The following review appeared in the Summer 1999 online edition of Rain Taxi Review of Books.


By Kris Lawson

Jim Fisher's Fall Guys: False Confessions and the Politics of Murder is a fascinating search for the truth behind two murder cases of the late 1950s. Fisher, a former FBI agent and current criminology professor, researched the facts and interviewed surviving participants in the investigations of these murders--murders in which each of the accused killers was a young boy and which were originally investigated by the same detective.

Fisher's path through the reports, clippings, and interviews is documented step by step. His writing style is refreshingly unmelodramatic--when he meets the two men who are the focus of his investigation, he avoids the tawdry talk-show sentimentalism which usually accompanies this kind of story. The first murder, that of Helen Zubryd, was mentioned in a clipping Fisher read while doing research for a lecture. Zubryd's 11-year-old son Charlie had confessed to the murder--28 months later, after a grueling interview with police. Curious as to why an eight-year-old would have left a hatchet in his mother's forehead, Fisher began looking for more information. As inconsistencies in physical evidence and alibis began to accumulate, Fisher's suspicions focused on one investigator, Sergeant Ted Botula, who headed the Zubryd investigation and who had been under immense pressure to solve the case.

While searching for official reports on the Zubryd case, Fisher stumbled upon another case that Detective Botula was involved with: the 1958 murder of Lillian Stevick was solved when Botula arrested a 13-year-old boy, Jerry Pacek, who discovered her body after she was beaten to death. Pacek was interrogated for more than 60 hours and finally confessed, although he was unable to tell police what the murder weapon was or re-enact the crime for them. He went on to serve 10 years in prison.

Fisher found similarities between the two murders: the same lead investigator, the same kind of railroaded confessions, the same description of another suspect by witnesses, and the other investigators who had worked on the cases unconvinced of the boys' guilt. As he accumulated evidence, he also accumulated supporters, who helped him solve the 30-year-old mysteries--as far as they can be solved, at least. Over all, Fall Guys is a refreshing change for the true crime genre, which generally prefers sensationalist titillation (crime scene photos! never-before-told story of lone witness!) over a detailed account. But Fisher's methodical story, including how and where he finds the evidence he needs, is just as gripping as a thriller.