Interviews August 2001

A Tale of Two Murders

A Tale of Two Murders

In A Cold Case Philip Gourevitch tells the story of three men from three very different moral universes, linked by a decades-old crime
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A Cold Case

A Cold Case
by Philip Gourevitch
Farrar, Straus, & Giroux
200 pages, $22.00

On February 18, 1970, a former juvenile offender named Frankie Koehler got into an argument with two men in a New York City bar. The confrontation escalated when Koehler spit into one of the men's faces, and a fistfight ensued, leaving Koehler beaten up on the sidewalk. Afterward he made conciliatory overtures and was invited to one of the men's apartments to talk things over. There he shot both men dead at point-blank range and then vanished.

After several weeks of intensive searching, the police shifted their focus to other investigations. And in 1992, having made no significant headway in the intervening decades, they officially closed the case, registering Koehler as presumed dead.

Five years later the Manhattan district attorney's chief of investigations—a man named Andy Rosenzweig who had been a boyhood friend of one of the slain men—passed by his friend's old restaurant and was suddenly reminded of the murder. He asked the police what had become of the investigation. When he was told that the case had been abandoned, he resolved to pursue it himself.

Within months, Rosenzweig and his deputies had managed to trace Koehler to a small town near San Francisco, where he was living under an assumed name. Koehler got wind of the investigation and attempted to flee back to New York, but an FBI agent who had been helping Rosenzweig from California tipped the investigator off, and on July 30, 1997, one of Rosenzweig's men arrested Koehler at Penn Station as he disembarked from a train. In May, 1999, Koehler was sentenced by the New York Supreme Court to six and a half to thirteen years in prison, with eligibility for parole in 2003.

That same spring, the New Yorker writer Philip Gourevitch first became acquainted with Rosenzweig and learned of the case. Intrigued both by Rosenzweig himself and by his tale of the investigation, Gourevitch spent hours with him, discussing his background and career, and his pursuit of the fugitive. Seeking some understanding of the murderer's perspective, Gourevitch then began meeting with Koehler as well, visiting him in prison to discuss his life and crimes. Finally, Gourevitch talked also with Koehler's defense lawyer, Murray Richman, a man known for consorting with and successfully defending prominent gangsters.

The result of Gourevitch's own investigation into the story is A Cold Case, published this month by Farrar, Straus, & Giroux. Gourevitch details the Koehler saga, combining elements of suspense-thriller storytelling (in his descriptions of Rosenzweig slowly but surely closing in on Koehler) with more detached consideration of the drama and its actors. Rosenzweig, Koehler, and Richman, we learn, are all native New Yorkers from working-class backgrounds, now in their fifties or sixties. But there the similarities end. Rosenzweig is a dedicated investigator with a serious demeanor who cannot abide corruption or wrong-doing ("Right is right," he likes to say); Koehler is a personable, intelligent man who happens to use deadly violence when it suits him; and Richman is a brash, fast-talking lawyer who relishes using the legal system to the advantage of his criminal clients because, he believes, even murderers and rapists have their redeeming qualities—and besides, the clients he works with pay unusually well.

From its inscription ("for the girl") to its gritty black-and-white photographs and tough, streetwise characters, the book conjures a noir-ish atmosphere straight out of a Dashiell Hammett novel or movie. But A Cold Case is neither a simple action story nor a vehicle for the expounding of theories on crime and punishment. Rather, in Gourevitch's telling, the case serves as a kind of prism through which three powerful personalities and their peculiar takes on morality and murder are thrown into relief.

Philip Gourevitch is a staff writer at The New Yorker. His first book, We Wish to Inform You That Tomorrow We Will Be Killed With Our Families (1998) addressed the Rwandan genocide, in which more than 800,000 members of that country's ethnic minority group were murdered by the majority. The book won both the National Book Critics Circle Award and The Los Angeles Times Book Prize.

Gourevitch recently spoke with me on the telephone from New York City.

