Little Murders

Murder is not just a New York City phenomenon.

The first murder in which I actually knew one of the parties took place during my college years. I can’t say that I knew any of the players well, but I knew who they were. I’d been in the same room with both of them months before.

Now, anyone who can read or even has a television has heard about the execution rate in Mexico. It’s really nothing new in this country, and the rates aren’t nearly as bad as the press might make them out to be.

That is, until it happens. Friday’s newspaper carried a small story below the fold about a stabbing death in a part of town I knew well. The name of the victim rang a bell, as did his profession. He was a lawyer. 8 o’clock in a summer evening spells a fair amount of pedestrian traffic, and darkness would not fall for another hour. Gossip and details can travel fast. It was a rare, unrainy evening, and we had heard no police or ambulance sirens. Pondering whether it would be safe to venture out on foot for tacos after dark, we wondered what led the lawyer to that part of the city. He was feeding his horses, down on a lot he owned, the later news stories would tell. And later he would be found lying face down in the street, stabbed and stabbed and stabbed over and over again, nine times by some reports, a dozen by another. What was clear was that this was no random act.

The early stories said that those who saw anything would not say much about dead man’s assailants for fear of reprisals. They weren’t talking, because they knew perfectly well who did the deed. Within hours, the neighborhood newswire would have more takes on the story, and, just like these things go in a small town anywhere in the world, each account would have its grain of truth.

I realized that, while I did not know the victim, I knew those who knew him, and, while I did not know the man whom the local wisdom had tagged as the hand behind the dagger, I knew those who knew him. I’d broken bread in the homes of the families of both.

Practicing law in a small town in Iowa means running into those who are murdered—and those who murder. Some of them were even clients.

I can remember sitting in the Mexico City airport in July 1981, reading about the Skidmore, Missouri, murders, just a few miles down the road. As the years would go on, scattered family members of the murdered town bully became clients, and the identity of the man who shot him was an open secret. 60 Minutes did its story, the New Yorker descended for its story, and Harry M. MacLean wrote a best-selling true crime book, which became the mandatory made-for-TV movie.

Most murders, no matter how compelling the story may be to the perpetrator, the victims, or the public, never make it beyond a brief mention in the evening news or the morning paper, and the odds are that Thursday evening’s killing won’t make the national media. It won’t be long before the details are forgotten, and it’ll take its place in the local lore.


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