Murder and memory: Nebraska native author’s controversial deep dive into unsolved killing now a Showtime series
By Leo Adam Biga, Flatwater Free Press
Oct. 16, 2021, 6 a.m. ·
By day, native Nebraskan Harry MacLean helps settle conflicts as an arbitration attorney. On nights and weekends, he ruminates over methods and motives of killing.
The true-crime author’s book “Once Upon a Time: A True Story of Memory, Murder and the Law” examined a controversial case when a daughter’s playmate went missing. Decades later, the daughter, now an adult, reported a vivid memory: She had watched her own father kill her friend.
The 1990 case that sparked a national conversation about repressed memory is now being retold in a new four-part Showtime documentary series.
“Buried” premiered Oct. 10. It continues on Sundays through October.
And it stars MacLean, a Lincoln boy who grew up to become a true-crime impresario, as the series’ on-screen narrator.
Figuring out what makes people tick comes with the territory for MacLean, who has made it his life’s work as both an attorney and homicide-focused writer. He examines the mindset behind murders, secrets and lies. He dissects the motives and conditions that drive crime and punishment.
MacLean’s fascination with human nature’s dark side started at age 15, when Charles Starkweather infamously rampaged through Nebraska and Wyoming in 1958. The murder spree had personal association for the teenager. His older brother was a classmate of Starkweather, and the MacLeans lived near the Lincoln home of Clara and Lauer Ward and their maid Lillian Fencl — three of Starkweather’s 11 victims.
As a boy, he also read and re-read “In Cold Blood,” Truman Capote’s masterful recounting of the small-town Kansas murders of the Clutter family.
MacLean went to law school, worked as a Securities and Exchange Commission trial attorney, served a term as general counsel of the Peace Corps, and rose to become a juvenile court judge in Denver. All the while, he wanted to write. He didn’t know what to write until he read about the unsolved murder of Rex McElroy, the despised town bully of Skidmore, Missouri.
Vigilantes shot McElroy multiple times in 1981, killing him. Despite multiple witnesses to the murder, investigations and grand juries, the killing couldn’t be tied to the shooters. The murderers remain unknown to this day.
Reading about Skidmore, “almost smacked me in the face,” MacLean said. “…It involved a breakdown of the legal system and people taking the law into their own hands – it was like I was made to write it.”
After immersing himself in research he wrote an outline, found an editor at Harper Collins and published his first book, “In Broad Daylight.” Critics loved it. Readers didn’t — at least at first. It eventually found a mass audience as a Dell paperback, won a prestigious Edgar Award and got adapted into a TV movie starring Brian Dennehy and Chris Cooper.
MacLean’s analytical legal mind and storyteller instincts help him make sense of complex, dramatic cases. His next book chronicled how and why four decades elapsed between the 1964 kidnapping and murder of two Black teenagers and the successful prosecution of their Klansman killer.
That set the stage for MacLean’s next project, the one now showing on Showtime. As a child, a woman named Eileen Franklin-Lipsker had a playmate who went missing. As an adult, she reported a vivid memory of witnessing her father kill that playmate. This recollection was the only thing connecting George Franklin to the disappearance.
MacLean dove deep into the case. He worked to get inside the alleged killer’s head. He interviewed many women who, like Franklin-Lipsker, had been sexually abused.
“It’s a dark story because he was a bad guy,” MacLean said of George Franklin. Also: “You could tell it was going to be a great story. I knew using a repressed memory that led to a murder charge had never been done before. The case was going to stand or fall on this.”
The clincher, he said, “was the idea that somebody could recover a repressed memory of a murder intact and play it back like a video, take that into the courtroom, and convince 12 jurors of the guilt of the person on trial.”
“Once Upon a Time” became a New York Times Notable Book of the Year.
It also sparked controversy, since it was a skeptical view of Eileen’s story at a time before psychologists started the “memory wars” debate about whether repressed memories can be trusted. (Many now believe they can’t.)
A district court judge overturned George Franklin’s conviction in 1995. Janice Franklin revealed that her sister Eileen’s repressed memory was recalled through hypnosis, contradicting testimony.
Eileen then accused her father of two other murders. Someone else later confessed to both.
A trio of Israeli filmmakers focused on the case as the subject of their first American project. The team’s lead investigator, producer Molly Forster, drew on many sources, including MacLean’s book. They picked MacLean to narrate, and he prepped for on-camera interviews by re-reading all his notes — by delving again into the recesses of a dark tale.
“We think Harry is a fantastic true-crime writer,” Forster said. “Our aim was to portray Harry as an objective storyteller that observes the plot from an outsider's standpoint and takes the viewer with him, hand-in-hand, through this journey into the unexplored realms of memory and trauma.”
MacLean is anxious to see how the series represents events. Reliving the brutal material, he said, “kind of stirred” old demons – “but at a distance.“
It’s no coincidence that MacLean so often covers trauma. The author lost his father at seven.
After his father’s death, he acted out and got shipped to boarding school. Now, as a writer, he said he’s intrigued by “how different personalities react to it – who does it so screw up that it controls the rest of their life as opposed to those who adapt and go on to a normal, successful life.”
After decades contemplating it, he’s taking on the Starkweather odyssey in a new book that, he said, will address the complicity or innocence of Caril Ann Fugate, who accompanied Starkweather during the crime spree.
The pair were captured and convicted. He was executed. She was found guilty as an accomplice. MacLean hopes to interview her.
MacLean is exploring the role trauma played in Fugate’s experience. “She had a really rough childhood that I’ve uncovered,” he said. When the defendants stood trial, trauma theory didn’t exist. Fugate was never even psychologically evaluated.
“There was no focus on the adolescent brain at all. She was only 14. Charlie was 19. That has to be taken into account when you view her behavior. I’m not sure it excuses her or convicts her – I’ll sort that out in the book.”
His upcoming Starkweather book will be a reflection of who MacLean is and the life he has led, he thinks. All his books are “part of the tapestry of...how I see the world,” he said.
“I’ve got my own take on things. Someone else writing about these events would tell an entirely different story.”
It’s often punishing work, but the reward of dreaming up a book idea, making a convincing case using old court files and new interviews and then getting published is more than worth it.
“That’s probably more satisfying than anything I’ve ever done as a lawyer just because of the level of creativity involved,” MacLean said.
Years ago MacLean did a mid-life review and concluded he probably had a book in him. It turns out he had several. None have been the great American novel he once thought he’d write — his lone work of fiction is “The Joy of Killing” — but all have tapped his deep fascination with the application or absence of justice. The Showtime series has given new life to his tale about the repressed memory case. The forthcoming Starkweather book will add his take to an American serial killer saga that has captivated generations.