Rolling Stone's Long History of Great Crime Writing

Longform.org's guide to the greatest long articles ever written.
July 20 2013 7:30 AM

The Longform Guide to Rolling Stone Crime Writing

The story behind the cover, and more incredible crime reporting the archives

Every weekend, Longform shares a collection of great stories from its archive with Slate. For daily picks of new and classic nonfiction, check out Longform or follow @longform on Twitter. Have an iPad? Download Longform’s app to read the latest picks, plus features from 70 of the world’s best magazines, including Slate.

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Magazine covers are designed to attract attention. Rolling Stone’s cover this week, featuring Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, certainly pulled that off. But lost amid the uproar over the cover was the actual story it was promoting, an incredible piece of reporting by Janet Reitman that helps explain how a charming kid from Cambridge became a monster.

Reitman’s piece was the latest in a long tradition of fantastic, chilling crime stories published by Rolling Stone. Here are some of the best.

Jahar's World
Janet Reitman • July 2013

The multiple lives of accused Boston Marathon bomber Dzhokhar Tsarnaev.

“It had been the coach who'd helped Jahar come up with his nickname, replacing the nearly impossible-to-decipher Dzhokhar with a simpler and cooler-sounding rendering. ‘If he had a hint of radical thoughts, then why would he change the spelling of his name so that more Americans in school could pronounce it?’ asks one longtime friend, echoing many others. ‘I can't feel that my friend, the Jahar I knew, is a terrorist,’ adds another. ‘That Jahar isn't, to me.’

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"’Listen,’ says Payack, ‘there are kids we don't catch who just fall through the cracks, but this guy was seamless, like a billiard ball. No cracks at all.’ And yet a deeply fractured boy lay under that facade; a witness to all of his family's attempts at a better life as well as to their deep bitterness when those efforts failed and their dreams proved unattainable. As each small disappointment wore on his family, ultimately ripping them apart, it also furthered Jahar's own disintegration – a series of quiet yet powerful body punches. No one saw a thing. ‘I knew this kid, and he was a good kid,’ Payack says, sadly. ‘And, apparently, he's also a monster.’”

How Jerry Lee Lewis got away with murdering 25-year-old Shawn Michelle Stevens, his fifth wife.

“Jay and Creekmore had moved into the master bedroom by the time Jerry Lee came in to dress. Ballard also had wandered in, his eyes shifting slowly around the room; he regarded the high, king-size bed, with its four heavy posters and canopy; he glanced at a tray of dirty dishes on the floor, with leavings of streak bones and vegetables, and broken glass on the floor, too, with no large pieces to show where it came from; he noticed the 9-mm pistol Jerry Lee kept on the bed table, and mentally, he tracked the line of fire from Jerry Lee’s expanse of mattress to the bullet holes in the wall.

“‘It seemed like somehow, we all ended up in the kitchen,’ Ballard says. ‘He was fixin’ to leave. And he was lookin’ for a pair of sunglasses, just lookin’ around for a pair. And then someone went out to the car and brought in a box with what looked to me like twenty-five or thirty pairs of sunglasses. It was the manager, or maybe the manager’s brother, selected a pair and wiped ‘em off, cleaned the lenses, you know, doin’ all his thinking for him. And then Jerry Lee stood there, and I can just see him. It was like somebody lookin’ for what kind of reaction he should have. He looked at us and said, “Sorry. Sorry. I don’t know what to say.” He put on his glasses and went on. It was pathetic. If I’ve ever seen a tragic figure, I saw one then.’

“As Jerry Lee made for the door, he carried a metal strongbox, two feet by two feet, and almost as deep. Creekmore Wright asked politely if he could check the contents. Jerry Lee reluctantly opened the lid to reveal diamond jewelry, a few papers and tens of thousands of dollars in cash. Creekmore got a look in the box and nodded. Jerry Lee took his hoard and departed in a black Cadillac.”

The Devil and John Holmes
Mike Sager • May 1989

He was a nobody who became a porn star, a porn star who became a destitute freebaser, an addict who set up his dealer to be robbed, and finally witness to a retaliatory massacre at the house they called Wonderland.

“Jeana sat very still on the edge of the bed, watching a TV that was mounted on the wall. After a while, the news. The top story was something about a mass murder. Four bodies. A bloody mess. A house on Wonderland Avenue. Jeana stood up, moved closer to the tube. ‘That house,’ she thought. Things started to click. ‘I’ve waited outside that house. Isn’t that where John gets his drugs?’

“Hours passed, John woke. Jeana said nothing. They made a run to McDonald’s for hamburgers. They watched some more TV. Then came the late-night news. The cops were calling it the Four on the Floor Murders. Dead were Joy Miller, Billy DeVerell, Ron Launius, Barbara Richardson. The Wonderland Gang. The murder weapon was a steel pipe with threading at the ends. Thread marks found on walls, skulls, skin. House tossed by assailants. Blood and brains splattered everywhere, even on the ceilings. The bodies were discovered by workmen next door; they’d heard faint cries from the back of the house: ‘Help me. Help me.’ A fifth victim was carried out alive. Susan Launius, 25, Ron Launius’s wife. She was in intensive care with a severed finger and brain damage. The murders were so brutal that police were comparing the case to the Tate-LaBianca murders by the Manson Family.

