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Friday, August 28, 2009

A Cold-Blooded Business

A Cold-Blooded Business is Marek Fuchs’ account of a 1982 Olathe, Kansas, murder and the two killers who were finally convicted of the crime almost 25 years later. The crime itself was a fascinating one. The victim, a much-admired, religious 25-year-old man, was brutally bludgeoned to death in his bed in the early hours of the morning. The two most likely suspects were the victim’s wife and a family friend whom authorities believed might be his wife’s lover. The victim’s father-in-law was a powerful member of the Church of the Nazarene, a man with enough influence and prestige in Olathe to stop the murder investigation in its tracks if that is what it would take to save his daughter from spending the rest of her life in prison. So that is just what he did.

Melinda Harmon and Mark Mangelsdorf, after relatively brief interviews were allowed to get on with their lives. Melinda left Olathe, not to return until she was finally charged with the crime more than two decades later. Mark, who resumed his classes at Olathe’s MidAmerica Nazarene College, and who eventually earned a Harvard MBA, faced much greater pressure from Olathe authorities until he, too, left the state for good.

By the time two Olathe detectives decided to resume the department’s investigation into David Harmon’s murder, Melinda and Mark were doing quite well for themselves. Melinda, by now the mother of two children, was living the good life with her wealthy dentist husband in Ohio. Mark had reached the top management echelon with some of the largest companies in the world, including a vice-presidency with PepsiCo, and was living with his wife and two children (he had three children by an earlier marriage) in one of the wealthiest suburbs of New York City.

Life was sweet for Mark and Melinda, but all of that would come crashing down when the two Olathe detectives knocked on each of their doors to begin the hard work that the department never got around to doing in 1982. That the two were finally brought to justice is a credit to the men who reopened such an old case; what happened in the courtroom and in the district attorney’s office when the two murderers were returned to Olathe was a disgrace.

Marek Fuchs covered the David Harmon murder story for three years for the New York Times and, as a result, he is well acquainted with all of its players and with the politics of Olathe, Kansas, including the Church of the Nazarene’s influence there and the political ambitions of some involved in prosecuting the case. Unfortunately, however, A Cold-Blooded Business reads more like an extended newspaper story than like what one generally expects to find in today’s almost novelized true crime books. As despicable as Melinda and Mark obviously are, Fuchs does not dig deep enough into their personalities to explain, or even to theorize much about how two such supposedly deeply religious people can be capable of doing what these two did. A Cold-Blooded Business comes in at barely 200 pages and it left me wondering who Melinda and Mark really are and why they killed David Harmon. David’s family is probably wondering the same thing.

Rated at: 3.0

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