—Sage Stossel

Philip Gourevitch
Philip Gourevitch   

What led you to the story of Andy Rosenzweig and Frank Koehler?

I was in New York, looking for a good New York story, and a cousin of mine who works at the D.A.'s office told me about the chief of investigations there, Andy Rosenzweig, retiring to open a bookstore. He suggested that Rosenzweig might be somebody I would enjoy talking to. So I went to see him with the thought in mind that perhaps this could be a Talk of the Town piece—a short little curiosity about a man who'd spent his life as a cop and investigator retiring to open a bookstore (which, by the way, is called Book 'Em). I started talking to Rosenzweig and was asking about different things he'd done and favorite cases, and he started telling the story of the Koehler investigation.

I was fascinated, and several months later when he had in fact retired, I went back to him and said, "I can't get that thing out of my mind—tell me some more." And that's how it got going.

In describing skills that qualify Rosenzweig for his work as an investigator—"his considerable powers as a noticer: looking for trouble, tracking leads, questioning sources"—it seems that you might just as well be describing skills required in your own work. Did you identify with Rosenzweig to some extent?

There's a definite connection. I was repeatedly struck as I got to know Rosenzweig and his world, because I realized that for all the vast differences between working as a nonfiction writer and prowling around the streets trying to catch criminals, there was a great deal in common in the sort of obsessive, investigative, needling, relentless nature of the work that we do—including the fact that a lot of what I had done in Rwanda was, actually, tracking down cases, looking for perpetrators, and putting together victim testimonies.

Was your approach to the telling of this story influenced at all by Truman Capote's In Cold Blood, or any other literary true-crime precedents?

To tell you the truth, I've never read In Cold Blood. So if my book was influenced by Capote's it was only by virtue of the fact that In Cold Blood was written before this and is in the ether.

After I wrote A Cold Case I did look at the first chapter of In Cold Blood, because somebody had asked me something like "What?! You've never read it?" But I didn't think Capote's book had anything to do with what I was doing. It's a very different style of writing; it's a different purpose, a different angle on things—altogether a very different kind of book. I haven't read much in the way of true crime, either. I suppose if anybody's going to complain about this book's relationship to that genre it will likely be because it doesn't fit the conventions of a who-done-it. It's more of a where'd-he-go. And to the extent that it's a pursuit story, the pursuit is resolved at the halfway point of the book.

What became fascinating to me was not—Oh, they caught him, end of story, but instead, Look what they caught; the murderer, the fugitive, a person of unexpected fascination who has a tremendous sense of his own drama and who's full of contradictions and self-evasions and self-deceptions. In a sense, he reminded me of many of the murderers I ran into in Rwanda—always full of explanations and justifications for their conduct while insisting that they actually still do know right from wrong.

In We Wish to Inform You That Tomorrow We Will Be Killed With Our Families you offer a significant amount of introspective first-person editorializing. But in A Cold Case you adopt the role of a much more detached narrator, rarely divulging your own views and responses. What was the thinking behind this shift in approach?

When I was in Rwanda investigating this very sprawling event, there were so many disparate stories and so many disparate aspects to it that I had to take a very active role in shaping the story. But with A Cold Case I was dealing with a story that was incredibly cohesive. There were these essential characters, there was a central act, there was an arc of thirty-years' time and a distance of coast-to-coast, but it all knit together in a remarkably tidy way. And the voices of the actors were very clear. I ended up feeling very much that my job in this case was to stay out of the way—to serve the story. It didn't require me to make the connections and associations and interpretations in the explicit way Rwanda did.

How did you respond to Koehler personally in the course of interviewing him for the book? (Judging by the letter he sent you from prison, he seems to have felt some sort of connection with you.)