“Holmes and Jeana watched from the bed. Jeana was afraid to look at John. She cut her eyes slowly, caught his profile. He was frozen. The color drained from his face. She actually saw it. First his forehead, then his cheeks, then his neck. He went white.”

The Stoner Arms Dealers
Guy Lawson • March 2011

How two friends, working with nothing but an Internet connection, a couple of cellphones and a steady supply of weed, beat out Fortune 500 giants like General Dynamics to score a huge arms contract.

“The arms shipment, it appeared, was being used as a bargaining chip in a high-stakes standoff between George W. Bush and Vladimir Putin. The Russian president didn’t like NATO expanding into Kyrgyzstan, and the Kyrgyzs wanted the U.S. government to pay more rent to use their airport as a crucial supply line for the war in Afghanistan. Putin’s allies in the Kyrgyz KGB, it seemed, were holding the plane hostage — and Packouz was going to be charged a $300,000 fine for every day it sat on the runway. Word of the seizure quickly reached Washington, and Defense Secretary Robert Gates himself was soon on his way to Kyrgyzstan to defuse the mounting tensions.

“Packouz was baffled, stoned and way out of his league. ‘It was surreal,’ he recalls. ‘Here I was dealing with matters of international security, and I was half-baked. I didn’t know anything about the situation in that part of the world. But I was a central player in the Afghan war—and if our delivery didn’t make it to Kabul, the entire strategy of building up the Afghanistan army was going to fail. It was totally killing my buzz. There were all these shadowy forces, and I didn’t know what their motives were. But I had to get my shit together and put my best arms-dealer face on.’

“Sitting in the restaurant, Packouz tried to clear his head, cupping a hand over his cellphone to shut out the noise. ‘Tell the Kyrgyz KGB that ammo needs to get to Afghanistan!’ he shouted into the phone. ‘This contract is part of a vital mission in the global war on terrorism. Tell them that if they fuck with us, they are fucking with the government of the United States of America!’”

An American Drug Lord in Acapulco
Vanessa Grigoriadis and Mary Cuddehe • August 2011

How a middle-class jock from a Texas border town who became La Barbie, one of the most ruthless and feared cartel leaders in Mexico.

“The hit man's wife and stepdaughter were kept in the house overnight. The next morning, Barbie's men, whom he taught to be merciful to women, gave the little girl a bowl of cereal with a banana and let her swim in the pool out back. Later, they sent her away with her mother, giving them 1,000 pesos for bus fare. Before they left, one of Barbie's men told the wife, ‘Your husband said to tell you that he loves you.’

“Barbie believed in vengeance, and in taking care of his enemies. Over his 15 years in the drug trade, he had managed to alienate the leaders of almost every major cartel in Mexico: the Zetas, the Gulf cartel, even the Sinaloa and Beltrán-Leyva cartels he worked for. "Barbie had enemies galore," says George Grayson, a Mexico scholar at the College of William & Mary and the author of Mexico: Narco-Violence and a Failed State. ‘He could have set the Guinness World Record for people who wanted to kill him.’ Yet Barbie remained chillingly detached, unable to see the connection between his personal savagery and the way his own family and friends came to fear him. ‘Even with all the bad things he's done, Barbie always thought the world looked on him kindly,’ says a law-enforcement source familiar with Barbie. ‘He's just one of those blithe-living guys who thinks his life is charmed.’”

The Boy Who Heard Too Much
David Kushner • December 2009

Matthew Weigman was blind, overweight, 14 and alone. He could also do anything he wanted with a phone. Sometimes that meant calling Lindsay Lohan. Other times it meant sending a SWAT team to an enemy’s door.

“In addition to relying on his heightened sense of hearing, Weigman picked up valuable tips on phone hacking from other phreaks on the party lines. One of the most valuable tricks he learned was ‘spoofing’ — using home-brewed or commercial services, such as SpoofCard, to display any number he chose on the caller- ID screen of the person he phoned. Intended for commercial use—allowing, say, a doctor to mask his home phone number while calling a patient—SpoofCard is perfectly legal and available online for as little as $10. Some services let callers alter their voices—male to female—as well as their numbers.

“Weigman performed his first ‘swat’ at age 14, when he faked an emergency call from a convenience store down the street from his home. ‘Listen,’ he told the 911 operator, ‘there's a robbery here! I need you to show up right now!’ Then he hung up and called his brother, who was standing watch outside the store. ‘Oh, God, dude!’ his brother told him. ‘There's police everywhere!’

"’Really?’ Weigman replied in awe. Over the phone, he heard sirens wail in the darkness.”

Have a favorite piece that we missed? Leave the link in the comments or tweet it to @longform. For more great writing, check out Longform’s complete archive.

Max Linsky is a founding editor of Longform.org.