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Real-Life Wrongful Conviction Inspires Dick Lehr’s YA Novel

New book by COM prof a departure for best-selling author


Dick Lehr’s fans know him as an award-winning investigative journalist who has penned best-selling books about real-life seedy criminal enterprises, murderous teens, and criminal cops.

Lehr’s new book, out today, is a bold departure. Written for a young adult audience, Trell (Candlewick, 2017) is the fictional story of a 14-year-old who teams up with a newspaper reporter in a quest to free her wrongly imprisoned father.

“I was looking for a way to reach a younger audience,” says Lehr, a College of Communication professor of journalism, who will read from the book tomorrow, September 13, at Brookline Booksmith. “That became a novel to show readers the power of journalism.”

Lehr says that while writing for teens is new to him, writing about social justice issues is not. He may be best known for Black Mass: Whitey Bulger, the FBI, and a Devil’s Deal (Harper, 2000), cowritten with Gerard O’Neill (COM’70), about their experiences as Boston Globe reporters chronicling Bulger’s double life as a gangster and an FBI informant. The book was made into a film starring Johnny Depp in 2015.

Among Lehr’s other work are The Fence: A Police Cover-Up along Boston’s Racial Divide (Harper, 2009), about the beating of a black plainclothes policeman by white police officers and the ensuing cover-up, and The Birth of a Movement: How Birth of a Nation Ignited the Battle for Civil Rights (Public Affairs, 2017), the story of an African American newspaper editor in Boston and his battle against the racist depictions in the film Birth of a Nation.

Trell draws heavily on Lehr’s reporting of the murder conviction of Shawn Drumgold, a drug dealer arrested and sentenced to life in prison for the death of 12-year-old Tiffany Moore, who was hit by a stray bullet on a summer night in the late 1980s while she sat on top of a mailbox talking with friends. Her death received nationwide press coverage, and public outrage put pressure on police to make an arrest.

Drumgold was serving a life sentence for Moore’s murder when Lehr, then an investigative reporter with the Boston Globe Spotlight team, got a tip that he should review the case. He says that when he vetted the tip with a police detective, he was told bluntly, “Drumgold didn’t do it—everyone knows that.”

Drumgold’s attorney, Rosemary Curran Scapicchio, had pursued unsuccessful appeals in state and federal court, but when Lehr began investigating the case, it started to unravel.

It turned out that police knew at the trial that a key eyewitness who said she saw Drumgold leaving the scene with a gun had brain cancer, which may have affected her memory and perception. Other eyewitnesses recanted their earlier testimony.

Drumgold had spent 15 years in prison when a superior court judge vacated his conviction, saying, “Justice was not done” at his trial.

Lehr attended a cookout with Drumgold and his family at their Roxbury home after he was freed and recalls seeing Drumgold’s teenage daughter, Kiara, who was a newborn when her father went to prison years earlier.

“That stayed with me,” Lehr says. “That became Trell.”

Trell Book Cover

In the book, Van Trell Taylor—her full name—is dedicated to her father’s cause. An African American middle school student and long-distance runner, she enlists a crusty reporter to help prove her father’s innocence. And like the Drumgold case, her efforts are a last-ditch effort by journalists to unearth the truth about a crime.

Lehr, who is white and in his 60s, tells the story from Trell’s perspective. His years of reporting in Boston helped him get in the head of a 14-year-old African American girl, he says, adding that the book is not a coming-of-age novel, but a drama set in a familiar place.

Reporter Clemens Bittner has his own baggage. He has lost a child to illness and his marriage has fallen apart when Trell shows up at his office. Together they begin sleuthing, uncovering overlooked evidence and facing dangerous characters who stand in their way.

To  make Trell as authentic as possible, Lehr also relied on input from his 10- and 12-year-old daughters. “I don’t really know what it’s like to be a 14-year-old girl growing up in Roxbury,” he acknowledges. “I’ve always wanted to push myself outside of whatever my status quo is, my comfort zone.”

He sent the first half of Trell to his agent, with an outline for the rest; he also sent the manuscript to Drumgold and Scapicchio to review.

They gave it two thumbs up.

Drumgold, who still lives in the Boston area, eventually settled a wrongful imprisonment case with the city of Boston and in 2014 was awarded $5 million in damages. His daughter is now in her late 20s, with children of her own, and no longer lives in Boston.

The book’s publisher says it is marketing the book to readers ages 12 and up, but some of the adult themes make it a “crossover read for all ages.” It’s also arranging appearances for Lehr with youth organizations like Jumpstart, WriteBoston, and An Open Book Foundation, in Washington, D.C., to help promote the book.

Lehr says his daughters are requesting a sequel to Trell, and although he’s currently immersed in writing another book of historical nonfiction, about World War II, he doesn’t rule out the idea.

“There’s a couple of ways that could spin out,” he says.

Dick Lehr will read from Trell tomorrow, Wednesday, September 13, at 7 p.m., at Brookline Booksmith, 279 Harvard St., Brookline. On Saturday, October 28, he will read from the book at the Boston Book Festival in Copley Square. Both events are free and open to the public.

Megan Woolhouse can be reached at megwj@bu.edu.

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