In Two Truths and a Lie, reporter-turned-PI Ellen McGarrahan recounts her quest for the truth about a decades-old murder and offers profound insights on grief and justice.
Two Truths and a Lie: A Murder, a Private Investigator, and Her Search for Justice
By Ellen McGarrahan. Random House. 368 pages. $28.
Fort Lauderdale, Florida, January 2015. A dead-end street beneath a power plant, just west of downtown. Except for the metallic buzzing sound in the air around me, the day is empty and dusty and bright. I am standing in the middle of the street, listening to the power plant and staring at an apartment building. Single-story, chipped stucco, asphalt for a front yard. I’ve got an old newspaper clipping with me from the days immediately after the murders—“Witness Testifies Tafero Didn’t Shoot”—and I dig it out now to double-check the address.
Yes. It started here.
In the winter of 1976, Walter Rhodes lived in this building. In Apartment B, up on the right, second door in from the street. One afternoon around Valentine’s Day, just after “Taxi Driver” hit the movie theaters and as heiress Patty Hearst was standing trial for bank robbery out in California, Walter took a call in Apartment B from his friend Jesse Tafero. Jesse asked if he could come crash with his girlfriend and kids for a few days. Walter said okay. And on about their third day here together, Walter and Jesse and Sunny and the children came out of Apartment B, down this cement walkway, climbed into a Ford Fairlane, and drove off. For Jesse Tafero, that trip ended in the electric chair.
There are some things I need to make clear, here at the outset. I’m a licensed private detective but I don’t carry a gun. I’ve never slapped a witness or slept with one, although there’ve been some who deserved it and a few who tried it. All my life I’ve been mistaken for someone else—Don’t I know you? Haven’t we met?—and what people assume about me is usually wrong. I’m not going to lie: That used to piss me off. Once when I was a newspaper reporter, the press secretary to the governor of Florida asked me who I’d slept with to get my job. I wrote a whole newspaper column about how sexist and outrageous and unacceptably ubiquitous his attitude was. But not long into my new life as a detective I realized all that bullshit was now working in my favor. Being underestimated, talked over, talked down to, ignored, pitied, patronized, flirted with, hit on—all superpowers, to a professional investigator. No wonder women make good private eyes. For nearly twenty years now, I’ve made my living by speaking to strangers, but in my own life I’m shy. And I don’t know how I feel right now, standing here, except that I cannot believe it is real.
“Being underestimated, talked over, talked down to, ignored, pitied, patronized, flirted with, hit on—all superpowers, to a professional investigator. No wonder women make good private eyes.”
Four days ago, after I finally got up my nerve to do this, my husband and I shuttered our house up north, threw some clothes in the car, and headed off into a blizzard so fierce it took five hours to drive fifty miles. Trucks skidding off into drifts in Michigan, snow blowing across the road in Indiana, rain pounding down in the mountains of Tennessee. All the way along, I tried not to think about what I was getting myself into, but the electric chair flickered in the back of my mind. Now I’m in South Florida for the first time in a quarter century, standing on this street, looking at this building, and feeling—nothing. It’s weird. Nothing at all.
Up at Apartment B, there’s a doorbell, an aluminum threshold, and a window so dirty I can’t see inside. I stand still for a moment, staring at a pile of cigarette butts on the ground. It’s not that I’m expecting to trip over a bullet here and solve the case. But this threshold is the threshold Jesse and Sunny and Walter crossed, setting off. This roof is the last roof Jesse Tafero slept under as a free man. An investigation has to start somewhere, and I like to touch base. It’s a form of superstition, possibly. The hope that the past will be present in a place.
And I don’t have any other clues. This building. Some old newspaper clippings. A few court records. Seriously. That’s it. With those as my starting point, I have to find the truth about two heartless murders committed almost forty years ago on the side of an interstate highway in a rest area that has long since been completely torn down. Obliterated. Erased.
Detective work is, in its essence, a form of time travel. It’s being in two places at once—now, and then. Now being me, with all my fears and flaws. Then being the split seconds those shots rang out in the rest area. That is the instant I need to get back to. To own my life again. That.
I raise my hand. I knock.
But no luck. There’s no sound. No one’s around.
Old murder cases are like coffins. Buried deep, holding a world of hurt. I knew this from the death row cases I’d worked on over the last two decades as a private eye. I was not going to lie to myself about it. You have to be careful, opening them up. You may find things you cannot forget. That you’ll wish you’d never seen.
I’ve tried to ignore this mystery, this misery, which has grayed the edges of so many days. My unfinished story. I’ve tried to plead with it, to appease it, to surrender to it, to concede its points to it, to argue with it, and to bury it. But I keep waking up in the middle of it, this rattling echo, this old sorrow, these dead bones. I need it to go away and leave me alone.
It never has. It will not. It has become a part of you.
There is only one way for that to no longer be true.
I’m a private detective. This is a mystery. I know what I have to do.
But I’ve never worked inside my own life before. Never dared to face my own shadows.
And I am afraid of ghosts.
Excerpted from TWO TRUTHS AND A LIE
Copyright © 2021 by Ellen MCGARRAHAN
All rights reserved.
Published in the United States by Random House, an imprint and division of Penguin Random House LLC, New York.
About the author:
Ellen McGarrahan earned a degree in history from Yale and worked for a decade as an investigative reporter at newspapers in New York City, Miami, and San Francisco before accidentally finding her calling as a private detective. Two Truths and a Lie is her first book.