Friday, March 1, 2024

Zenith Man: Death, Love, and Redemption in a Georgia Courtroom, by McCracken Poston

Citadel, 2024
320 pp

arc -- my many thanks to the publisher along with my apologies for getting to this so late.  

I'm not a big true crime reader,  but I had seen this story portrayed on American Justice on A&E some time ago so I was very interested when contacted about reading this book since there's always more to the story than a one-hour television show can offer.  I was right in this case.   A new release from Citadel Press, Zenith Man: Death, Love, and Redemption in a Georgia Courtroom is a compelling read that shines a spotlight on a sadly all too-common occurrence:  an overzealous police detective and a district attorney who, without any real evidence, charged an innocent, eccentric man with the murder of his wife and put him on trial.   Let me just say that while I've tagged this book as "true crime," there is actually no crime here  unless you want to count that particular rush to judgment; Zenith Man is very much a cautionary tale at its heart.  

The "Zenith Man" of Ringgold, Georgia, is Alvin Ridley, once a TV repair man and owner of the local Zenith franchise.  The author's father once described him as "a good man," who is "odd now, very odd, but I don't think he would ever hurt a fly."   He made people in the town uneasy with his strange behavior, but by and large lived the life of a recluse.  So, in October of 1997,  the people in Ringgold were hit with a double whammy when they learned that social outcast Ridley not only had a wife, but that she had also died in their home.    It seems that Virginia Ridley had not been seen outside her home for decades, and in the late 1960s her estrangement from her family had forced her to have to go to court to assure her parents (who believed that she had been held against her will by her husband) that she was just fine where she was.  

On October 4, 1997, Alvin Ridley slowly made his way to the pay phone behind the Catoosa County Courthouse Annex, where he made at least two calls, one of them to 911.  With very little emotion, he informed the operator that he thought his wife has "passed out," and in answer to the operator's question, noted that his wife was not breathing. He also let the operator know that his wife was an "epi-letic," a part of the conversation (along with his request to "please hurry")  that was never "shared with the public or played on the news stations."   While the conversation was "detached" and "matter-of-factly" in tone, Ridley asked the 911 operator to "Please hurry."    After the death was discovered, the body was examined by the local coroner, who had found signs of petechiae, which could indicate that Virginia had been strangled or smothered; not once was Virginia's medical condition considered.  The coroner moved the body to the state pathologist at the GBI where an autopsy would be performed,  and in the process also passed along the rumors that Virginia had been a captive in the home for over thirty years.  When the pathologist started examining the body, he saw the petechiae, and came to the judgment that Virginia had "died at the hands of another person," either from "soft strangulation or a smothering, as in with the aid of a pillow or something like that."  The local coroner had also revealed to the lead detective on the case that she'd known Alvin for twenty years, and at no time had she "known him to be married or living with another female."  By June 1998, authorities had come to arrest Alvin Ridley for murdering his wife, and the town rumor mill geared up once more, helped by Virginia Ridley's sister rehashing the past and prompting headlines such as the one in National Examiner, which ran a story with the all-caps headlines "SICKO HOLDS HIS WIFE HOSTAGE FOR 30 YEARS THEN KILLS HER ... COPS CHARGE."   Attorney McCracken Poston Jr., representing Ridley,  did manage bail for Alvin, but the hard work of defending his rather difficult client was just beginning.  

Zenith Man takes the reader through that uphill battle, but the book as a whole is much more than just another true crime account.   Poston's patience, his efforts to understand how Ridley thought and his ability to treat him as a human being rather than simply a client is illuminated in this story, his empathy contrasted with the rush to judgment by others who simply jumped to their own conclusions about him because he was an eccentric loner and social outcast.  As it turns out, Ridley would later be diagnosed with (as noted on the jacket blurb so not a spoiler) autism spectrum disorder, which helps to explain his behavior.  Honestly, had Alvin not had Mr. Poston as his attorney, I believe he might just be sitting in prison to this day.  As Mr. Poston says on his own goodreads review, there are "millions of other adults out there still not yet diagnosed, interacting with the criminal justice system," which, when you think about it, is more than a bit depressing -- how many more innocent people like Alvin just might end up (or are currently) imprisoned for the wrong reasons?  The book also highlights how Ridley and Poston's relationship helped Poston in his own life, making it a very human story all around.  

Highly recommended. 

