I usually write about crime & justice. Also: iconoclasts. And: unusual people who do compelling things. I live in New York. I'm sometimes on Twitter.

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Behold! The Heartbreaking, Hair-Raising Tale Of Freak Show Star Julia Pastrana, Mexico’s Monkey Woman

Inside the municipal cemetery of a small agricultural town on Mexico’s central Pacific Coast, Laura Anderson Barbata is preparing to make an imprint of a tombstone. It’s the kind of hot, sticky, and bright September day when thunderclouds can arrive in moments and bury the Sinaloan campo under a flood of muddy rapids. The cemetery is as chaotic as a Mexico City market — a jumble of large, ornate crucifixes and concrete crosses, of revolutionary Freemasons buried in silo-like crypts, and nameless bodies under sandy, unadorned plots.


Fighting Back
Has one state discovered a simple way to combat domestic violence?

Jo’Anna Bird arrived at her family’s two-story, wood-frame house at about 11 p.m. on a winter night three years ago. The house sits on a quiet street in one of the poorer corners of one of America’s richest counties: New Cassel, in Nassau, on Western Long Island. Bird, 24, was a mother of two who often wore her long brown hair in a ponytail. She had worked as a school bus monitor, a medical assistant, a Walmart cashier, a supervisor at BJ’s Wholesale Club, and she now hoped to be a corrections officer. She had come to stay with her mother and stepfather because the possessiveness of her ex-boyfriend—the father of her young son—had evolved into something much more frightening, and she did not want to be alone.


California's Great Prison Experiment

On February 22, 1998, Pete Gallagher arrived at Building 13 at Solano State Prison in Vacaville, California. It was Gallagher’s thirteenth year behind bars, and he’d already done time in Chino, Folsom, San Quentin and, most recently, the Richard J. Donovan Correctional Facility outside San Diego. Building 13 was large, open, fluorescent-lit and crammed with double bunks. Inmates were everywhere. It reminded Gallagher of a warehouse or a military barracks. He took one look, then found a corrections officer. “I’m not going to live like this,” he told him. “Take me to the hole.”


Do Courts Use 'Junk Science' To Punish Mothers Alleging Abuse?

For the last two decades, Parental Alienation Syndrome has been the subject of a high-pitched, highly gendered debate. Despite a recent campaign to add the syndrome to the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, the concept is still not officially recognized. Many experts argue that when alienation surfaces in the legal system, it is used to punish well-intentioned mothers who raise allegations of abuse.

“It really is Gardner’s PAS that laid the groundwork for what is happening in family courts across the country,” says Joan Meier, a professor of clinical law at George Washington University. “When a mother alleges abuse, or children allege abuse or fear or hostility to a parent who is alleged to have been abusive, it tends to be very quickly attributed to the mother’s vendetta.”


Tensions Persist Over a Man Long Missing

ELLENVILLE, N.Y. — The flier was bright red with a photograph and a few lines of text: “Candlelight Vigil For Joe Helt,” it read. “24 Years Is Too Long!”

A former classmate of Joseph Helt posted more than 15 of the fliers this year on a well-traveled street in this mountain-ringed village of 4,000; the vigil marked the 24th anniversary of Mr. Helt’s disappearance.

By the next morning, all but two had been torn down, said the classmate, Jackie Mennella.

It was unclear who removed the fliers, but they appeared targeted: Other posters attached to nearby poles were untouched; pointed at Ms. Mennella’s remaining fliers was a security camera from a nearby school, Ms. Mennella said.

“To put it mildly, we were angry,” said Gina Schuster, 41, another of Mr. Helt’s classmates who helped Ms. Mennella plan the vigil. “It just proved to us that somebody wants to hide something.”


Texas-Size Reparations for the Wrongfully Convicted

In 2006, after serving 19 years and 11 months in a Texas prison for a rape he didn’t commit, Billy Smith was exonerated of all charges and set free. He was 54. Despite clearing his name, he’s never been able to find a job. “Who wants to hire someone who’s 61 years old and who’s an ex-convict?” Smith says. “Even though I’m exonerated, people don’t consider that because I was in prison for 20 years.”

Texas is well known for its prodigious use of the death penalty—on Halloween, it carried out its 250th execution under Republican Governor Rick Perry’s 12-year tenure. It’s also the most generous state in the nation when it comes to showing remorse for locking up the wrong man. Under a law Perry signed in 2009, Texas will pay Smith about $80,000 a year for the rest of his life. He’s also eligible for the same health-care insurance as employees of the Texas Department of Criminal Justice. Money can’t replace his lost years, Smith says, but he’s now married and owns a home. The activists who persuaded Perry to support the cash settlements are lobbying Texas lawmakers to expand the law to include health coverage for ex-prisoners’ families.


