and racial issues that underlie this sort of crime. But this? It just can’t be turned into fiction.

It also kills another potential way to write a story about the situation. We might, when writing a piece of fiction, have it be one of the spouses (note: fictional spouses, not the Lashes) hire some local thugs to kill the other for… insurance money, or one of the usual motivations in such cases. But the spouses would have bought a house and gone on vacation, which means they can breathe without being reminded to, which means neither of them would be stupid enough to hire this guy. Who, we should keep in mind, we the taxpayers of Georgia are going to spend at least half a million dollars dealing with, once we add in investigation, trial and incarceration.

So if this is going to become a piece of crime fiction, it needs to step back from the specifics and look at the general situation. How does our society keep managing to create people like this man? Why can’t we stop them before they shoot a guy? What, other than sheer stupidity, makes them do something like this? Keep in mind that gentrifier types pay for everything with cards, not cash, and that the typical return on stolen items to the thief is about ten percent. Robbing people is at best a minimum-wage job.

Novel 3: Act I, Chapter 6, Scene 3

TOC page here.

We’ve already had a press conference, and now we’re going to have a TV interview. How these crimes play out in the media is a major topic of this novel: pretty soon, we’re going to get Internet comments. Nothing brings the id of Atlanta to the surface quite so quickly as a controversy over the homeless.

Ninety minutes later, Diana was in front of the cameras again, but this time only two cameras, in the DNN studio off Edgewood where the hipsters lived, resisting with all her will the urge to scratch the pancake makeup off her face. Andrea Blitts sat across from her, a sleek 21st-century prototype, more human than human, perfectly comfortable in the makeup. “There are a lot of white vans in Atlanta, Detective Siddall.”

“Don’t we know it. But someone told us they saw Alex Dawson get into one, and that means someone else saw that van, too. We know there are many, many people who come out and help the homeless: church groups, students, just regular folks. But what we don’t have is anything like a central registry for charitable people. So that’s where your viewers–”


“Yes; where they can help. Do you know someone who does freelance or organized charity work? Ask them to talk to us.”

“The Hotline’s right on the bottom of the screen.”

“Maybe they’ve seen a group who uses a white van. And not just any old van: a big commercial one, the sort that businesses use as delivery trucks. Andrea, can you put up the picture?”

“We sure can, Detective Siddall. So, Newshounds, if you’ve seen a big van like this near groups of homeless people, call the number at the bottom of your screen. Or star eight nine seven on your cellphone for the DNN Newshound Hotline, and we’ll pass it on.”

Once the lights were down, Diana slumped in her seat. Andrea remained pert. “Would y’all go the extra mile for a homeless man without the links to the Reaper or terrorism?”

Apparent links. What we don’t want is panic. And the official APD answer to your question is that Mr. Dawson was a citizen and deserves our full attention.”

“The cameras are off, you know.”

“I’ve learned to watch what I say.”

“Where’s the fun in that?”

“More like, the non-fun of a public panicked by racism and fear?” At Andrea’s eyeroll, “I know. Despite the ratings bonanza terrorists or the Reaper would generate, you are a patriot, and public safety is your first concern.”

“Of course it is.” Her nose twitched; she briefly looked almost human. “I saw Grace’s film. The one about the Sweet Auburn district.”

“Oh, that’s one of my favorites. My little muckraker. Little: she’s taller than I am.”

“I still feel bad about–”

“Don’t. You were right. Did either of us like it, at first? No. But no matter how much I love my kid, she really isn’t pretty enough to make it big in front of the camera. So now she’s behind it, and good on you for helping her get there.” Diana stood up, detached the lapel mike. “I really need someone to peel this mask off me, right now. Time to go troll Renaissance Park for do-gooders who might have seen something.”

“You hear anything juicy? Call me, first.”

We move the plot forward a bit by getting the white van out in front of the sort of people who feel kinship with a corporate news station. We get a meeting between old frenemies, who understand that even though they want very different things out of Alex Dawson’s murder, their interests merge here, so it’s useful to work together. And most importantly, we get some background on Grace. Why is she in coveralls, smoking a joint, editing a film? Because Andrea Blitts told her she isn’t pretty enough for TV. Why and when and how did this happen? It doesn’t matter, because we get to see that Andrea, despite how she’s played for laughs as an android, is actually a responsible, sensitive person. People have layers—even homeless people, which is one of the points of telling this story.


