I take in a lot of crime-related media. Hours of podcasts, stacks of true-crime novels, loads of documentaries, and although maturity and a growing awareness of current events has curbed my appetite for police procedurals, I still watch a lot of crime TV.
All of which is to say I feel that I’m somewhat of a connoisseur of crime media, which is why I was so delighted by Two Truths and a Lie, a true crime/memoir by Ellen McGarrahan in which she details her nearly thirty-year quest to find out what really happened in a shooting on a sunny morning in February 1976 that killed two police officers.
McGarrahan’s interest in the case started in 1990, when, as a young and plucky journalist, she covered the botched execution of Jessie Tafero, one of three people convicted of the killing of two officers. The officers had been on patrol that day, and knocked on the window of the trio’s borrowed Camero. But Tafero and the others—Walter Rhodes and Sunny Jacobs, along with her two young children—were heavily armed and had packed the car full of drugs to traffic and deal. Tafero was on probation, and Rhodes also had a record. Minutes later, Tafero, Rhodes, and Jacobs were on the run, leaving behind two dead officers. When they were finally caught, their stories differed wildly, but Rhodes told investigators Tafero had pulled the trigger, and his testimony put Tafero on death row. Shortly after Tafero’s gruesome death in the electric chair, though, Rhodes recanted and said he had been the one to shoot the officers, leading the courts and media to question whether Tafero was guilty at all.
The trauma of watching Tafero’s horrifying execution had already shaken McGarrahan, but the new question of his guilt or innocence put her in a tailspin. She quit her job, moved across the country. After some odd jobs and a failed attempt to resume her career in journalism, she found herself working for a private investigator. The job put her interviewing skills to good use, and gave her tangible results for her efforts, rather than the love-em-and-leave-em sort of experience she felt she had reporting stories. Before long, she’d opened her own private investigation agency, and eventually met and married another private investigator.
But the Tafero case still nagged at her, and after some false starts—including one in which she tracked down Rhodes while he was a fugitive from justice and then coincidentally was re-arrested soon after—McGarrahan decided to get to the bottom of it. Hence Two Truths. And she doesn’t cut corners—over three-hundred-plus pages, McGarrahan details how she tracks down old records and reports; old photos and statements; witnesses and associates and the people who knew Tafero and the others best. It seems like the more she discovers and the more connections she makes, the more confounding the lingering questions become. Because people have died and stories have changed, and recollections and all of the court documents seem to contradict each other again and again and again.
That’s the pebble that continues to plague the gumshoe. When McGarrahan tracks down Jacobs in her lush Irish cottage, she tells her she’s trying to straighten out the inconsistencies, figure out the truth from the lies.
“But which truth?” Jacobs asks.
“I really need to know what happened,” McGarrahan replies.
“Whose truth do you accept?”
“I like to believe that there is an objective absolute something that happened.”
“I don’t think you can know that,” says Jacobs. “I don’t think that’s knowable.”
Which seems to be the case, amid the clash of the case’s elements. Late into the book, the lead prosecutor says, ‘the most important thing was the physical evidence,'” because of the unreliability of eyewitnesses. “‘The phrase I like to use is, “Murders don’t usually happen in front of a busload of bishops”.’ So take out all the testimony. … ‘Just get rid of it.'” And when that’s gone, he tells McGarrahan, you can see what’s left, what can’t be confused with the pointed fingers.
Whether or not that’s great crime-fighting advice, McGarrahan does come to what I thought was a satisfying conclusion, though there are still plenty of questions left hanging. It’s one of those situations where everyone’s a little bit right, but no one is totally right, and the answers and speculation McGarrahan comes to at least feel plausible in their way. And I really appreciated that she didn’t try to be overly conclusive, which I think can be a real temptation in any work of true crime. McGarrahan also gives herself plenty of reflection along the way, about why she’s going to such great lengths, about if she’s doing more harm than good.
I don’t know of anyone who cracks open a true crime book for the prose, but you could about do that with Two Truths. “It’s been two years since we traded the big city for this clapboard house amid the orchards of the Michigan lakeshore. Peaches, corn, garden tomatoes, blueberries, black raspberries, fresh cherry pies. Narrow roads stung into silence by the heat; afternoon thunderstorms and the way everything shines afterwards; sun-struck, rose and gold,” she writes about her home. Whatever writing chops she worked as a journalist haven’t weakened.
She gives the same sort of detail across her travels, noting on her drive to Rhodes’ home she, “turned west across a plain, climbing steadily. The afternoon sun cast long shadows across the tall grass. In dry streambeds, rocks shone like moonstones. My car was the only car on the road. I passed through a deserted town with houses of weathered wood and found a lake just beyond it, but then my sense of direction ran out just as the cellphone service did.” And, while killing time in Australia after a shorter-than-anticipated interview with Jacobs’ son, “The heavens glittered in the black velvet above us. I wanted to see the Southern Cross. I’d always wanted to see it. I waded into the sea and stared up at the sky. But all I could see was the spangle out over the open ocean, and the moon, a bright path across the dark water, out into the deep, leading away from the shore.”
I’m personally a sucker for this kind of reflection and rumination (just as I’m personally not a fan of the present-tense threaded throughout the book, but it is not an unforgivable sin in the case of Two Truths), though I’ll acknowledge it may not be for everyone. Just as true crime isn’t for everyone. There’s a legitimate criticism for true crime as a voyeuristic practice and, at times, a hip-hip-hooray for police, which is particularly fraught in an era of increased visibility in police malpractice. But I think Two Truths side-steps these potential pitfalls through the aforementioned reflection, as well as frankness surrounding the potential issues with Tafero’s case and how it and Rhodes and Jacobs’ cases were handled.
The defendants’ cases in the killing of those two police officers in 1976 was thorny and far from infallible. “The only real fact,” Jacobs tells McGarrahan, “is that the system was abused.” And the evidence and McGarrahan’s conclusions certainly seem to support that. Regardless of whether Tafero killed those police officers or how much guilt he bore from that incident, McGarrahan writes, he did not deserve the botched execution he got. But alongside her investigation into Tafero’s case, McGarrahan also came a case that sounded similar, of a man who was sentenced to death for killing a police officer but who also had someone else confessing to the crime, just as in Tafero and Rhodes’ situation.
But in that other case, the man was Black, there was no physical evidence to tie him to the crime, his so-called confession was coerced, and the officers who obtained it were, over the next decade, slowly culled from the department in various ways due to allegations of police brutality or otherwise shoddy work. Other investigators found the true murderer, but even in the face of what to this layperson appears to be overwhelming evidence, this man was still executed in 1998. The twenty-plus years since that execution feels like it should be long enough for the system to have changed, but my Twitter feed suggests otherwise. McGarrahan is well aware of this and reflects on it to a degree that certainly won’t satisfy everyone, just as her conclusions or ambiguity thereof won’t, but is useful in its acknowledgement and the questions it raises.