Drugs

Lessons Learned from Investigating Your Mother's Brutal Murder

Leah Carroll's mother was strangled to death by a mob-connected drug dealer, and her dad succumbed to alcoholism. Now she's telling their story.

by Philip Eil
04 March 2017, 5:00am

In October 1984, Leah Carroll's mother, Joan, was strangled during a cocaine deal gone awry at the Sunset View Motel in Attleboro, Massachusetts. As the murderer pulled a towel tighter around her 30-year-old mother's throat, he's believed to have said, "Come on you rat… give me the death rattle."

Fourteen years later, Carroll's father, Kevin, died in a seedy hotel in downtown Providence, Rhode Island, called the Sportsman's Inn. "Rooms rented for forty dollars a week," Carroll writes of the incident. "The ground floor was a strip club with a 24-hour Italian buffet." He was 48 years old; Carroll was 18.

Carroll describes these two incidents in the first two pages of her new memoir and ends the prologue with a question: "Who were these people, my parents, and how did they come to this place?" Over the next 220 pages of Down City: A Daughter's Story of Love, Memory, and Murder, out this month, she goes searching for answers. She speaks to journalists, friends of her parents, and even the son of the man who killed her mother. She dives into the strange and sordid history of Rhode Island, taking particular interest in two institutions: organized crime and the daily newspaper, the Providence Journal, where her father worked as a delivery driver. She tracks down documents, including newspaper clippings and police reports about her mother and her father's autopsy report, which describes "Steatosis of the Liver Associated with Clinical History of Chronic Ethanol Use." Along the way, she interweaves memories of her own tumultuous upbringing in the troubled but lovable seaside state.

The result is an unusual, mesmerizing hybrid: part true-crime story, part coming-of-age memoir, part portrait of a parent's alcoholism, part love letter to Rhode Island. I recently spoke with Carroll, who has written for an array of publications—including Broadly—and lives in Brooklyn, for some perspective on the project. Here's what she had to say.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

VICE: In the 2010 "Modern Love" piece you wrote of your mother's death, "For me, discovering the truth had somehow let me out." And in the book you describe how one of the men who was there the night your mother was murdered was working on a memoir when he was in protective police custody. You write, "But Peter Gilbert doesn't get to tell this story. I do." What does it mean for you to be able to tell this story—for you to be the one controlling the narrative?
Leah Carroll: One of the things that changed for me when I got older, when I became the age that my mom was when she died and then older, [was] realizing she did not have a life. Her life was taken from her. Thirty years is not a life. And I think we tend not to think of our parents that way, as people outside of us. And so it was a really powerful realization for me that I wanted to tell her story.

And, unfortunately, when somebody becomes a victim of a violent crime, their story becomes wrapped up in the story of the person who killed them. That's just inevitable. And because of the way that this went down, that story had to be told. And I think in many ways, I decided I didn't want to disown that part of her. I wasn't going to be ashamed that she was a drug addict, and [the fact that] that put her in a position where many, many people were in power over her, and they didn't care about her. And I thought that it was important to point that out because she had the opportunity to be a really incredible person, and that opportunity was taken away from her, first by people who murdered her, and then by the people who sort of took her death and tried to make their careers on it, basically... in law enforcement and in Rhode Island state government.

There are some incredibly raw and personal and powerful documents in the book, including what is essentially your father's farewell note to you and the notes from his autopsy. Did you ever hesitate and say to yourself, "This is too personal." Or did you feel, This all needs to go in?
I think that my dad's note to me is so extraordinary and encapsulates who he was as a human being in so many ways that I never thought of telling the story without including that note. Even though it was very private and it was addressed to me, it really was him, and it was his voice, and it was important for me to have his actual voice and his actual words.

I've amassed so many of these documents and the language in them and the ways they were written—they were so interesting to me. I always wanted to include them because of the idea that we leave behind this trail of documents. And they are not necessarily for public consumption, but they are public documents. The autopsy reports, the police reports—these things, they are sort of like the non-artful record of our lives.

They were [also] always a touchstone for me to go back [to]. If I didn't know how to feel about something, I knew that I had a document, and I knew that I could present that and sort of let that be an objective truth.

I don't want to to oversimplify this, but do you think your father's fate—I wondered as I read—was he kind of a belated casualty of the Vietnam War? Or maybe was he, in a way, a collateral casualty of what happened to your mom? Or maybe he was fated to have the problems he had, regardless?
I mean, all three. When [my dad] went to Vietnam, he was five foot nine and 160 pounds. He was literally a child. He was 17, he had just finished tenth grade, and he was living with his dad and his stepmom, whom he didn't like, and was like, "I'm just going to go to Vietnam." And it destroyed him in many ways. Of course, his mother died of cirrhosis of the liver. And then I think my mom's death was incredibly hard for him, especially because in the beginning he was a suspect, as all husbands are. I [also] cannot overstate the importance of the Providence Journal in my father's life, and I think a lot of people like him. Because it was a rally extraordinary place, and it had value, and it gave value to the people who worked there. And it produced such great content. And then when that was taken away from him [when he was laid off during a corporate restructuring], that really just cut his lifeline.

How did you decide to take on this project—were there particular true-crime books that inspired you to write your own?
So, James Ellroy's My Dark Places changed my life. I think I can divide my life between before that book and after I read that book. I read that book in college, and it just blew my mind. And actually James Ellroy had been one of my dad's favorite writers. Black Dahlia was one of his favorite books and L.A. Confidential. And then there's also this great book by Mikal Gilmore... Shot in the Heart. So that was another one.

I read those two... and was like, "I'll never be the same. These books are life-changing." And that one was interesting because The Executioner's Song, the Norman Mailer book about Gary Gilmore [Mikal Gilmore's brother] had been one of my mom's favorite books. So there were these kind of weird connections.

What do you want people to take away from this story?
I think that my parents were ordinary, but they were also special, and their lives were really special. And they were these two people who existed in this particular time, and they wanted more than circumstances might have allowed for them. And even though both of their lives ended too soon, through kind of the sheer force of just their will and their personality and their talent and everything about them, they made me. And I'm telling this story.

Their lives mattered. And I think that their story matters and the story of Rhode Island matters. And I think you can kind of hang on to things and be angry, but in the end, especially for mom who I hadn't known... I just found so much love for my mom as a human a being, in writing about her. And I just hope it honors their spirit or who they were. Because they were great.

Learn more about Down City, which drops Tuesday, March 7, here.

Follow Philip Eil on Twitter.