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The Vidocq Society: Solving Murders Over Lunch
DAVE DAVIES, host:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm Dave Davies, filling in for Terry Gross.
It's fun to play detective, read a mystery or see a film and try and
figure out who the killer is. In Philadelphia, there's a group that
regularly meets for lunch in an old, Victorian dining room and tries to
solve cold cases, but they aren't playing.
The Vidocq Society is a collection of detectives and forensics experts,
some retired, who meet to discuss unsolved murders, usually brought to
them by law enforcement officials looking for help. Over 20 years, they
have helped police solve many crimes.
The founders of the group are former FBI Agent William Fleisher, Frank
Bender, a world-renowned forensic artist and sculptor who is sadly dying
of mesothelioma, and our guest, Richard Walter, a nationally recognized
Walter is a forensic psychologist who worked for years in the Michigan
prison system. He's examined countless crime scenes and interviewed
thousands of felons. I spoke to Richard Walter, along with Michael
Capuzzo, who's written a book about the Vidocq society called "The
Murder Room." Michael Capuzzo has written for several newspapers and
magazines and is the author of a previous book, "Close to Shore."
Well, Michael Capuzzo, Richard Walter, welcome to FRESH AIR. Richard
Walter, I thought we'd begin by talking about one of the cold cases that
you looked at, to get a sense of how you work. And I thought we might
talk about the terrible case of a woman named Terry Lee Brooks, who was
a night manager at a fast food restaurant. Found murdered. Safe was
open. The police were stumped. Tell us about the crime.
Mr. RICHARD WALTER (Forensic Psychologist): The crime was committed
inside the Roy Rogers restaurant. It was discovered when people came to
work in the morning. The victim, the night manager, had been brutally
murdered, had been manipulated in the sense of having Saran Wrap wrapped
around her head, excessive violence to the body, as though it were just
a catharsis of violence and venom against her.
The safe had been manipulated. I think there was a belief that it was
related to a possible robbery. When you looked at the body, when you
looked at the crime scene itself, it was obvious that it was not a
DAVIES: Now, that's the interesting thing, because the local police were
looking for a robbery suspect, right?
Mr. WALTER: Yes.
DAVIES: What did you see that they didn't?
Mr. WALTER: What robbery suspect is going to stab the victim so
viciously that the knife enters the tile floor and wraps the head in
cellophane? And body position, again, is important - face up, face down,
all these other sorts of things.
A robber simply is not going to do that. It's not efficient. There's no
efficacy or value in that kind of an activity. And so you have to look
of how he spends his time and his interest, by what's there, as well as
by what's not there.
And I found, then, that the primary focus was an intense anger,
catharsis, against the victim - that the staged robbery aspect was just
a red herring created by the suspect to throw the police off. Which it
DAVIES: So you developed an uncannily precise profile of who the suspect
was. Who did you â what kind of person should they have been looking
Mr. WALTER: Well, given the amount of violence at the scene and how it
was personalized to the victim, this normally would not happen to a
person that the victim did not know. Also, the victim had to let the
suspect in, and so therefore, the presumption is that she knew him.
There is a presumption, obviously, that there's hostility, extreme
hostility, and you see that he doesn't really care when the victim dies.
He cares about when his anger has been sated.
So as a consequence, then, already, we know a great deal about him
because of previous research done in the area of subtypes of murders,
the anger-retaliatory, then, have these characteristics. In fact, it was
a textbook case for anger-retaliatory. So it was simply a matter of
watching and plugging in the bits and pieces along the way. In this
case, then, it was reasonable to assume that a boyfriend may be
Mr. MICHAEL CAPUZZO (Author, "The Murder Room: The Heirs of Sherlock
Holmes Gather to Solve the World's Most Perplexing Cold Cases"): Richard
actually predicted he'd be living with his mother and having a menial
job, which was all right on target.
But he'd also been spotted by another Vidocq Society member as a name
appearing on a funeral, you know, the funeral register of his victim.