I went to see him knowing he was a murderer. That's why I went. But I found him to be likeable. He's a man of considerable charm. He's a seducer in a sense. He works his charms to try and persuade you to see things his way. He's clearly intelligent. He's unschooled and yet extremely articulate. He enjoys a good conversation. For him it was something of a treat to have the opportunity to sit down and talk in a quiet one-on-one way with somebody who was very interested in him—a subject which he seems to think is of universal interest—and also just to be able to show off his intelligence and his thoughtfulness. He has a sense of humor, but he's very gruff. He's a bit leathery. You do have the feeling that... Well, he is a dangerous guy. He is willing and prepared to use violence. I was glad to be meeting him in prison.

If he hadn't been openly discussing the fact that he was a murderer, would you have picked that up?

He has an assertively coarse, tough-guy manner. But, no, he doesn't make one think, "murderer." And that's part of what's interesting about the whole West Coast-fugitive chapter of his life. If you met Frankie Koehler on the train, on the street, having a cup of coffee at the next table, having a beer, at the seashore, you might just think he was a character. You wouldn't think he was scary, much less murderous—because most of the time he's not.

When they caught him he didn't have a meltdown—he didn't have a Raskolnikov moment—and he didn't put on a show of remorse. He said, "Yeah I killed 'em! I'd kill 'em again if they walked in here now." And I think it's part of the shocker because it reminds you that there are people like that wandering around that you just don't have a clue about.

So he's a person who happens to have a capacity both for kindness and for murder?

Kind? I don't know about that. I think he's a guy who, if he doesn't have a problem with you or if he's your boyfriend or your neighbor, he's nice. I don't think he's a sadist. But he is brutal. He's really honest about his own murderousness—perhaps even proud of it. Certainly he's as at home with his murderousness as most of us are with the idea that we aren't murderers. He's very comforable with the idea that he is one! It's not that he has no shame, but it's damn close.

What did you make of his assertions that with a different background and upbringing he might have become a better man? Do you think that's true? Or do you think it's kind of a cop-out for him to point to his environment to justify his behavior?

I think it's a total cop-out to blame it on his environment. He has this unbelievable line at one point where he says something like, "Where I come from, if you don't like somebody and they're really a scumbag, and they really bug you, you shoot 'em." Of course that's ridiculous. There are also gentle people who come from where he comes from, people who become humanitarians, people who become peace-loving citizens, people who are scared of violence, even if they have violent souls. There are plenty of people who deal with things without shooting people. I'm looking at where he comes from out the window of my office right now. It's Hell's Kitchen and Chelsea in Midtown. People down there aren't shooting each other all the time, and they never were. There were some nasty people down there in the heyday of it as a tough neighborhood, but even so, his statement is complete nonsense. Where he comes from is a very, very specific kind of psychic geography rather than a real place.

The Mark Twain quote you selected to preface the book's first half seems at odds with the Melville quote that prefaces the second half. Twain's question, "If the desire to kill and the opportunity to kill came always together, who would escape hanging?" seems to suggest that, under the right circumstances, any of us might become murderers. Melville's question—"Is the rattlesnake accountable?"—seems to suggest that murderers are born, not made. Does one of these quotes more closely reflect your own views?

It's a little bit of both. These aren't questions about which I'm trying to say, "This is the view from which I'm writing." I'm saying, "These are beautiful statements of the questions that this character raises." And I don't feel obliged to answer them. I think it's much more interesting to explore how he plays out these questions. What was interesting to me was not, Oh my gosh, tsk, tsk, tsk. Why would a man be so nasty? Instead I wanted to know, how do murderers account for themselves?

Because of Koehler's advanced age at the time of his trial and the fact that so many years had passed since the crime, Koehler was given a relatively light prison sentence. Was justice adequately served?

From the archives:

"A Grief Like No Other" (September 1997)
Americans are fascinated by murders and murderers but not by the families of the people who are killed—an amazingly numerous group, whose members can turn only to one another for sympathy and understanding. By Eric Schlosser

No. The punishment is strikingly inadequate. Koehler succeeded in getting away with murder—two murders—for twenty-seven years, and then he got an extremely light sentence. He was a successful fugitive. By outliving the evidence and the witnesses he made it very hard to build a solid case against him.

