Perfect Crimes

My Columbo binge continues and I’ve noticed something else — most of his killers do make mistakes. The conductor (one of my favorites) retrieves his boutonniere from beneath the piano of his victim; it’s the lack of a boutonniere in the televised concert that proves to be his undoing. Jack Cassidy, as the vengeful publisher, sets up an alibi that includes being on a drunken spree and professes to remember little of his evening, yet immediately knows that the parked car he hit contained more than one person. Given that Columbo always catches his killers, it’s hard to argue that any of the crimes can be considered perfect, but I’ll be curious to see if anyone executes flawlessly — that is, according to the plan he/she laid out — and still gets caught.

Besides, “perfect” crimes are rare and possibly accidents, relying more on the silence and discretion of the killer than anything else.

Seventeen years ago in Baltimore, a woman disappeared. Her name was Susan Harrison and the last person to see her alive was her estranged second husband. (Unless, of course, someone else killed her, in which case that was the last person to see her alive.) She visited her second husband’s home on the eve of a trip she was to make with her youngest son. (Both her children were from her first marriage.) She never came back.

Susan and Jim Harrison had a violent relationship. Her older son once took photographs documenting the results of a beating. I suppose I should be saying alleged this and alleged that, but Jim Harrison is dead, too, now. Mourned, I assumed, by his own family. And, again, it should be noted that he was never charged criminally with Susan Harrison’s murder.

I wrote about the case in 1995. I interviewed Jim in the basement of his home, an expensive suburban house that had been allowed to go somewhat to seed. Baltimore County police asked me not to go alone. I kept an open mind about the case. My job as a journalist was not to solve it, but to examine how everyone believed Susan was dead — except for Jim. Only he talked about how she might turn up again.

Her body was found in ’96. Her sons brought a civil suit against her husband. I believe it was settled. At any rate, I don’t think the terms of the resolution were ever made public.

But if Jim Harrison did kill Susan Harrison, he committed a perfect crime. And given his history as a drinker — let’s just say it’s doubtful that it was something conceived in advance.

Again, we are now dealing with a hypothetical. If one believes that Jim Harrison killed Susan Harrison, then it happened something like this:

1) Susan Harrison is killed on Jim Harrison’s property late Friday, early Saturday in August 1994.
2) Jim dumps the body in a wooded area where it would be found two years later. (It was determined then that she died from blunt force trauma.)
3) There is the matter of her car, a green Mercedes, which will be found in a lot at National Airport. According to the theory, Jim drives the car there, takes the Washington Metro to Union Station, takes an Amtrak train to Baltimore, then the Light Rail to his home, which is within walking distances. He pays cash for all transactions.
4) Later, asked where he was on that Saturday, he says he took the Light Rail to downtown and Baltimore to walk around because it was such a beautiful day. It was, warm but dry, atypical weather in a Baltimore summer.

Again, this was the working theory, advanced by Susan’s family. If it happened this way, the plan was concocted fairly quickly and executed flawlessly by a man who, more likely than not, wasn’t completely sober at the time.

The Baltimore detective who worked the case told me he once took Jim Harrison to a Mass for missing people believed to be crime victims. In the middle of the Mass, Harrison got up and worked his way to the front. Was it possible that he might confess?

No, he gave a speech about how much he missed Susan.

I had just found an agent for my first crime novel about the time I started work on this story. I said I would never use it as the basis of a novel. The family gave too much of themselves. It is one thing for me to fill in the gaps of stories that I’ve simply read in the newspaper, like everyone else. But to write a novel based on a real-life event in which so many people shared so much — I can’t do that.

But one day, I might write a novel about someone who committed the perfect crime almost by accident. And, I hope, deconstruct the oxymoron that is “perfect crime.”


8 thoughts on “Perfect Crimes

  1. I forgot to add: The key was in the ignition of the car, but it had a faulty alternator and couldn’t be started. There was speculation that whoever left it there wanted the car to be stolen.

  2. I believe OJ Simpson committed the perfect crime. It was a horrible, sloppy, bloody mess - without one scintilla of finesse; in other words - deeply satisfying for the enraged killer; and despite the (genuine) “mountain of evidence” that the prosecution had, he is now and forever Not Guilty of those murders, period.

    That is a perfection that a Jack Cassidy villain could never attain, because without a trial and an acquittal, a killer always has to look over his shoulder, and ponder his (unlimited) liability to be arrested, tried, and possibly convicted.

    Here in Fort Wayne, 20+ summers ago, a little girl went missing, and then - months later - her remains were found. The case went unsolved; parents (like me) faced genuine fear of a predator quietly cruising around.

    Then - maybe 10 years ago or so, the prosecutor announced that the little girl’s grand father - who had just died, was who they think did the crime. The memory of that STILL makes me mad.

    If they (the authorities) really believed that, they should have arrested his ass and dragged him into criminal court - win or lose.

    Or, if their suspicions of him were so weak as to not even warrant his arrest, then they should not have made such a singularly UN-reassuring public announcement upon his death. All in all, a very IMperfect crime and judicial response.

    But, we digress!

  3. Hi,
    I am a former journalist but I’ve never worked the crime beat (the paper already had a couple veteran guys working it) but I’ve heard of one such accidental “perfect” murder; it was solved 24 years later, after the death of the killer -who had never been a suspect. I’m writing a story about it.
    In the Baltimore case you’re mentioning, if Jim Harrison was the killer, what would have been his motive? Did the police ever suspect anyone else?

    Thanks for sharing, this is really interesting. You should publish a non-fiction book like Michael Connelly’s Crime Beat. Would be great.

  4. I’m not sure I believe in perfect crimes, but I certainly believe in those whose resolutions hide in plain sight. Looking back at some of the more notorious cases that were unsolved for decades - BTK is a good example of this - by rights they *should* have been solved much earlier, but weren’t because of technological limitations, or the right dominoes falling in the right order, or because it took years before the perpetrator did something so obvious and boneheaded to trip him up (I mean, putting his own name in the CD-ROM metadata? That’s just…well, lame. And yet, that’s what helped track Rader down. So much for perfection.)

  5. If Jim Harrison did, in fact, kill his estranged wife, it was probably an accident that occurred during another episode of domestic violence. At least, that’s the theory as I understood it.

  6. And another perfect crime is now in the books; Casey Anthony, well played!

    (and when the write the book, the title should be Bella Vita)

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