The Long Shadow of Small Ghosts: Murder and Memory in an American City
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In Cold Blood meets Adrian Nicole LeBlanc’s Random Family: A harrowing, profoundly personal investigation of the causes, effects, and communal toll of a deeply troubling crime—the brutal murder of three young children by their parents in the border city of Brownsville, Texas.
On March 11, 2003, in Brownsville, Texas—one of America’s poorest cities—John Allen Rubio and Angela Camacho murdered their three young children. The apartment building in which the brutal crimes took place was already rundown, and in their aftermath a consensus developed in the community that it should be destroyed. It was a place, neighbors felt, that was plagued by spiritual cancer.
In 2008, journalist Laura Tillman covered the story for The Brownsville Herald. The questions it raised haunted her, particularly one asked by the sole member of the city’s Heritage Council to oppose demolition: is there any such thing as an evil building? Her investigation took her far beyond that question, revealing the nature of the toll that the crime exacted on a city already wracked with poverty. It sprawled into a six-year inquiry into the larger significance of such acts, ones so difficult to imagine or explain that their perpetrators are often dismissed as monsters alien to humanity.
With meticulous attention and stunning compassion, Tillman surveyed those surrounding the crimes, speaking with the lawyers who tried the case, the family’s neighbors and relatives and teachers, even one of the murderers: John Allen Rubio himself, whom she corresponded with for years and ultimately met in person. The result is a brilliant exploration of some of our age’s most important social issues, from poverty to mental illness to the death penalty, and a beautiful, profound meditation on the truly human forces that drive them. It is disturbing, insightful, and mesmerizing in equal measure.
him. John remembered that Hilda’s “most important priority was crack.” During John’s high school years, he found some companionship and purpose in extracurricular activities. He had a talent for dancing and participated in parades during Charro Days, doing traditional Mexican folk dances with his classmates, and Juan said John’s abilities stood out. He also performed choreographed dances with a group of about six other teens at neighborhood parties, including the elaborate birthday parties for
�karaoke machine. She spoke excitedly about passages from the Bible. “Lo que Dios dice, se cumple.” What God says, he does. The two dozen women in the room joined in on the se cumple. • • • On Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year, I’d sat in a synagogue listening to a reform rabbi deliver his sermon about a familiar passage in the Torah: the story of Abraham and Isaac. God orders Abraham to sacrifice his son Isaac, and Abraham endeavors to comply with God’s command. But just before the moment
and fool his fellow man into condemning him for that transgression. “I really thought about having a defense that this was potentially a person who might have got involved in doing something that it wasn’t the person doing it, it was the possession having them do it,” Gamez said. “That makes them not responsible for the conduct, and they have this evil possession. Because what happened here was just horrific and not ordinary and not common.” Because of the disconnect he spoke about, such a
several months before it took place. She shrugged off the comment at the time, believing it was just silly talk, the way you might ask your friend, “What would you do if I died?” One of the most damning moments of the second trial occurred when John’s lover, Jose Luis Moreno, testified that John asked him, about two weeks prior to the killings, whether Moreno knew how to commit the perfect murder: “He said that you could get away with it by saying that you were insane.” Moreno also claimed that
the neighborhood all of her sixty-nine years, always in the same house, two doors down from the building. That day she was inside with her cousin, who had also grown up here. Minerva was warm, her eyes always focused on yours, with a face that invited you to smile whenever she did. She may have been the first advocate of the building’s demolition; the children’s deaths had never stopped haunting her. The children had been a fixture in the neighborhood, and she’d seen them daily when they passed