Monday, January 28, 2013

Gooley on Garrow: Accuracy And Historical Narrative

Caveat Emptor sign 02Standards are important when writing something for public consumption. If the material is based on an actual event (rather than an opinion piece or commentary), the writer carries the burden of getting it right, a responsibility that should not be taken lightly. We all make mistakes, and though it’s not my role in life to criticize others, books are important to me, and when I see slipshod work passed off as factual, it’s very irritating. It diminishes the efforts of regional writers when poorly researched and error-filled regional books are offered to the public.

A sample copy of a book I recently received in the mail fits that description. I’d like to say that the effort applied to researching and organizing materials was lackluster, but the word pathetic is far more appropriate. One chapter in particular left me both angry and filled with dismay.

The disclaimer on the copyright page says this: “The information in this book is true and complete to the best of our knowledge. It is offered without guarantee on the part of the author or The History Press.” For the publisher (The History Press), that statement is true because they don’t fact-check: their business plan is simply to print and sell. Responsibility for truth and accuracy is passed on to the “author.”

But for the author to say this “is true and complete to the best of my knowledge” proves to me that the author shirked that responsibility in many and grievous ways. Because I’m intimately aware of the actual facts in one of the book’s stories, I was absolutely appalled at what I read.

In brackets, I’ll address several snippets from the book’s chapter on Adirondack serial killer Robert F. Garrow, who brutally murdered his victims. The “author” in turn has butchered Garrow’s story.

Garrow “came across Daniel Porter … and Susan Petz of Stokie [should be Skokie], Illinois, asleep in their tent near Wevertown.” [It was Garrow who was asleep―in his car, which was blocking a dirt road. Porter and Petz parked behind him, asked him to move, and that’s when the confrontation occurred. There was no tent involved.]

When Garrow was being hunted, “…police authorities had only sought him in the stabbing death of Phillip Domblewski, as they had yet to discover the bodies of Daniel Porter and Susan Petz.” [NINE DAYS PRIOR to the slaying of Domblewski, the body of Daniel Porter had been found, and FOR NINE DAYS BEFORE the Domblewski slaying, an intense search for Susan Petz was under way. The similarities between the murders of Porter and Domblewski were evident to police immediately.]

“Garrow was almost apprehended the first night as he drove sixty miles with a car he had stolen from the campers. He was northeast of the area of Witherbee, where he visited his sister.” [This is so incredibly wrong that it’s hard to believe anyone would write such a thing. In fact, I challenge anyone to find the source of that information. Literally dozens of newspaper articles and the court record describe the events: a one-mile car chase (NOT 60 miles), followed by over a week searching for Garrow near Speculator. He didn’t reach the Witherbee area until eight days later.]

At Witherbee, “…Garrow took camping gear and a book on camping and outdoor survival from the stolen car, changed into fresh clothes, took a vehicle registered to his name and fled. He came to a roadblock near Speculator and managed to slip through it, but he knew he’d been possibly identified.”

[Total fabrication: it never happened, and I guarantee the author cannot provide a source for that misinformation. On Day 9 of the manhunt, Garrow escaped the Speculator area and eventually made his way to Witherbee, where he was captured on Day 12. He never went from Witherbee to Speculator. Garrow’s camping gear was in his own car (proven by evidence photos). He DID NOT use a camping or outdoor survival book. The car he later stole did not belong to the campers, and the “vehicle registered to his name” is completely fabricated. Both of those were, in fact, one vehicle―an out-of-state car that he stole from a Christian camp about ten miles from where he abducted the campers.]

Garrow “testified that his father attacked him with a crowbar on the family farm.” [There WAS no family farm. As has been widely documented, the family lived in the village and the father worked in the iron mines. From ages 8 to 15, Robert worked on an area farm owned by a local man and woman, and for most of that time he was separated from the Garrow family.]

In prison: “Garrow sat in his wheelchair in jail for years before he filed a lawsuit against the state of New York …” [Completely wrong and terribly misleading. Just ten months after his conviction, Garrow began filing lawsuits against attorneys, doctors, and state officials, and he continued filing new lawsuits nonstop for the next two and one-half years. He was in maximum security prisons, NOT jail.]

At Fishkill: “…a prison guard discovered an empty wheelchair that belonged to Robert Francis Garrow.” [Absolutely not true, and ignores another stunning piece of Robert’s story. During a morning check, a guard failed to elicit any response from Garrow’s cell, and soon discovered a clothing-stuffed dummy in Robert’s bed. A frantic search later revealed his wheelchair hidden on a porch.]

Also at Fishkill: “…Police were able to get a scent off the radio that Garrow had dropped as he fled. It would take a few more hours of searching before a scent was trailed and police came across Garrow.” [Ridiculously wrong. Garrow didn’t drop the radio when he fled. In fact, he was missing for three days―NOT a few more hours―and searchers knew he could well have been 1000 miles from Fishkill. Only on the third day of the prison manhunt, when Garrow accidently dropped the radio near the brush, did a prison search team (NOT the police) find it.]

Where Garrow was found and killed: “… was only thirty feet away from the prison hiding underneath bushes.” [Extremely misleading. He was just outside the perimeter fence, nearly one-half mile from the prison walls, and just yards away from Interstate Route 84.]