Not Quite a Reporter, but Raking the Muck and Reaping the Wrath

Daniel Cavanagh was nervous.

He paced the living room of his duplex apartment collecting his things: a large digital camera, an iPhone, a black leather jacket.

“I’m about to get crushed,” he said, running his hands through his hair.

Then Mr. Cavanagh, 26, drove the three blocks to St. James Evangelical Lutheran Church — the meeting place of the Gerritsen Beach Property Owners Association. It was early this month, and it was the first time Mr. Cavanagh had been back to the church’s large meeting room since November, when his simmering relationship with the small, isolated neighborhood in South Brooklyn had exploded.


Know When to Kill Them
Dope, guns and Republican blood lust in Mendocino County

The village of Westport is the last outpost before Mendocino County's northern coast disappears into a roadless swath of rugged shoreline and redwood-carpeted hills. It is spread across roughly one mile by one-half mile of coast, and has one store, two gas pumps and 47 registeredvoters. Retirees are Westport’s dominant demographic, and 15 miles of coiling coastal highway separate it from the closest town.

In this very small village, there is one political entity — the five-member Westport County Water District, which oversees the local volunteer fire department and provides sewage treatment and water to several dozen homes. In this very small district, there have been many fiery debates over the years between board members: Sheriff’s deputies were called to intervene at a meeting. Recalls have been organized. And in one now infamous case in 2005, Alan Simon, the board chairman at the time, was nearly killed in the doorway of his home by nine shots from a semi-utomatic .22 Ruger pistol.


Old arson cases reviewed in Texas
Is Douglas Boyington an innocent man?

HUNTSVILLE, Texas — The fire started in the apartment building’s utility shaft. The space was narrow, wood-framed and as tall as a chimney. Water pipes and electric lines snaked through it, then out, into the three-story brick building. By the time the first fire investigator arrived, at 7:05 p.m. on August 16th, 1988, bright yellow flames had burst through the roof. Black smoke billowed overhead.


With hundreds of hours of training, investigators combat arson with science

PASADENA, Texas — Inside a fluorescent-lit training room in a squat office building in Pasadena, a city of 150,000 southeast of Houston, Robert Brown pointed his Nikon camera at two crime scene markers on a table in front of him. Brown, a local fire investigator, clicked, then leaned back and explained. “To get real blunt about it,” said Brown, 50, “When you take a picture of a burned body, to the untrained eye, you'd never see the body in there.”


Hunting a Suspect on His Own Tough Turf

In the ominous photograph, Aaron Bassler’s pants appear ripped and soiled. With his left hand, he is reaching through a window; in his right hand is a black semiautomatic assault rifle.

The image, recently snapped by a surveillance camera at a cabin that the police believe was burglarized, is the latest sighting of Mr. Bassler, 35, a local man wanted in connection with two murders here.

For the last month, Mr. Bassler, whom relatives describe as mentally ill, has eluded the police by nimbly traversing a large swath of forestland in Mendocino County, an isolated area three hours north of San Francisco. It is the most intensive manhunt ever undertaken by the sheriff’s office, Sheriff Tom Allman said.


Dispatch From The Weed Wars
Oaky Joe & The Pot Police

Volume is the first thing you notice about Joe Munson: He doesn’t seem to have much control over it. The hearing aids stuffed in his ears are next. They’re the result of being an alcoholic. More specifically, they’re the result of going on a bender in Pontiac, Illinois, of talking shit to a very large man, of receiving an asskicking so severe his jaw broke in three places and his hearing vanished.

That was more than 20 years ago—before Munson, 46, met his wife, Atsuko. It was before he quit the juice and had two kids. It was before he became known as “Oaky Joe”—a name that’s derived, depending on the day you ask, from a firewood business he once ran or because he says “OK” to everything. It was before he became one of the area’s most combative—and, literally, one of its loudest—disgruntled medical pot growers.


Press For Change
Q&A With Salvadoran presidential candidate Mauricio Funes

Mauricio Funes has given up his career as a TV journalist in a bid to become president of El Salvador. Ahead in the polls, he's the new face of the FMLN, the former left-wing guerrilla group. Would victory see him join the Chavez camp?