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Jewish World Review July 20, 2001/ 29 Tamuz, 5761

Jonathan Yardley

Manhunter -- On the night of Feb. 18, 1970, an ex-convict named Frank Koehler got into an argument at a bar in Manhattan with a couple of guys named Pete McGinn and Richie Glennon. The action moved outside to the sidewalk, where Koehler "took a severe beating." Eventually he went back to the bar, "had a drink with [Glennon] and proposed that they sit down with McGinn to put their quarrel behind them in a gentlemanly fashion." So they went to McGinn's apartment, where, after a bit of palaver, Koehler shot both men dead. He told Glennon's girlfriend, who had heard the shots, to shut up (in so many words), walked out of the building and vanished.

For nearly three decades the crime went unsolved. Everyone knew Koehler had done it -- that was never really at issue -- but no one knew where he was or whether, for that matter, he was still alive. The case was filed away and forgotten. But then in the winter of 1997 a 52-year-old police detective named Andy Rosenzweig, chief of investigations for the Manhattan district attorney, decided to reopen it. He and Glennon had been friends when both were young -- he remembered Glennon as "a colorful character, high energy, funny, a talker, glib, Runyonesque -- you know, a tough guy" -- and realized that he felt a sense of debt to him. "I don't like to leave things hanging," he said, "and I thought it might make it a little less hard to retire if I got this thing settled."


A Cold Case

By Philip Gourevitch
Hardcover - 200 pages
Farrar Straus & Giroux

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Rosenzweig -- "the straightest, most honest, most upright cop I ever met," in the words of a streetwise lawyer -- resurrected the file on the double homicide. He got in touch with Tom Hallinan, the retired detective who had handled it originally. Hallinan immediately remembered Koehler as "the only guy I never caught. My family still kids me about it -- 'When are you gonna catch that guy?' " and methodically began to put all the pieces in place. With crucial help from the FBI, Rosenzweig tracked down a man who called himself Frank O'Grady, "a beloved and ubiquitous character" in a small town north of San Francisco. Everyone on the case was almost certain he was Koehler, a suspicion that was confirmed when O'Grady hopped an Amtrak train for New York, apparently in an attempt to elude the officers closing in on him.

On July 30, 1997, O'Grady was arrested at Penn Station in New York. Rosenzweig confronted him in the tiny holding cell of the Amtrak security office. "You're Frank Koehler," he said. Koehler replied, "It's been a long time since anyone called me that. It feels kind of good, though."

The rest -- Koehler's trial and his predictable conviction -- might seem anticlimactic, but in Philip Gourevitch's hands it is far from that. The second half of this short but rich book begins with Koehler's videotaped confession, which "has come to be regarded at the DA's office as one of the classic portraits of a criminal personality," and then attempts, with what appears to be considerable success, to open a window on that personality.

Koehler, who took a plea deal and is now at the Gowanda Correctional Facility near Buffalo -- he will be eligible for parole in two years -- is self-evidently a piece of work. Part of him is, in Rosenzweig's words, "a period piece, the ultimate West Side bad guy." Part of him is, in his own word, a "priest," as Gourevitch portrays the role:

"The priest, it turned out, was Koehler's name for the good side of himself: the priest as opposed to the hoodlum, just like in the old movie Angels with Dirty Faces, which tells the story of two boys from Hell's Kitchen who get chased by cops for stealing some fountain pens; one gets away and becomes a priest, played by Pat O'Brien, the other gets caught, sent to reform school, and returns as a hoodlum, played by Jimmy Cagney. Although Koehler didn't mention the movie, he had internalized both lead roles, and when Rosenzweig had reminded him how painful a trial might be for those close to him, the two had struggled within him."

But if he is a priest, he is one with a direct line to G-d. Koehler, Gourevitch writes, "appears fascinated by the idea of himself as a dealer of fate," who repeatedly "expresses the desire to be understood not only as a murderer but also as a sparer of life." When Koehler stood in that apartment more than three decades ago and dispatched two men he had met only hours before, he was judge and executioner; he knew it; and he thrilled in it. Some piece of work.

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