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.
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.