MY NEW BOOK, TARGETED, IS ABOUT A former Oglethorpe County Georgia sheriff’s deputy who claims to have been framed for a particularly brutal—for a female killer—murder.
By whom, you ask?
A few of her former fellow law enforcement officers—which has become somewhat of an ornamental and allegorical theme running through our (seemingly) “violent” and (seemingly) “corrupt” American law enforcement community today.
We are living in an age of true crime overload. Networks, many of whom had once turned their noses to the genre, are now leaning heavily on true crime content—Netflix, Hulu, Amazon, YouTube, (soon-to-be-huge) Facebook TV, and even the big three, CBS, NBC and ABC have all climbed aboard the true crime bandwagon at this point. Many are filling prime timeslots with all things (“true”) crime. It has created a vacuum, a viewing public (streaming or watching on cable) expecting a certain type of programming, with compelling narrative mysteries throughout, bow-tied- up endings, and other particular narrative plot points generally reserved for fiction. I am a producer, executive producer and creator of some of this content. I call what we do today “unscripted-scripted,” because as content providers we are put in a position on any given day to deliver a certain type of narrative, when nonfiction, true documentary type of television (such as, say, HBO’s “Vice”), is supposed to be dictated by the research uncovered within the reporting. Somewhere along the way the lines became blurred. Documentary has morphed into infotainment.
Americans: When we consume, we binge—and then we discard.
Thus, we’ve created a juggernaut, essentially. A cottage industry that has grown beyond what anyone could have predicted some ten years ago.
Enter now the smash-hit, limited Netflix series first uploaded for live streaming on December 18, 2015, Making a Murderer, which one could argue is the fuel firing this recent true crime explosion. You could add The Jinx into the equation (which actually aired ten months before Making a Murderer), as most discussions about the true crime eruption often do. And even The Keepers (another Netflix smash—a very well-produced series, in my opinion), which has now become the third part of the same conversation, completing the holy true crime trinity.
It needs to be said, however, that serious true crime documentary, where a question of guilt was first raised on screen in a dramatic and (dare I say!) journalistic fashion, was given life not by Making a Murderer (a series I have strong reservations about—there was no murderer “made” in the case covered here; Steve Avery is guilty of that murder, beyond any reasonable doubt); but actually, giving credit where it is due, on August 25, 1988—the date Errol Morris’s Thin Blue Line was released. Thin Blue Line was the first documentary, effectively, using recreations to tell a true crime story. You want to see how true crime docudrama should be produced, watch that film.
Thin Blue Line is the story of a man “convicted and sentenced to death for a murder he did not commit.” I mention this because the woman at the center of TARGETED, Tracy Fortson (right, in uniform back in the day, 1998; and below, today—an exclusive photo she sent me from prison), has been behind bars for close to twenty years. All of her appeals have been exhausted and Tracy continues to fight for her innocence. Now, that all being said, questions remain: Do I believe her? Do I feel, after interviewing Tracy for close to a year, studying her case, uncovering documents supporting part of her argument, that she is innocent?
You’ll have to read TARGETED to get that answer. Sorry.
An important point I need to make is that within the culture we live today—with smartphones dominating our time and social space, tablets and other devices delivering our programming content and news catered to our “likes,” beliefs and opinions built by algorithms we’ve created with searches—we’ve become accustomed to believing that cops in general are corrupt; that law enforcement work should always be questioned; and there is probably something nefarious and sketchy going on behind the scenes of many major law enforcement investigations.
None of this is true, of course. Cops don’t set out to frame people, carrying out their work with some deep-seated prejudice or looking to find fault in minorities or believe what every piece of evidence they uncover seems to reveal. That is a fantasy narrative we, as smartphone/internet/social media junkies, have come to believe by the tailored news we’ve designed for our own tastes, “likes” and politics. Are there bad cops? Bet your ass there are. Are there racist cops? Abso-freakin’-lutely! Are there cops out there falsifying reports, planting evidence, and so on? Of course! Let us (me) not be ignorant. That sort of nonsense goes on. Same as it goes on in a similar fashion inside major corporations and other aspects of life. And we need to weed it out, punish the guilty and rebuild what is a flawed system.
Still, does all of it take place at a rate we think it does?
No way. The true crime television/streaming we’ve made popular, along with most news organizations focusing on all things true crime, has embedded this belief into the American conscience and it is false. It runs under that same brain manipulation taking place whenever we’re looking for a particular type of vehicle to buy and all our brain sees on the road during that time is that particular vehicle. Doesn’t mean there are more of those vehicles on the road; it means we think there are because we’re looking for it.
Crime expert, creator/producer/writer and former host of DARK MINDS, acclaimed, award-winning investigative journalist M. William Phelps is the New York Times best-selling author of 34 nonfiction books and winner of the Excellence in (Investigative) Journalism Award from the Society of Professional Journalists and the New England Book Festival Award. A respected reporter, Phelps has written for numerous publications—including the Providence Journal, Connecticut Magazine and Hartford Courant. Diversifying his talents, he also consulted on the first season of the hit Showtime cable television series Dexter and is a constant presence on crime film sets. Currently, Phelps is associate producer and consultant to Piers Morgan on Morgan’s ITV series about serial killers. Phelps grew up in East Hartford, Connecticut, and now lives in a reclusive Connecticut farming community just north of Hartford. In July 2017, Phelps published his definitive, 5-year project with Happy Face Killer, DANGEROUS GROUND: My Friendship with a Serial Killer.
A highly sought-after pundit, Phelps has made over 200 TV media-related television appearances: Early Show, The Today Show, The View, Fox & Friends, truTV, Discovery Channel, Fox News Channel, GMA, TLC, BIO, History, Oxygen, OWN, and many others. He’s appeared on USA Radio Network, Catholic Radio, Mancow, Wall Street Journal Radio, Zac Daniel, Ave Maria Radio, Catholic Channel, EWTN Radio, ABC News Radio, and many more. He is one of the recurring experts frequently appearing on two long-running series Deadly Women and Snapped. Radio America calls Phelps “the nation’s leading authority on the mind of the female murderer,” and TV Rage says, “M. William Phelps dares to tread where few others will. . .”
Beyond crime, Phelps has written several history books, including the acclaimed, New York Times bestseller NATHAN HALE, THE DEVIL’S ROOMING HOUSE, THE DEVIL’S RIGHT HAND, MURDER, NEW ENGLAND, and more.