And by the time he was caught, he had actually - the motive was that he
was - they were engaged, and they had actually bought a wedding dress
and made honeymoon plans, and she broke it off because she was looking
for a, you know, a more ambitious young man - and that was behind it,
DAVIES: You know, in terms of looking at what is unseen at a crime
scene, I thought â I wanted to ask you, Richard Walter, about the case
of a tragic murder of a Drexel University woman who was murdered in a
laboratory late at night, right?
Mr. WALTER: Yes.
DAVIES: Tell us what the police missed in that case.
Mr. CAPUZZO: Do you want me to describe, in brief, how the body was
lying, and then you can â is it just that she was a blonde - young,
blonde mathematics major at Drexel, lying on her back, in her 20s. She's
been murdered, and she's got on â it's just before Thanksgiving.
She's at the bottom of an outdoor stairwell of, like, a big classroom
building. She was staying up past midnight working. She's still wearing
her winter coat. She's still wearing her watch. She's wearing pants.
There's no sign of sexual assault, and her socks and shoes are missing.
The police can't get it for seven years, and then enter the Vidocq
Society and Richard.
Mr. WALTER: When you're looking at a major violent crime, you look at
what was the simplest thing to get done, what needed to be done - i.e.,
if the intent was to murder, then what was the simplest form? And
anything past that, then, tells us about the perpetrator.
And in this case, the extracurriculars were the shoes and socks. Well,
I'm not naive in the sense of foot fetishes, shoe fetishes, et cetera.
No other real options came forward. There was no other real explanations
for the evidence, or the lack of evidence, of which they had.
Mr. CAPUZZO: You suggested, didn't you, that they ought to look into the
primary suspect, who they could never get a sort of handle on. He was a
burly sort of Drexel guard. And Richard suggested he look into his Army
records. Perhaps there were issues with foot fetishes.
Mr. WALTER: And there were.
DAVIES: Right, and eventually, he was arrested and confessed to the
Mr. WALTER: Yes, and he had hundreds of women's shoes and whatever else.
And he had â his wife also then said that he had a profound foot fetish
Historically, they many times do not end in murder. In this particular
case, it did.
DAVIES: Do you often interview â when you are assisting a local police
department, Richard Walter, do you often end up interviewing suspects
Mr. WALTER: Occasionally, mostly by proxy. Sometimes on the request of
the department, and if I'm comfortable with it, I will interview the
suspect. Most of the time, I give advice to the detectives, then, on how
to approach and what is probably going to be their primary three
strategies that they may want to consider for that particular kind of
murder, given the class and the level and the sophistication of the
DAVIES: Can you think of a case where you intervention, in that
Mr. WALTER: Yes.
(Soundbite of laughter)
Mr. WALTER: I'm not sure how far I want to go into this, but yes. Well,
I could liken it to the case that we talked about earlier.
In terms of interviewing an anger-retaliatory type, one of the things
that must be understood by the detectives is, contrary to popular
opinion, the perpetrator does not feel any guilt for committing the
In point of fact, when they leave the killing site, they many times have
a sense of well-being, and a sense of relief, and a sense of charm
because they've just had 50 pounds of emotional baggage taken off their
shoulders. Police don't expect that.
Equally, when it then comes, then, to an interview, and whether by wit
or skill - and many officers have a lot of skill - they may get the guy
into a frame where he's re-angry at the victim, is recounting it, and
you â and he senses and feels that the guy is just about ready to
And so he comes to his aid, and says: and so therefore, you were so mad,
you just killed her, and now you feel bad. And it's just like throwing
cold water on an interview. You never, never, never would do that.
Mr. CAPUZZO: Give the power back to the perpetrator.
Mr. WALTER: Exactly.
Mr. CAPUZZO: As you've pointed out to me, and the worst thing to do is
show him the butchered body and say, don't you feel terrible that you
did this to this woman?
Mr. WALTER: Exactly. Those are just no-nos. And so you guard against
that, and then you aim toward facilitating, then, those things that a
guilty person would use and become identified with, and confess.
DAVIES: And just to follow that up for a second, so you're getting
close, you don't show them the pictures of the body. You don't try and
make them feel sorry for it - they don't. What, instead, brings you the
Mr. WALTER: Anger, that she deserved it.
Mr. CAPUZZO: Reproduce the anger that led to the killing.
Mr. WALTER: Yes.
