Killer Across the Carquinez

The New Yorker's Philip Gourevitch brought new life to an old - and no longer cold - murder case.

During a recent appearance at Cody’s bookstore in Berkeley, Philip Gourevitch was confronted by the nephews of convicted murderer Frank Koehler. It seems the chaps were none too pleased with the way Gourevitch had portrayed their uncle in his true-crime study, A Cold Case. They had attended the reading hoping to disrupt it as much as possible; the National Book Critics Circle Award-winning author knew that for sure. But in the end all they sparked was, Gourevitch says now, “some really lively discussion.”A staff writer for The New Yorker, Gourevitch came to know — and eventually write about — Koehler through a 1999 meeting with Andy Rosenzweig, chief of investigations for the Manhattan district attorney. Rosenzweig was about to retire and open a bookstore in Rhode Island, stocked entirely with crime books and fittingly called Book ‘Em, and Gourevitch thought his story would make an interesting piece for the magazine. Yet as the two men talked about the investigator’s career, one case stood out, mesmerizing Gourevitch not only because of Rosenzweig’s dogged efforts to nab a killer who’d evaded prosecution for 27 years, but also because of the criminal himself and the colorful lawyer who defended him after he was caught. “Everybody turned out to be so complete, both socially and professionally, and so immensely expressive and complex,” the writer recalls, that the tale “just begged to be told.”

A Hell’s Kitchen native, Koehler could have been lifted right out of an old James Cagney movie — in fact, he idolized Cagney. Convicted of burglary and murder by age fifteen, Koehler spent the rest of his youth traveling between jail and the outside world as through a revolving door. But in 1970, the door stopped spinning for a long, long time. Following a fight with two acquaintances one night, Koehler suggested that they “put their quarrel behind them in a gentlemanly fashion,” as Gourevitch puts it. When the pair agreed to a reconciliatory drink, Koehler toasted them — with a gun. Then he disappeared without a trace until 1997, when Rosenzweig and some FBI colleagues finally traced his path to Benicia.

What Gourevitch calls “a little bitty town by the edge of the water” is a far cry from Hell’s Kitchen, and the author isn’t quite sure how Koehler managed to wind up there. What he does know is that for the killer it was an “arcadian village” without the violent temptations New York City had always offered, hence Koehler seemed to become a totally different person. So much so, in fact, that when Gourevitch arrived in Solano County to interview locals for his book, they were shocked to learn of Koehler’s violent past.

“Because he didn’t have a car, Frank would walk up and down First Street, and became known as the unofficial mayor of Benicia,” says Gourevitch. Eager to help anyone in need, Koehler earned the respect of residents who saw only the good in him and who, as Gourevitch learned, believed that if he had killed anyone, “it must have been in self-defense.” After Koehler’s arrest, many Benicians took to wearing “Free New York Frankie” T-shirts.

Gourevitch now recalls the way Rosenzweig once summed up Koehler: “He wasn’t completely a monster, just a murderer.”

Rosenzweig, too, seems a character drawn directly from a 1940s detective film — in A Cold Case, which is new this summer in paperback, Gourevitch likens him to Humphrey Bogart. Another such character is Koehler’s lawyer, Murray Richman (aka “Don’t Worry Murray”), who told Gourevitch that “murderers are great, great clients.” Even if it wasn’t a true story, this would be perfect movie material. Sure enough, it’s been optioned by Universal as a vehicle for Tom Hanks, who’ll play Rosenzweig, Gourevitch says, and John Sayles is writing the screenplay. Gourevitch himself won’t be involved except to “experience it just like everybody else — sitting in a theater with my bucket of popcorn, which is fine with me.”

And as for those rankled nephews who turned up at Cody’s, the writer is equally philosophical. “The deception of being a fugitive affects everyone who knows them, so it’s understandable that they might be hurt by facts revealed in the book.” His words are echoed in a letter Koehler sent after the author interviewed him in prison.

“I hope no one gets hurt from anything you write — even the dead,” Koehler wrote. “I’ve hurt some of the ones who have loved me the most. … But somehow they forgave me and still stuck. Who knows why. That’s a story — why would people still think good of this asshole?”

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