There is a certain kind of sentimentality in American life about criminality. And a charming guy like Koehler plays toward that—Hey look! I reformed myself! Isn't that good enough? The answer is no. Even if he stayed out of trouble as a fugitive, he remained a killer: he was carrying a loaded gun when he was arrested, and he later told Rosenzweig, "I intended to use it." There are good reasons why there's no statute of limitation on murder.

In We Wish to Inform You..., you suggest that the genocide was perpetrated by people who believed that "honesty and truth themselves were merely forms of artifice," and therefore that right and wrong are not absolute values, but can be determined by whoever holds power. And in A Cold Case, Koehler's brazen, self-aggrandizing criminal-defense lawyer says that his motto is, "The truth is that there is no truth"— from a story by Isaac Bashevis Singer. You point out that in Singer's story it is in fact the devil who speaks those words. In your view is moral relativism the most reprehensible of offenses?

I would rather say that it sure is striking how people who commit reprehensible offenses take comfort in moral relativism. I do think a deep streak of self-deception—a deep capacity for it—is an essential ingredient of a criminal personality. Most criminals have no problem living with the fact that they've committed terrible crimes. They tell themselves that what they did was not so bad, or that the guy deserved it, or that it was self-defense.

How did you respond on a personal level to Murray Richman, Koehler's lawyer?

Murray Richman is a fascinating man, because he's the unabashed, slightly comic, wisecracking kind of defense lawyer who makes remarks like "I love murder—one less witness to worry about" that are inherently offensive and clearly outrageous, and also more than just schtick. There's something seemingly amoral about him, but I wasn't so interested in judging (I pretty much trust the readers to supply the judgments) as to say, Behold this extraordinary type! Obviously not every lawyer's cut out for what Richman does. It takes a certain type to want to do it. It's not my cup of tea. But he is a man of great intelligence and great charm. There's something fundamentally perverse about what he's doing. But there's also something fundamental to the workings of justice about what he's doing. And that's, I think, a very interesting contradiction. He's somebody who says as many things that are outrageous and offensive as he does things that make sense and are persuasive. And so when you listen to him you feel slightly as if you're at a tennis match with your head going one way and then the other.

You describe Rosenzweig as reminiscent, both physically and temperamentally, of Humphrey Bogart, and Koehler as "a refugee of sorts from the white, hoodlum milieu of another time." Would you say that to some extent it was the old-school tough-guy characters that attracted you to the story?

Definitely. One of the things that was interesting and attractive to me about the story from the beginning was the extent to which the people involved were fully aware of themselves as characters. They are all strong personalities. I like self-dramatizing characters. The extent to which they all think of themselves as belonging to a world that's fading—the old school—there's some truth to that. What one sees in them is how people are molded by the culture of their time. I mean, anybody who wonders whether movies influence people need only look at the way that Koehler was obsessed with Jimmy Cagney or the way that Rosenzweig was obsessed with Gary Cooper in High Noon. (And curiously, Murray Richman told me that his favorite movie is Casablanca because, he said, "it's all about life's ambiguities.") So the fact that people are formed by the fictions of their time is very vividly illustrated by these men who came from different corners of the New York street to occupy different places in a courtroom drama of the time.

In places it seems like the language you chose—like referring to somebody as "a rough customer"—mirrors that of the milieu you were dealing with. Was that deliberate?

I don't know, the language varies a great deal. I might just as easily have called somebody a rough customer in a different book. I like to have many different tones running through a piece. The language in the book was obviously relatively lean. I was trying, as I say, to stay out of the way in order to serve the story. When I write I look for language and rhythms that serve the material. And if that means that in some way they share in some of the music and even some of the idiom of the material, that makes sense. But I also seek to go against the grain in some ways—in places that are particularly rough, to write in a way that's particularly clean. And to create contrasts in order to allow one to hear what's going on. I felt that this was a story where there was never a need to amplify or exaggerate for effect—and that made it a treat to write.

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