Mr. CAPUZZO: Right.
DAVIES: So what kind of question would elicit that?
Mr. WALTER: Well, she rejected you. She didn't want you. She told you to
get out of her life. She dismissed you like a small child - et cetera,
et cetera, et cetera, but obviously much more intense. Where even your
own mother, you know, says that you're a failure.
And so now it's just not the victim, but it's women in general, that
group that he relies on, is trying to exploit. In the course of events,
then, he's going to come to the conclusion, if he's wrapped up into it,
he's going to come to the conclusion that's what they were doing. And
yes, and by God, she deserved it, and I gave it to her, and I'm happy,
thank you very much. Do I want to go to jail? No, but she deserved it.
DAVIES: Richard Walter is a forensic psychologist. He's worked on
hundreds of murder cases. Also with us, writer Michael Capuzzo. His new
book is "The Murder Room." We'll talk more after a break. This is FRESH
(Soundbite of music)
DAVIES: If you're just joining us, we're speaking with Richard Walter.
He is a forensic psychologist. Also with us is writer Michael Capuzzo.
He's written a book about a group of retired and active investigators,
including Richard Walter, who meet regularly to discuss and work on cold
murder cases. The name of Capuzzo's book is "The Murder Room."
Michael Capuzzo, let's talk about this group of investigators, the
Vidocq Society. Who's in it? What are the rules?
Mr. CAPUZZO: Well, the Vidocq Society was founded by Richard Walter, the
forensic psychologist and profiler; and his friends, Bill Fleisher, who
is the commissioner and is the leader of the society, he's a former FBI
agent and a sort of tough-nosed Philadelphia private eye; and Frank
Bender, who is the world's most famous, if not most gifted, forensic
And the three of them were having lunch in 1990 and bemoaning the rise
of murder rates all across the country, and they had the idea that they
wanted to get together over lunch.
Actually, it started socially, and evolved into a club of great
detectives and great forensic specialists from around the world who meet
once a month - the third Thursday of every month, in an old Victorian
dining room in Philadelphia - men and women, and solve murders over
lunch. Or begin to examine them over lunch, and then when passion grows
and relationships are formed between great detectives like Richard and,
say, you know, a Kansas Bureau of Investigations agent who needs help on
a cold murder case he can't get his hands around. Well then Richard, for
instance, in the Texas case, went out and spent six years and 6,000
hours, pro bono, putting a killer in jail.
So they're a crime-fighting, pro-bono organization of real characters
and a delight to be around.
DAVIES: Now, are there rules about who gets to present a case to the
Mr. CAPUZZO: The rules, in general, are that the Vidocq Society makes
every effort to stay in the background and be an assistant to law
enforcement. So they will not engage or consider any cold case unless
it's at least two years old, and they will not consider a cold case
unless it's an innocent victim.
In other words, you know, a drug dealer who's been murdered, and even if
his mother's upset, is not going to get an audience before the Vidocq
And after that, you know, it's whoever they think they can help and
whoever they think they're interested in helping.
DAVIES: All right. Now, it's not a case where they're butting into local
law enforcement, typically, right? You will have â local law enforcement
will come and actually make a presentation over lunch. Is that the way
Mr. CAPUZZO: Yes, like in the case you brought up, the Falls Township
Police Department made a presentation. There were friendships between
former Philadelphia police officers and some there at the Falls
Township, and they come to lunch, and they have a PowerPoint
presentation, and it's a white â you know, round tables and white
And lunch is served, and then in about the fourth or fifth course, up
comes the corpse on the PowerPoint, and the lights go down, and there's
a real exchange.
The detective - cold-case detective from the police department or the,
you know, federal or local or state - will stand at a podium and run
through the case and then ask for questions and help. And there's a
close relationship and interchange.
