The killer beside you

knife

The first murderer I ever met was tall and awkward, with curly hair. But this was sixth grade, and we were all a bit awkward. Every one of us.

This kid didn’t grow up to stalk the streets and slay prostitutes until the TV stations gave him a nickname.

He didn’t buy an AR-15 and shoot up a lecture hall or a nightclub.

This boy became a killer that same year.

One day he was in school. The next day he didn’t show up, and the next, and the next, until we finally learned the truth: he’d been charged with murder.
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The most epic and hilarious Crime Stoppers in history

Why is this so funny and perfect? Let’s take it apart and see why it sings.

1) The sheriff deputy is from central casting.

If there’s a factory where Hollywood makes police officers from small towns, Lt. Higgins is the man they use as the mold.

Even without the hat and the uniform, Higgins would look and sound like an officer of the law. It’s in his bones.

Also, his accent and the cadence of his speech is mesmerizing. I could not, and would not, improve it. And his name is perfect.

2) Telling details about the crime and the suspect.

Show somebody the surveillance video without any narration from Lt. Higgins and they’d be all, “Yeah, it’s some kid in a hoodie. Good luck figuring out who.”

Lt. Higgins doesn’t see grainy film and a kid in a hoodie.

He sees a six-foot-tall suspect in a camo hoodie, a man with a distinctive lanky gait.

If we gave Lt. Higgins more screen time, I bet he could dissect every frame of this surveillance tape. And we’d be educated while entertained.

3) Son, I’m gonna have a cheeseburger here, with fries and a coke

The beginning is good. The middle is interesting.

But the last two-thirds is the climax, and that’s what makes this little bit of YouTube footage into viral gold.

This is what slayed me: “Look at me son, I’m talking to you. The sheriff likes Stelly’s restaurant, and so do I. The food is good, and the folks are friendly. We’re gonna identify you, arrest you and put you in a small cell. After that, I’m gonna have a cheeseburger here, with fries and a coke, and leave a nice tip for the waitress. Meanwhile, your next meal will be served in a small door through a cell door.”

Then Lt. Higgins gets all CSI, talking about his detectives “harvesting DNA from the rock you used” and the perfect bootprint on the door.

The kicker: Lt. Higgins doesn’t need all that science evidence, because the suspect’s friends, they don’t like him much and will go for the reward money. Oh, that stings.

Verdict: Lt. Higgins should have his work duties changed so he records Crime Stopper videos all across America.

How weird news teaches us great storytelling

Every day, there are real stories in the morning newspaper that make you snort coffee out your nose or choke on a blueberry muffin. Note: This is why journalists call such pieces “muffin chokers.”

Yet the daily weirdness is more than funny. If you dissect these stories, you can learn deep storytelling lessons from the shallow end of the journalism pool.

Here’s a real story that just happened in my state: Man steals RV from Wal-Mart parking lot, leads police on wild chase. Swerves into sleepy little town where he knocks cars into front yards and such, then blasts through a house and crashes. Runs out, strips down to his underwear and invades a home to steal girl clothes. Cops catch him and haul him off.

This is pretty typical of a weird news story, and not simply because it started in the parking lot of a Wal-Mart — and yeah, go ahead, google “Wal-Mart parking lot” and “weird news.”

While you’re at it, google “7-Eleven robbery” and “trailer park ninjas.” It’s a thing, especially in Florida, though in Colorado somebody robbed a 7-Eleven with some kind of Klingon sword, and yeah, the clerk who got robbed knew exactly what to call that sword when the cops took the police report.

Great storytelling comes from the gap between expectation and result. Audiences, like kittehs, love surprises.

Your normal day is not a great story because there’s no gap. It is what you expect, and what your neighbor expects. There’s nothing shocking.

So let’s dissect the RV thief story and the rash of 7-Eleven robberies involving trailer park ninjas, to see why those short little stories pack so much punch. The gaps between expectation and result are all over these stories.

First, it’s a surprise for a criminal to prowl the parking lot of a Wal-Mart, or steal an RV, because as a smart person, you think, “If I were unemployed and desperate, and forced into a life of crime, maybe I’d steal a new Mercedes convertible, something I could sell for real money and drive crazy fast if the police chased me.”

You would not think to yourself, “Let’s go to a Wal-Mart parking lot, full of witnesses, and steal a ginormous RV that (a) could be seen from space, much less a police helicopter, (b) would be crazy hard to sell or hide and (c) is slower and less maneuverable than anything short of a logging truck.”

So there are tremendous gaps there on multiple fronts. You’re surprised again and again.

The same thing is true for trailer park ninjas robbing 7-Elevens in Florida, because smart, normal people think the only time they could imagine dressing up like a ninja is if they were an actual trained ninja, you know, in Japan, knocking off something worthy of their skill and trouble. Say, stealing $30 million in diamonds from a jewelry store in downtown Tokyo, then retiring from a life of crime.

Nobody with working brain cells thinks sure, let’s dress all in black, grab a cheap sword-like object and risk insane amounts of prison time for $186 in the till and a carton of Marlboro Lights.

There are similar gaps in stories like “Two men wounded in gunfight over Wal-Mart parking spot.” True story.

It’s a question of risk vs. reward. Would you risk your life over a parking spot at a bargain store? No, because you’re smart. Who cares? Get a different parking spot. This is like challenging a man to a duel in the alley because he cut in front of you in the line for Taco Bell.

The Darwin Awards are staples of the weird news business for the same giant gap between expectation and result.

A classic example: man tries to get rid of a mouse at his house (yes, it rhymes!) and throws it onto a burning pile of leaves. Mouse, on fire, jumps off the pile and runs under his house … burning it down.

Now, this story may not be true. Doesn’t matter. It lives on, as a fable, because of the huge gap between expectation (mouse dies in fire) and result (even in death, mouse gets revenge on homeowner).

The bigger the gap, the better the story. This is true not only in weird news, but any sort of storytelling: a novel, a play, a movie, whatever.

Another lesson from weird news: The Darwin Awards almost always involve the same elements, just about every time, yet those ingredients get mixed up endless ways and still continue to surprise us. The ingredients for a Darwin Award story are: (a) men, usually in groups, (b) generous amounts of alcohol, (c) firearms, explosives or dangerous wild animals, (d) vehicles and (e) famous last words, quite often, “Watch this.”

It is exceedingly rare to see Darwin Award stories involved women. Maybe because they’re smarter, or because the IQ of a group of men goes down by half every time you add another bro bringing a six-pack of Molson to the “let’s make a flamethrower to roast this nest of yellowjackets nest” party.

So the next time you see a weird story in the news, don’t skip it, even if it’s only three sentences. There is gold to be mined, and lessons learned. It’s no accident that Elmore Leonard, Dave Barry and Carl Hiaasen made a living basically writing about weird news and dumb criminals in Florida.

It’s great storytelling, and always will be.