Journalist Kevin Deutsch on How Miami’s Cocaine Cowboys -and Batman- Turned Him Into a Crime Author
For some, violence and intrigue exert an almost irresistible pull.
No one’s born a crime reporter — it’s too thankless a job to be written in anybody’s stars. But for some of us, crime and intrigue exert a kind of gravitational pull on our lives, all but choosing our professions for us.
For me, that pull began in 1984 when I was three years old. That year, my mother packed up our lives into a few bags and put us on a plane to Los Angeles. As we flew out of LaGuardia that morning, my father sat waiting for us somewhere in Brooklyn, expecting my mother to drop me off for one of our scheduled custody visits — visits my dad and I would never again have.
My mother’s taking me from my dad this way was possibly illegal, but she’d decided the risk was worth it. The reason: my father was a manic depressive who fought a lifelong battle with mental illness and struggled to find effective treatment. My mother, unaware of my dad’s illness when they married, came to fear him. And after much deliberation, she’d decided to skip town.
My father spent years searching for us — hiring lawyers and private investigators to track our movements, running down leads, even becoming an attorney himself — all in the hopes of spending time with me again. But he never did.
We lived like fugitives at times, jumping from one cramped, roach-infested apartment to another, my mom always looking over her shoulder. When my dad tracked us to L.A., we moved to Miami and made our homes in more than a few sketchy neighborhoods — places where gunshots would sometimes ring out in the streets. Come morning, I’d scan the pavement outside until I located the spent shell casings — a common sight in 1980s Miami.
There were other glimpses into criminal life: my mom bringing me along to a police station to check whether a warrant existed for her arrest; the taping of “Miami Vice” scenes blocks from where we lived; and numerous sightings of Colombian cocaine on tables and countertops — my first exposure to a drug that seemed omnipresent in South Florida.
All of these experiences primed my imagination and curiosity, drawing me toward the darker side of life. I didn’t fear crime or violence the way my schoolmates did; on the contrary, they intrigued and attracted me.
My interest in the macabre soon found an outlet in writing. My mom owned a baby blue Smith Corona typewriter, the machine on which I typed my first stories. Each featured Batman as their main character, the Caped Crusader starring in my forays into what would now be called fan fiction. My interest in Batman stemmed not from his amazing gadgets or fighting ability, but from his reputation as the “World’s Greatest Detective.” For a nine-year-old kid who liked to collect ballistics evidence, it sounded like the coolest job you could have.
When I outgrew comic books, The Miami Herald fed my hunger for crime stories. The newspaper’s pages in those years were filled with tales of deadly shootings, armed robberies, and the wild exploits of Miami’s Cocaine Cowboys. I paid especially close attention to articles written by Edna Buchanan, the star of the Herald’s staff and a woman who — for my money — stands as the finest crime reporter ever to grace an American newsroom.
News coverage aside, it seemed there was always some kind of crime happening in my life: my mother became the victim of domestic violence when I was ten; I got caught stealing from Target at twelve; and my friends and I experimented with drugs and shoplifting techniques of most every kind during our teenage years.
Through all of this I wrote, chronicling my life in notebooks during elementary and high school. In college I broke into the newspaper business, covering high school baseball games at $50 a pop for the Orlando Sentinel. But crime writing remained my true passion, and when an opportunity for an unpaid internship arose at The Herald, I begged and cajoled for a chance to prove myself. Amazingly, the Herald’s Broward editor — a tough as nails wordsmith named Patricia Andrews — agreed to take a chance on me, a 20-year-old kid with just a smidge of newspaper experience, but plenty of chutzpah.
Three tools helped me succeed in covering crime: my own firsthand experience with it, the police scanner that continuously crackled on my desk, and a willingness to do most anything for a story.
My internship at The Herald led to a steady freelance schedule, then a job on staff. It was a dream come true, writing crime stories for the same paper that employed the great Edna Buchanan.
My career path led next to The Palm Beach Post, where I covered the still unsolved 2007 Boca mall murders — crimes that haunted me for years and are the subject of a new nonfiction book I’m writing.
I returned to New York in 2008, working as a crime reporter on staff for The Riverdale Press, then the Daily News (where I used to take long lunch breaks in order to watch filming of “The Dark Knight Rises,” Christopher Nolan’s final Batman installment, as camera crews shot in the streets around our newsroom), and later Newsday. Along the way I penned freelance stories for prestigious publications like Newsweek, the New York Times, and Columbia Journalism Review, and also authored two true crime books, “The Triangle: A Year on the Ground with New York’s Bloods and Crips” and “Pill City: How Two Honor Roll Students Foiled the Feds and Built a Drug Empire,” both of which required immersion in violent worlds.
Unsurprisingly, the latter book outraged Baltimore police and journalists who’d tried to bury the story of how drugs looted from approximately 30 pharmacies and a methadone clinic during the 2015 riots led to huge paydays for young drug dealers, triggering a wave of overdoses and gun violence that continues till this day. When a handful of print outlets attacked my work, readers of all stripes flocked to “Pill City” as a result, landing me a host of new opportunities — speaking engagements, new freelance stories, a crime podcast, thousands of book sales, and involvement in the TV and film industry — benefits I’d never have reaped without all the publicity.
Crime remains a focal point in my life, my days revolving around visits to old homicide scenes and interviews with detectives, profilers, grieving families, and witnesses from cases gone cold. The pull that life’s darker side first exerted on me as a child maintains its force, for good and ill.
I’ve paid a cost for leading a life in crime: I suffer from PTSD, and publicly advocate for the use of hallucinogenic mushrooms in treating the disorder. The drug has greatly alleviated my symptoms — as it’s done for countless others — and should be legalized forthwith as a prescription treatment.
Despite its difficulties, being a true crime author is, in my estimate, the most fascinating, rewarding job there is.
That is, if you can’t be Batman.