DAVIES: And give us a sense - now, we know that former FBI Agent William
Fleisher is involved. Richard Walter, who is with us in this interview,
is there; and then the sketch artist, Frank Bender. What are some of the
other criminal investigative skills that are represented in this
Mr. CAPUZZO: There's a tremendous range. I think of it as CSI to the
10th power, but real. I mean, they have other profilers in addition to
Richard, like Robert Ressler, the great former FBI agent, Interpol and
the director of Surete, a captain from the Egyptian army, experts in
white-collar crime, in terrorism, in sadism and even a psychic,
pathologists and, you know, the bread-and-butter stuff of criminal
DAVIES: Richard Walter, I wanted to talk a little bit about the kinds of
killers that you have seen over the years. What kind of killer covers
the eyes of his victims?
Mr. WALTER: Anger-retaliatory.
DAVIES: Meaning what?
Mr. WALTER: Meaning that they're - out of anger, out of an intense
anger, they're reacting to a perceived, real, or manufactured slight
that they believe that the victim created against them. Therefore, then,
they aggress, and they destroy. They don't care when the victim dies.
They care when they're satisfied.
They do not feel guilty. They cover the eyes because they don't want the
victim, even in death, to be looking at them as they walk out the door.
They try to eclipse that from them. And they feel good after the murder.
They historically have a sense of well-being for about 45 minutes to an
hour and a half, and then they have different plots past that point in
terms of the investigation.
DAVIES: You have written there are three other types of killers, the
power-reassurance killer, the power-assertive killer, the anger-
excitation killer. We won't go over them all. But one of the things that
struck me was that you wrote in this book, that you have to be careful
what you say and write because sadists are the first ones who will
attend your lectures and order reprints of your papers. How do you know
Mr. WALTER: True. Because they do.
(Soundbite of laughter)
Mr. WALTER: In fact, I think Mike, even included in the book, a story
that I told him, that years ago, I was in Kansas City - or Topeka,
rather - at a conference. And I had been at the police department and
came - was taken back then, to go and give a lecture on sadism.
And the detective who had been with me earlier in the day and showed me
some - a suspect in a murder case - came up to me just before I went up
on the platform. And he said, you know that guy, he said, I pointed out
to you at the police department? And I said yes. And he said, I just
flushed him out of your audience.
And I said oh, okay. And I've had other places where if I'm lecturing
for instance, on rape or whatever else, that rapists will sneak into the
audience. It's not just myself, but Bob Ressler has had the same thing.
DAVIES: He's the FBI profiler, right?
Mr. WALTER: Right.
DAVIES: But tell me, what is it you think that they're there for? What
is it that you're â might they learn that troubles you?
Mr. WALTER: Ah. If I then show them the learning curve for sadism and
they understand its direction and its power, then they can try to
manipulate that and make it more complex. And I think it's complex
enough, and I don't want to interfere with the investigation any
And I think it furthers their pathology, actually. And so good people
are supposed to be stopping them, and we don't want to make them more
efficient at knowing how we're going to do it.
Mr. CAPUZZO: Richard...
DAVIES: Your book â go ahead, Michael Capuzzo.
Mr. CAPUZZO: Richard doesn't want to become, if I might there, Dr.
(Soundbite of laughter)
Mr. CAPUZZO: I mean, I was fascinated by the whole notion that there's
this downward growth. I mean, we think of an upward growth toward God or
whatever, you know, goodness, whatever we perceive as personality
growth. And there's inexorable downward growth that Richard has
identified, sort of right to hell. And he becomes â he doesn't want, I
think, I would interpret it for him to become their interpreter, their
coach, their doctor.
Mr. WALTER: Right.
DAVIES: Richard Walter, you've spent most of your life doing this.
You're not married, right?
Mr. WALTER: Not anymore.
DAVIES: What kind of person does it take to do what you do, well?
Mr. WALTER: I wouldn't encourage anybody who I loved to follow in my
Mr. WALTER: There's a price to pay. I'm willing to pay it. I would much
rather encourage people to develop healthy families, relationships,
enjoy the beach. And yes, can I do all that too? Yes. But I think that
I've come out reasonably well, but if you haven't figured it out by now,
there are those of my friends who might even say I'm a little eccentric.
(Soundbite of laughter)
DAVIES: You know, eccentricity doesn't seem such a terrible price. What
is the price you think you pay for doing this well?
