Sunday, July 16, 2000
New York Calling all cars -- and RVs and motorcycles -- that are toting tourists tired of well-trod attractions. Just in time for the summer travel months comes "Crime Scene USA," a guide to murder and mayhem in all 50 states.
Although the book has its humor (check "Cowabungled, Dude!" in the Hawaii chapter, about a surfer turned not-so-bright murderer), the more than 150 crime scenes listed are historically accurate and well-researched.
Some sites are well-known (the scenes where President Kennedy, John Lennon and Martin Luther King Jr. were assassinated); some are very recent (the homes of JonBenet Ramsey and Nicole Brown Simpson); and others are from the era of Jesse James and the Wild West.
The book, published by Hyperion, was written by Neal S. Yanover based on information compiled by members of a loosely organized group called BADGE -- the Bureau of Amateur Detectives and Gatherers of Evidence.
BADGE member David Borgenicht says that because "the country is really fascinated by crime," the attractions indeed draw visitors.
"I don't think anybody's using it as their sole travel book, but if you happen to be traveling through that town, there's something different to see," he adds.
The book's introduction puts America's fascination with crime rather succinctly: "The bottom line, as one true crime fan described it, is that the place where Lincoln gave the Gettysburg address is interesting, but not like the place where he was shot. Because it's history, only better."
Eric Monkkonen, a professor at the University of California at Los Angeles who studies urban murders, says there are two reasons people are fascinated by crime.
"One, because crime is truly damaging to both individuals and the society, and two, because the crime stories we follow have a comforting narrative pattern, beginning, middle and end," he says. "So, the story of a crime both worries and then comforts us."
When researching the book, BADGE members had a lot to choose from in the big states like California and New York (sites associated with Son of Sam and Charles Manson, among others). The smaller states were a challenge but, alas, crime even occurs in the serenity of New England.
"There's just an amazing mix of stuff that you can see, whether you're interested in historical outlaws, or sort of contemporary tabloid celebrities," Borgenicht says.
The book lists every state. It includes narratives on unsolved serial murders and asks the public's help in solving them. It also alerts travelers to bed-and-breakfasts, bookstores and museums with crime themes.
New York City has the most crime scenes listed, and tourists have already discovered the spot where John Lennon was gunned down in 1980. Tourists flock on a daily basis to take pictures outside the Dakota apartment building where Lennon lived opposite Central Park.
"There's that famous doorway," Sally Johannsen of New Orleans says as she points to the Dakota entrance where Lennon was shot. "It's in the tour book, so we came to see it."
But tourist buses have yet to run to other crime scenes: the site where the Son of Sam (David Berkowitz) was arrested after he spent the summer of 1976 terrorizing the city; the park where rocker David Lee Roth was busted in a 1993 drug sting; and the seedy spot that spawned this famous 1983 New York Post headline: "Headless body in topless bar."
Tourists in California already visit Alcatraz, but how many actually trek to the site where the body of a woman later dubbed "the Black Dahlia" was found in 1947, or to the house where gangster Bugsy Siegel was gunned down the same year?
In Illinois, tourists are told to head for Chicago, the site of the St. Valentine's Day massacre as well as to Al Capone's speakeasy, house and tombstone.
The Wild West lives again in Globe, Ariz., where tourists can see where Pearl Hart, the West's only female stagecoach robber, was captured in 1899.
"The robbery was successful, but the escape wasn't," the book reads. "Hart and her partner promptly got themselves lost galloping off into the hills." They were captured the next morning.
Several key moments in the Civil Rights movement are chronicled, from the Birmingham, Ala., church where four young girls died in a bombing in 1963, to the site of King's slaying in 1968 at a motel in Memphis, Tenn.
Then there's the offbeat entries, such as "Cowabungled, Dude!" In 1996, Richard Star went to a Honolulu surf shop and bought a surfboard bag. To make sure it was the right size, he climbed into it.
"Once inside the bag, he told the salesperson, 'Gee, it sure is spooky in here. I'd hate to have it zipped up'," the entry reads.
When police found Star's wife in the bag, they didn't look far for her killer. "Star is now hanging ten-to-life in a mainland prison," the book adds.
The smaller and more rural states proved to be a challenge, but the book manages to find crime there as well. The Maine chapter begins: "There's so little noteworthy crime here, it's hard to believe that master horror writer Stephen King makes it his home."
And the lone entry from Maine is from 1937, when then "Public Enemy No. 1," Al Brady -- who had committed four murders and 150 robberies -- was killed in a shootout with FBI agents in Bangor.
Of all the places listed in the book, Borgenicht said, the most famous crime scene in American history is the site opposite the Texas Book Depository in Dallas where President Kennedy was killed in 1963.
"That is a site that has memorialized the event," Borgenicht says. "It's part of our national consciousness. You can really visualize it."
The 176-page book, costing $12.95, includes advice on visiting crime scenes. Respect private property, it says, or you could end up in jail. Another tidbit -- "With few exceptions, the most vicious sociopathic killers look just like everyone else" -- seems to advise visitors to think about who could be standing next to them at any given crime scene.
And one last tip: Enjoy your trip and don't forget your fingerprint kit.