There are many other fabrications, errors, and misleading statements throughout the Garrow story as it is reported in this book, and apparently no attention was paid to even the smallest of details. One of the main attorney’s names (Belge) and a victim’s name were spelled incorrectly.

If someone were going to write a summary of the Robert Garrow story, there are three main public sources to consult: 1) Literally thousands of newspaper articles to read, compare, and weed out the errors. 2) The official court record. 3) Two books written on the subject, one from the perspective of Garrow’s attorneys and how the case affected them, and another that tells Garrow’s life story from birth to grave.

From all appearances, only a cursory glance at best was cast upon any of those sources in compiling this error-filled account that will now pass for fact with any of the book’s readers.

Why does this upset me? Because I know that we all make mistakes, which means it’s important to work very hard at getting a story right. And in this case, that was clearly not done. No hard work was involved in writing the chapter on Robert Garrow. We don’t REQUIRE an author to get it right, but we expect it, and we expect an author to at least meet the obligation of putting forth a worthy effort.

That was not done here. The Garrow chapter is rife with errors that were remarkably simple to avoid: just read the source materials, evaluate, sort, and compose. Having read many accounts of Garrow’s exploits, I simply cannot fathom how the author came up with the sequence and version of events described in the book. It boggles the mind.

I truly hoped that the errors were confined to the Garrow story, but another chapter deals with a murder in the northern Adirondacks. I happen to be very familiar with that story as well. In that chapter, the name of the victim appears throughout the story as Orlando Dexter, when it is, in fact, Orrando. Messing up constantly on the easy stuff like the main subject’s first name suggests the same quality applies to the rest of the story. I found other blatant errors in that chapter as well, leaving me disheartened.

I won’t read the book because I don’t want to risk filling my head with untrue versions of other stories that appear in this “collection,” accounts that are presented as factual. But with widespread distribution by The History Press and the word Adirondack in the title, the book will likely sell well, especially to summer tourists, making a buck for the company and the author on a whopping pile of untruths and misinformation.

As consumers and as regional residents, we have the right to expect better.


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Lawrence Gooley, of Clinton County, is an award-winning author who has hiked, bushwhacked, climbed, bicycled, explored, and canoed in the Adirondack Mountains for 45 years. With a lifetime love of research, writing, and history, he has authored 22 books and more than 200 articles on the region's past, and in 2009 organized the North Country Authors in the Plattsburgh area.

His book Oliver’s War: An Adirondack Rebel Battles the Rockefeller Fortune won the Adirondack Literary Award for Best Book of Nonfiction in 2008. Another title, Terror in the Adirondacks: The True Story of Serial Killer Robert F. Garrow, was a regional best-seller for four years running.

With his partner, Jill Jones, Gooley founded Bloated Toe Enterprises in 2004, which has published 83 titles to date. They also offer editing/proofreading services, web design, and a range of PowerPoint presentations based on Gooley's books.

Bloated Toe’s unusual business model was featured in Publishers Weekly in April 2011. The company also operates an online store to support the work of other regional folks. The North Country Store features more than 100 book titles and 60 CDs and DVDs, along with a variety of other area products.

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5 Responses

  1. M.P. Heller says:

    Gosh Larry, you couldn’t be more correct.

    When folks either get the facts wrong, or intentionally change them to make their retelling more sensational, the only losers are the readers, who end up getting misinformed and in the process pump money into the machine that produced the misinformation. Sadly it seems that historical fiction and historical speculation are fit to pass as historical fact these days.

  2. G. Fowler says:

    Mr. Gooley

    I could not agree with you more on accuracy in historical nonfiction accounts. I hear enough misinformation from people quoting from historical fiction thinking they are stating facts.

    My only question is why not name the author and title of the book? That is leaving out the most important fact.

    • Lawrence P. Gooley says:

      I have no problem mentioning both, but I don’t own or edit Adirondack Almanack, so it’s not my call.

  3. G fogarty says:

    You stopped explaining poor Robert Garrow’s story before telling that when he was discovered bt DOCS officers , that he in fact shot one with a gun that a family member smuggled into the Correctional Facility. You”re right lets get the facts not the fiction. Robert Garrow was an animal that went on a killing spree, faked his paralysis, and subsequently was killed trying to escape from a Maximum Security Facility. Had he not been killed god only knows what this poor excuse for a human would have been capable of. Again, people like Garrow, Berkowitz, DeFeo, and Lemuel Smith are the best reason for the death penalty.

    • Lawrence P. Gooley says:

      The smuggled gun wasn’t reported erroneously in the new book, so that’s why it wasn’t part of my story. Yes, DOC officers discovered Garrow, but I also didn’t mention that DOC officers were among those blamed for his escape. I’m not sure what you meant by “poor” Robert Garrow, but my goal was not to explain Garrow’s life story, which is already told in a book. It was to point out some of the many errors in this new book. Police played an important role in the final days of Garrow’s life, but if your concern lies with the image of COs, I did include the correction that it was a prison search team, not the police, who found the radio that ultimately proved Garrow’s undoing.

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