The Archetypal Atlanta Crime (1)

This story is making its way through my outraged FB feed today.

According to Atlanta Police, Michael Lash, his wife Whitney, their 2-year-old son and infant daughter had just returned to their home on Sumter Street from a vacation when four men knocked on their front door.

“They pretended as if their vehicle had broken down and they were requesting a car jack of some sort from our victim at which point they brandished a weapon,” said Ofc. Ralph Woolfolk. The men asked Lash to borrow a car jack and then tried to force their way inside.

As Lash tried to close the door, the men shot him and entered the house. Lash was shot twice in the leg, one of the shots shattered his femur, according to relatives.

Everyone survived and the “men” got away, though Lash will clearly have a long road to recovery.

WSB, as usual, adds as much bathos as they can muster:

When Lash’s wife, Whitney, heard the shots, she grabbed their infant daughter and ran toward the back door. The home invaders fired two shots at her, but missed.

She was able to escape out the back door and run to a nearby home for help.

“He followed her and caught up with her at the gate and she turned around and said, ‘Please don’t shoot me, I have a little baby.’”

This caused the robber to only demand her cellphone. Police are looking for these “men”, by which they mean black guys in their teens and early twenties: here is the AJC’s take on it.

When Lash tried to close the door, he was shot by the teen in yellow, who had a short afro and tattoos and piercings on his face, Lash was able to tell witnesses and police… At least two neighbors called 911 to report the shooting Sunday evening, with one neighbor telling the operator she thought the suspects were about 15 or 16 years old.

Because people who commit crimes like this are two standard deviations below the mean on any measure of intelligence, as demonstrated by their committing crimes while having facial tattoos and piercings, the police will find them, soon, and I’ll do a follow-up then, and link to the mug shots of the four people the state of Georgia will now spend millions of dollars trying, convicting and incarcerating. The Lashes set up an online donation fund for their medical expenses.

This sort of crime is almost no longer news in Atlanta: only the lurid details make it stand out. I’ve written about the intersection of gentrification and crime many times: here, and here are examples. I’ll just quote myself:

Fundamentally, the conflict in these gentrifying neighborhoods is a class conflict: (white) people move in, with what to the locals is a lot of money, and they fix up the house they bought and start having cute little white kids. And while the white gentrifiers are usually superficially pleasant to their impoverished black neighbors, they’re generally not going to invite them in or expect to be invited in. And like gentrifiers everywhere, they have absurdly unrealistic expectations about how the neighborhood should change the minute they move in: the police, who have been regarded as a hostile occupying force for decades and who largely leave the poor to their own devices, are suddenly expected to keep the neighborhood as safe as the affluent district the gentrifiers moved from. And they certainly won’t send their kids to the local public schools, nor let them run wild with the other neighborhood kids.

There are cultural conflicts (life among functional urban poor blacks is usually centered around a strong Christian church; educated white people are militantly secular), economic conflicts, conflicts of taste and decorum (poor people tend to play music much more loudly in public spaces), etc. Just something as simple as the habit of gentrifiers of fencing in their front yard rather than just the back is a physical manifestation of a cultural conflict.

In no way am I attempting to blame the Lashes here: I’m sure they thought the house was a bargain, fixed it up, and were generally pleasant to their neighbors. This crime is an archetype because it’s so emblematic of Atlanta in the early 21st century. The motive of the robbers will turn out to be nothing more difficult to articulate than “they had stuff”, and for this Mr. Lash will suffer greatly, Ms. Lash had the scare of her life, and the taxpayers will spend millions incarcerating people with facial tattoos. Incarceration costs $21k per prisoner per year in Georgia; a university student would cost about two-thirds as much. Say these guys go down for 15 years on average: that’s about $1.3M, not counting the costs of trial and investigation. There has to be a better way, but nobody has the faintest idea what it is, other than spending WAY more money to intervene in the lives of the adolescent poor, somehow persuade them not to reproduce, and find them jobs. But that’s just not going to happen in Georgia, and not merely because of racism.

Of course, this is a crime fiction blog, so if this were to become a story, what would need to happen? The home invaders v. gentrifiers situation is so trite that it would be hard to do well. What if we have our couple—our fictional couple, that is, not the Lashes—being involved with these robbers somehow? Maybe they tried to help one of the young men; or maybe one of the couple tried to hire the men to kill their spouse, but the job was botched. How might we structure a story around that?