Mr. WALTER: Loss of innocence. The â you say, if I do my job well,
there's going to be somebody in this society who maybe I can protect,
that doesn't have to learn all the evils that there are. They can go
ahead, and they can live their life, and they can go to the theater, and
they can go to the art, and they can live the quality of life that I
think that all of us would like.
But sometimes along the way, there are those people - and I'm probably
one of them - who then see that life just doesn't always happen that
way. And so therefore, sometimes, somebody has to make the investment
into how do we protect people, that is the most efficient. And so
sometimes we pay the price.
DAVIES: Well, Richard Walter, Michael Capuzzo, thanks so much for
speaking with us.
Mr. WALTER: Thank you.
Mr. CAPUZZO: Thank you, Dave.
DAVIES: Richard Walter is a forensic psychologist and a founding member
of the Vidocq Society. Writer Michael Capuzzo's book about the society
is called "The Murder Room." You can read an excerpt at our website,
freshair.npr.org. I'm Dave Davies, and this is FRESH AIR.
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Peter Maass: 'The Violent Twilight Of Oil' Looms
DAVE DAVIES, host:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm Dave Davies, filling in for Terry Gross.
The Gulf Coast oil spill was a sober warning about the risks involved in
extracting oil and gas from deposits miles under the earth's surface in
increasingly remote locations â and another reminder that our dependence
on fossil fuels comes with a price.
Months before the Deepwater Horizon burned and sank in the Gulf, our
guest Peter Maass wrote a book arguing that our relentless pursuit of
diminishing oil stocks has visited a host of evils on the world â
especially in the countries that hold the deposits we crave. Maass
argues that in many developing countries, oil breeds corruption,
heightens social divisions, increases violence and degrades the
Peter Maass is a contributing writer to The New York Times magazine.
He's written for several other national publications and has reported
from the Middle East, Asia, South America and Africa. His book is now
out in paperback. It's called "Crude World: The Violent Twilight of
Peter Maass, welcome back to FRESH AIR. Let's talk about Equatorial
Guinea. It's a tiny country in West Africa that most people couldn't
locate on a map. Tell us just a bit about the country, you know, its
size, its geography.
Mr. PETER MAASS (Author, "Crude World: The Violent Twilight of Oil"):
Equatorial Guinea is in the Gulf of Guinea, not far from Cameroon and
Nigeria. And it's a tiny little country, 500,000 people, if that and
basically, it was ignored for the world for quite a long time. It used
to be a Spanish colony. It got independent in the 1960s and then, was
presided over by a really ruthless dictator who basically committed
genocide there and forced out or killed about a third of its population.
In 1979, this dictator was overthrown by his nephew, Teodoro Obiang, who
then had his uncle executed in a show trial. And after 1979, Obiang ran
the country in a very dictatorial fashion. Nobody seemed to care because
it was such a small country.
But then in the early 1990s, an American exploration company found
commercially viable deposits of oil in Equatorial Guinea's waters in the
Gulf of Guinea and thus, began a kind of a new chapter in this country's
history - a chapter that involved a heck of a lot of attention from
particularly, American oil companies.
DAVIES: An interesting thing about the country geographically, is that
the capital is actually on an island, right, and then there's a little
spit of land on the African mainland, right?
Mr. MAASS: Exactly. The capital, Malabo, is on an island called Bioko,
and that's the capital. And the mainland, which is a very small portion
of territory, is kind of stretched between Gabon and Cameroon. So you
have a strange sort of political situation where the government resides
offshore, quite literally speaking, but the largest piece of its
territory is onshore.
But that, you know, in and of itself isn't kind of the major problem
associated with Equatorial Guinea. I mean the problem was that it had no
history of democracy or anything close to that. And then once it
discovered oil, all of the oil reserves, all of the revenues that came
in were basically under the control of the country's leader, Teodoro
DAVIES: Yeah, tell us about Teodoro Obiang and his relationship with the
oil companies there.
