A Cold Case, by Philip Gourevitch. Farrar, Straus & Giroux. 182 pages, $22.
New Yorker staff writer Philip Gourevitch, whose first book was a provocative account of the 1994 massacre of 800,000 people during 100 days of genocide in Rwanda, now probes an obscure New York double homicide focusing on the fact that it took 30 years to bring one evildoer to nebulous justice. Lightly switched from the monstrous to the minuscule, Gourevitch's keen insights and skillful reporting continue to captivate.
The slaying of Manhattan pub proprietors Pete McGinn and Richie Glennon, motivated by a petty argument with a thug named Frank Gilbert Koehler, scarcely ranks in the annals of infamy. The identity of the killer was fixed within five minutes of the moment on Feb.18, 1970, when Glennon's horrified girlfriend heard shots from McGinn's apartment, then saw Koehler with gun smoking in the wake of the bullet ridden, blood-soaked corpses indecorously splayed on the living room floor.
Koehler's whereabouts, which at first seemed a given, were the only mystery in an investigation that froze in 1992 when indolent authorities accorded the killer "the fugitive's ultimate sanctuary of official death." In real life, more often in mystery fiction, an investigation is redeemed when a determined detective persists beyond all odds. Here the role is played by Andy Rosenzweig, chief of investigations for the district attorney of Manhattan and erstwhile pal of the hapless victims.
Ignoring sophisticated apparatus of latter-day detection, Rosenzweig painstakingly took up the trail, reviving surveillance of Koehler's family and underworld associates, becoming a fixture at a diner opposite Penn Station looking to spot "the ultimate West Side bad guy" on a visit back to native territory.
Triumph was anticlimax. Six months into the new investigation, Koehler was located in July, 1997, on his 68th birthday, having lived since the mid-1970s as a benign character called Frank O'Grady near nephews in the sleepy town of Benecia, Calif. Fleeing to New York with a gun in his luggage, Koehler was finally collared, hot off the train.
"We got you now, Frank," said Rosenzweig, "so why don't you just give it up?" Koehler obliged, coming forth with a sensational performance on a videotape brimming with enough remorseless bravado to put him behind bars beyond eternity.
As Gourevitch views it, the actor "was not confessing so much as taking credit for his crimes."
But there was no drama of a trial. Instead, a plea bargain was negotiated by Koehler's colorful attorney, "Don't worry Murray" Richman. In the face of wrenching entreaty from one of McGinn's four orphaned children, Koehler was allowed to plead guilty to two counts of manslaughter and a gun violation.
The agreed-upon sentences totaled six to13 years, the longest being for possessing a loaded revolver at the time of his belated arrest. Not a very satisfactory denouement. No matter! Gourevitch's discursive New Yorker style gets far more out of the dramatis personae than the plot: Koehler, the Runyonesque psychopath; Rosenzweig, the oddball Jew, straight-arrowed cop; Murray Richman, the case-hardened mouthpiece, all players in the cast of a true crime that burrowed for decades under the tough flesh of the Big Apple. Much of this material was previously published in two Gourevitch articles for The New Yorker. It deserves to be preserved between hard covers.
Elsbeth L. Bothe retired from Baltimore Circuit Court after 18 years as a judge trying capital cases. She occasionally still sits on the bench. As a lawyer, Bothe represented a number of death row inmates. An active member of the Society of Connoisseurs in Murder for 40 years, Bothe has been collecting books on crime (mostly murder) since age 10.