All my life I’ve lived with the Scarlet letter, the Olde English D that denotes Detroit; I am a rare breed, an elusive snow leopard- I am really from the City Primeval, as our recently deceased suburban noir griot Elmore Leonard once christened it. There is a direct and robust inverse correlation between Detroit’s fortunes and the attention of the national media; the worse Detroit gets, the more it sinks into a Somalia-like failed state, the more magazine covers, blurbs, and sound-bytes it receives. Sitting here in my new home of Los Angeles, which this year had fewer murders than Detroit, despite having roughly seven! times as many people, I find myself avoiding articles and news and web chatter about my city in this Bankruptcy season for the city because I know too much. I don’t have to imagine this place Detroit that is often mentioned but seldom visited; it is imprinted on my memory-I will leave the imagining to others.
So imagine that you are in Detroit. It is the winter of 1991-92. Recession time in the Motor City. Crack cocaine goes for three dollars a rock. The Chief of Police is under indictment for stealing drug forfeiture money, the population is rapidly declining, and every year in the nights leading up to Halloween a thousand arson fires are set in the city- a sort of ritualized riot. It is a place where you can walk up to almost any woman, any stranger, you may see on the street or sneaking through some alley and ask them: “You wanna get high?” and they will say yes.
Imagine then that scattered about all around you are the empty hulks of abandoned houses, apartment buildings, hotels and motels. Imagine that you invite a strange woman who may have told you her name was Debbie or Peaches into one of these abandoned hulks, and she gladly complies; the Pavlovian tingling in her spirit for the crack smoke you promised her pulling her forward down your dark path.
Imagine now that the cocaine has been burned and melted into gaseous form and inhabits your brain and this woman (Debbie or Peaches or Karen or Sherry) stands in front of you and you see your mother in her, your whore of a mother that turned tricks in front of you when you were five and let men have their way with you when you were ten and you begin to choke her and you fuck her while you choke her as you can only become sexually aroused by a woman when you are in the act of killing her. Imagine then that you wake her up when the choking has put her to sleep and she screams and you tell her “I’m gonna kill you, you hoe, you bitch.” and her screams echo in the empty streets and across the snowy ground and you are in the kind of place where screams are often heard and always ignored.
You have just imagined that you are Benjamin Atkins, who murdered eleven women just like this in nine months along Woodward Avenue and amongst the ruins of the great American trash heap city: Detroit, Michigan. By the measure of speed, he was the most prolific serial killer in United States history, having the most victims in the shortest period of time of any killer we know.
This is an excerpt from the Kindle single (only about 40 pages) I wrote about my time growing up while America’s most prolific serial killer was killing women in my neighborhood. You can read the whole story on Kindle.