Saturday, January 6, 2024

Fear is Just a Word: A Missing Daughter, a Violent Cartel, and a Mother's Quest for Vengeance, by Azam Ahmed


Random House, 2023
374 pp


read in December 2023

I came across this book after seeing it written up in  The New Yorker's "Briefly Noted" section back towards the end of  November, and was so taken with that brief mention that I knew I had to have it.   Before the book even arrived, I found myself doing a bit of research on Miriam Rodríguez, the woman at the center of it all, and came across a post on X (what used to be Twitter) that linked to another post by author Gary Shteyngart who  described the book to a perfect T.  He called it a work

"about a personal tragedy set against the canvas of a societal one," 

and after finishing Fear Is Just a Word,  I can't think of a better, more eloquent phrase to sum up this book.  

 On January 4th, 2014, Miriam received a 4 a.m. phone call that would quite literally dictate the direction of the rest of her life.  She wasn't at her home at the time in the small town of San Fernando in Tamaulipas state of Mexico, but rather in McAllen Texas, where she had gone to put some distance between herself and her troubled relationship with her husband Luis.  Two hours later she was in Reynosa, just across the Rio Grande, catching a bus to take her back to San Fernando, where she was picked up by her daughter Azalea.  The news was the worst any mother could hear -- Miriam's twenty-one year old daughter Karen had been kidnapped, and her captors, members of the Zetas cartel,  had demanded a ransom.  Luis had taken out a loan from the bank to pay off the kidnappers,  made the money drop, and was told to be in the cemetery twenty minutes later.  The day passed, no Karen.  Another day passed, same thing.  Sunday another call came, demanding more money; a week went by, no word. Finally, after an agonizing two weeks, another call came in, saying that after Miriam paid "a small payment" in exchange for her daughter, her release was, according to the caller, now ready to happen.  After a month, Miriam realized that "they are not going to bring her back to me," vowing that she would "find the people who did this" to her daughter and "make them pay."     In Fear is Just a Word, author and New York Times investigative journalist/bureau chief Azam Ahmed follows Miriam's "quest for vengeance" and in doing so, examines the wider "societal" tragedy, exploring how Mexico became a country where the rule of law is so dysfunctional that it ceases to function, leaving families of the disappeared with neither recourse nor justice from a government that is supposedly there to help and protect them.  

 As Miriam had said years earlier during a violent assault by the Zetas on her town in 2010, 
"How can they just let something like this happen? ... What is the government doing? Why aren't they stopping this?" 
The author takes on those very same questions, and he also explores how things in Mexico have come to the point where the country has become, for lack of a better word,  broken.  The book moves through present and past to reveal how and why this has happened, offering a look at how the cartels have built and maintained their power over the decades.  He looks at the rise of government corruption and institutional failures that have allowed these groups to carry out their business with impunity, which was also helped by the long-term dominance of a single political party in the highest offices of the government.  The end of that long reign brought a new party to power, with a new government finding itself in a position of holding less power than the cartels, ultimately using militarized violence as a solution.  As if things weren't bad enough, the declaration of a "war on drugs" in 2006 by Mexico's president did nothing except to lead to a major expansion of that violence, unchecked, leaving ordinary people displaced, dead, or often left to suffer a worse fate for numbers of families --  having loved ones who have been disappeared. What it all comes down to, really, is a frightening portrait of a nation in serious decline, where human lives have little value, and there is very little in the way of help coming from the government when it is needed most.  

It is important to realize that Fear is Just a Word is not just another book about Mexican cartels.   Ahmed keeps Miriam's story front and center as she searches for her daughter's kidnappers (and ultimately her murderers), tracking them down using whatever means she could muster.  Talk about a badass woman -- oh my god, some of the things she did in her quest absolutely blew me away.   As of October 2023, the number of disappeared people as recorded on the nation's interior ministry's "official database" stood at 111, 896,  and the reality is that there are probably more.  While many of their families may go as far as searching for their lost loved ones or speaking out publicly, Miriam felt the need to take things even further and do the impossible:  fight back.  She would not rest until she found some sort of justice for Karen, despite the fact that she knew she likely had a target on her back; her rage, pain and sorrow became channeled into something meaningful, not just for herself, but for other  families whose loved ones had vanished. 

My brief encapsulation here does not do the book or the author the justice both deserve but it is  a must read, for sure.  It is beyond timely and relevant especially now, and it is clear that the author must have put in years of research in putting this book together.  Fear is Just Another Word is an outstanding example of great investigative journalism that puts a very human face on tragedy, revealing exactly what people are capable of in the face of utter indifference and hopelessness.  It is one of the very best books I read in all of 2023, and I can't recommend it highly enough.