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Letter from Laura
May 2003

Local News

The fliers went up in the neighborhood the first week of April. A cat named Syrah, white with black spots, was missing. A pet bird had flown away. And a 33-year-old man had not been seen since he said goodbye to his brother outside a local pub, where they shared a drink after attending the Orioles' season opener.

One hopes that a missing man would always trump a runaway cat or bird and, at least for the first 24 hours, the neighborhood buzzed worriedly about the disappearance of James Clark Standiford. Had he been attacked or carjacked? How was his disappearance connected to the suspicious fire at his apartment in the early morning hours of the day he went missing? Property crime is common in the area, but violent crime is rare. Was Standiford a random victim? Were we all at risk?

These worries vanished when a videotape from Memphis, Tenn., showed Standiford withdrawing money from an ATM in what The (Baltimore) Sun described as "an industrial area." The neighborhood moved on, but I'm guessing the young man's family has not. He's still missing as I write this. Yet the signs have come down and no one in the neighborhood is talking about James Clark Standiford anymore. If you walked the streets today, you'd see the latest "missing" posters are for a Jack Russell terrier.

I'm telling this story because it illustrates a not very pretty insight into true crime stories -- why they're written, how they're written, how and why we read them. A few years ago, an especially cynical colleague captured this conundrum perfectly when a wealthy Baltimore couple was killed in what appeared to be a random invasion-robbery. Two days later, a relative was taken into custody and my friend proposed this headline: "A City Rejoices: The Grandson Did It."

We -- note I'm not exempting myself -- often read crime stories just to assure ourselves that a particular fate could never befall us. We would never hire a homeless man to do chores around our house, as Elizabeth Smart's parents did. Our daughters would never have affairs with married congressmen. We would not doze while a 4-year-old boy slipped from our homes, as Tristen Myers is said to have done. Perhaps this explains the extraordinary interest in the murder of Laci Peterson: No one's been able to figure out yet how to claim she brought this on herself. Perhaps Scott Peterson's attorney will offer that theory later.

The way we consume media is something in which I have a long-standing interest. In my next book, Every Secret Thing, I write about a woman who lost a child in a homicide. It's a wholly fictional story, but it correlates to things I learned while working as a reporter. In the book, the distraught mother decides to have another child. A newspaper reporter learns of this and tries to cajole her into an interview:

Not a week later, a reporter called, her voice round with fake empathy, asking Cynthia if she wanted to tell the Beacon-Light's readers about this bittersweet happy ending, about her triumphant second act - those had been the reporter's words - to let Baltimoreans know how she and Warren had recovered from their horrible, horrible tragedy. Those had been her exact words, too, horrible, horrible, as if repeating the word would prove that she really understood Cynthia's plight. That was the reporter's term as well. Plight.

Cynthia wasn't fooled. She was a freak, the mother of the replacement baby, the idiot who had moved back into the same trailer park after a tornado tossed her first mobile home. They wanted to put her on display so the paper's readers would feel safe and secure. Their babysitters would never screw up, their babies would never be stolen, and their babies would never be killed, because Cynthia Barnes had taken the fall for all of them.

Eventually, however, you will come across a story in the newspaper that provides no loophole, that reminds you that life is random and not everything can be controlled. It won't be the same story for everyone and the realization might not stick, but it's a realization worth having. I was reminded of this a week ago, when The Sun reported that a Baltimore man had been sentenced to 45 years for killing a woman because his brother-in-law needed money to cover up the fact that he had stolen an insurance check.

Yvette A. Beakes was 26, a pharmacist. She drove her Acura to a well-known Baltimore bar - a clean, well-lighted place, if you will -- where she met friends. She was chosen because she looked "wealthy," but such terms are relative. At any rate Brian McMillan and brother-in-law Jamal D. Barnes, along with two friends** who were just 15 at the time, followed her from the bar, rear-ended her car and grabbed her when she got out to examine the damage. They took her to an ATM, forced her to withdraw $500. McMillan was dropped off at some point, apparently at his request. (He is serving a life sentence in federal prison for his role in the crime.) Yvette Beakes was then taken to a wooded area in Southwest Baltimore, where Barnes shot her in the back.

I have thought about Yvette Beakes a lot since she was killed in August 2001. A summer night. Someone bumps your car from behind, right outside the apartment complex where you live, in a safe suburban neighborhood. What would you do? It would be the most natural thing in the world to get out and examine the damage. What would you do? Would you think to call someone on your cell phone? Would you roll up the windows and lock the doors, refusing to get it out until police arrived?

Are you sure?

Reading report: I've been buying books, but according to my own rules. I bought Thief of Words, by John Jaffe. I don't know John Jaffe, but I do know the couple behind "him," John Muncie and Jody Jaffe, and I appreciate the very sweet tribute they made in the character of "Laura Goodbread," a heart-of-gold type who is described as one of the best reporters at the "Baltimore Star." (Damn straight.) I also bought James Crumley's One Count Cadence, the only book of his I don't own, and Ava Dianne Day's Cut to the Heart. In the latter case, I couldn't decide if I was delighted or despondent that someone had written about a fascinating period in the history of Edisto Island, a period which has long intrigued me. Given Ms. Day's lovely, lyrical writing, I chose to be delighted.

Speaking of Edisto Island, I am lucky that I know Nancy Pate, for I will be able to buy Fiddle Dee Death -- written with her cousins, under the name of Caroline Cousins -- the second it goes on sale in June. This, too, is set on Edisto. Meanwhile, continuing my travels through the South, I got a peek behind the scenes of a small-time carnival in Margaret Maron's Slow Dollar. To say a Margaret Maron book is terrific is redundant, but I'll say it anyway.

The local library is doing a pretty good job of helping me find new books by writers I don't know, and therefore can't buy. This month's catch included Siri Hustvedt's What I Loved and Helen Knode's Ticket Out. And I'm at risk for overdue fines on Property and Everything is Illuminated. So many books, so many fines.

Laura's signature

** Note: In choosing links for the monthly letters, I try to pick those I think are interesting, not necessarily those I agree with. My ideas about juvenile justice are very different from those expressed in this column by DeWayne Wickham. But I'll have my say on that later.

Read Lilac Time
Read I'm A Believer
Read Three Little Words
Read Reading in Public
Read How to Punt.
Read Catching Up.
Read Let's Do the Time Warp (Again).
Read The Naked Dance.
Read Self Help.
     Read Mistakes Were Made.
Read Play With Yourself.
Read Musings and Advice.
Read We Were Haranders.
Read Spying on Harriet.
Read Gone Baby Gone.
Read The Last Good Saturday Night.
Read In a Strange Kitchen.
Read The "D" Word.

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