"A Cold Case" by Philip Gourevitch

From the author of "We Wish to Inform You" comes the true story of a detective who, almost 30 years later, hunted down a murderer the police never caught.

Published July 18, 2001 5:43PM (EDT)

After his first book, "We Wish to Inform You That Tomorrow We Will Be Killed With Our Families: Stories From Rwanda," a piece of reportage that's in the same league as Michael Herr's "Dispatches," you can hardly blame Philip Gourevitch for wanting to tackle a more modest subject. "We Wish to Inform You" wiped the reader out; I can't imagine what it was like for a writer to live with that material.

What links Gourevitch's new book, "A Cold Case," to his first is that once again he's writing about ghosts who arise from a landscape to tell the stories that might have been lost with their lives. Here, the landscape is Manhattan's Upper West Side -- tony, sophisticated and considerably changed from the rough, dodgy place it was in the 1970s. The story concerns an unsolved double murder that, at the time of the events Gourevitch relates, was nearly 30 years old.

The ghosts spoke first to Andy Rosenzweig, a former New York cop and chief investigator for the Manhattan district attorney's office. In early 1997, Rosenzweig passed by the former location of a restaurant owned by a friend of his, a former boxer who, along with another man, a bar owner, had been murdered in 1970 by a small-time hood named Frank Koehler.

Gnawed by the idea that his friend's killer had never been caught, Rosenzweig dug into the old files and found that Koehler had been presumed dead -- despite a total lack of evidence to support that presumption -- and the case closed. It was an example of both sloppy police work and an understandable bit of corner cutting in a department that, at the time, was besieged with homicides. (More than 1,000 murders took place in the city in 1970.)

Rosenzweig was well suited to what some of his colleagues must have considered a quixotic investigation. Some of the strongest passages of "A Cold Case" are Gourevitch's sketches of what working life was like for an honest uniformed New York cop in the '60s and '70s. (These sections echo the frustration and loneliness Peter Maas detailed in "Serpico.") On Rosenzweig's first time out with one partner, the elder cop drove to a deserted spot under a highway overpass, pulled a blanket and pillow out of the trunk, took off his pants and went to sleep -- after instructing Rosenzweig to not answer the radio. (Rosenzweig incurred his partner's wrath when he answered a call to investigate a burglary, after listening to the police dispatcher work alphabetically through a list of patrol cars searching for one to respond.)

The story Gourevitch tells of Rosenzweig's 30-years-later investigation is a tale in which doggedness threatens to become obsession. For a while, Rosenzweig even kept taking his wife to eat at a diner located near Koehler's brother's home and Penn Station. From their perennial window booth, Rosenzweig figured he might just catch Koehler slipping into the city for a visit. And Rosenzweig wasn't the only cop bothered by the department's inability to catch Koehler. The double murder was the only unsolved case ever for Tom Hallinan, the detective who had first investigated it. Hallinan had carried a parole photo of Koehler around with him for years, keeping an eye out for the fugitive.

Eventually, Koehler was caught in New York, to which he fled after the FBI shook the bushes in the small California town where he'd been working as a part-time custodian. (He'd become a well-known and beloved local character called New York Frankie.) Koehler was apprehended without a struggle in Penn Station, even though he was armed and confessed he had thought about "taking out" some of the cops waiting on the train platform and then killing himself. Why didn't he? "Maybe I got a little religion," he said. "I met some nice people on the train."

What Gourevitch reveals in his examination of Koehler's prison writings and in interviews with him is a sociopathic self-involvement that is both self-lacerating and narcissistic. Koehler wants to embrace religion but refuses to "punk out" to God. And, Gourevitch writes, this murderer refuses to accept the legitimacy of any punishment (even the relatively merciful five-to-10-year sentence he received) beyond the one dished out by his own inadequate conscience.

"A Cold Case" is a slim book, and though Gourevitch doesn't stray far from the small territory it covers, he manages to raise some large, uneasy questions. How, for instance, does society deal with a guy like Koehler? At one point Rosenzweig (who once earned the enmity of colleagues by taking steps to remove a brutal cop from the force) talks of how ugly police work looks to any decent-minded citizen -- not, he's careful to point out, the abuse doled out to victims like Rodney King and Abner Louima but simply the violence that's almost impossible to avoid when bringing in someone who does not want to be arrested. And even if a cop manages to stay on the right side of the line between appropriate and inappropriate force, what satisfaction does the job offer, even in successful cases like the hunt for Koehler? Toward the end of the book Rosenzweig admits that instead of bringing closure to the families of Koehler's victims, his pursuit of the killer simply opened up old wounds.

If luck was with Andy Rosenzweig in finding Frank Koehler, it was also with him when he got a good listener like Philip Gourevitch to tell his story. Gourevitch picks up on and understands the silences of a man who neither accepts gratitude easily nor is ever far from mulling over the unresolvable dilemmas of his job. Gourevitch's portrait of Rosenzweig, admiring but without an ounce of fat or aggrandizement, shows the possibility of decency in a thankless job.

By Charles Taylor

Charles Taylor is a columnist for the Newark Star-Ledger.

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