Mr. MAASS: Teodoro Obiang had, for a dictator, a wonderful relationship
with these oil companies. They wanted to get at his oil. They were
willing to pretty much do whatever he wanted to have done in the way of
payments or whatnot. So, the first batch of revenues over a couple of
years, about $700 million of revenue, were deposited into secret bank
accounts at Riggs Bank in Washington, D.C. As well, Obiang, for purposes
of what we believe is personal enrichment, had all these side deals with
these oil companies where they would rent buildings and land from
relatives of his for extraordinary amounts of money. So, you know, a 14-
year-old nephew of the president's, for example, was the legal owner and
received revenues of several hundred thousand dollars from one of these
So it was a period of marvelous enrichment for him that kind of was
blown up in about 2000-2001 when it was discovered that these accounts
existed. Riggs Bank had not been filling suspicious activity reports,
even though in some cases there was one of the Riggs Bank officials who
would go to the Equatorial Guinean Embassy in Washington, D.C. and pick
up suitcases of cash and deposit them into the bank.
And around 2002-2001, this was discovered and kind of the hatch was
blown off of that. But it didn't really change things in the country
itself because Obiang remained the most powerful, the most wealthy.
Elections were pretty much of a joke. I mean I think in the ones that
began this decade he won about 99 percent of the popular vote. And then
in the election that occurred just last year, he won about 97 percent of
the popular vote, and he's not that popular of a dictator.
DAVIES: You traveled to Equatorial Guinea, tell us about what you saw. I
mean surely, there's enough wealth coming in from the oil revenue to
both make the president and his family happy and, you know, at least
build some roads, bridges, schools, hospitals. What did you see?
Mr. MAASS: My visit to Equatorial Guinea was a couple of years ago, so
things have developed slightly since then in terms of more in the way of
infrastructure, according to the people that I've been in touch with
about conditions in the country now.
Nonetheless, it remains a country where health, education, welfare
indicators are really at the bottom of the rung for Africa, even though
on a per capita basis, if like all of the oil revenue were shared
equally amongst all the people of Equatorial Guinea, it would be one of
the richest countries, not just in Africa, but perhaps in the world.
And so, you had when you go there, when I went there, for example, you
know, kind of rutted streets, very bad infrastructure, schools that had
no books, not even schools in most villages. Hospitals, for example, I
went to one major town on the mainland and they had one hospital and it
basically just had a little bit of aspirin and that was pretty much it.
It was place not for people to be cured but for people to go and die.
And you also still have this very dictatorial situation. I mean I lasted
in Equatorial Guinea for just a week, at the end of which I was expelled
on charges of being a spy.
DAVIES: Now, I imagine the oil companies, they certainly are under no
illusions that Teodoro Obiang is, you know, a democratic leader. They
know what he's about and I suppose what they would say is look, we don't
make the rules. If we have a product that there's a market for and if we
want to do business here, we play by the rules that the local
authorities set for us. To what extent are they responsible for or
complicit in the kind of corruption that you see?
Mr. MAASS: Well, they have to play not just by the rules of the local
government, but also obviously, the ones that prevail in the United
States of America as well. And so, that's why you've seen as number of
companies, for example, in Nigeria, there was a major scandal over a
natural gas facility that was built by a consortium of companies that
included Halliburton and other Western companies that were exposed for
being involved in massive amounts of corruption and they were brought to
book for it.
So, when you're in these countries, you can't just say well, you know,
the local dictators asked us for this money or this is the way it
operates here. You do have to obey American laws too. They do have a
point though, when they say, you know, look, what do you want us to do?
We can't, you know, be agents of political change, etcetera.
And what they also say - and this was great - there was this one
American oil executive I talked to and write about in the book, who was
actually convicted for tax fraud related to payoffs that he apparently
had received while negotiating contracts on behalf of Mobil, and he said
to me look, you know, if you only want us to get oil and gas from London
and Paris because laws there are nice and there's not so much bribery,
okay, fine. But then we're going to be stepping over manure in the
streets of New York City.
The point that he was making and that a lot of people in the industry
make - and it doesn't exonerate them, but it certainly kind of gives you
some sort of context - they're saying look, we're just doing what the
American government wants us to do, what the American consumer wants us
to do. If you don't want us to go to these fairly nasty places and do
business there, business in a way that might enrich or enhance
dictatorships, fine. But then oil, instead of costing $2.50 at the pump
is going to cost $5.00 at the pump.
Now, this doesn't, I think, exonerate them because they still have a
moral responsibility, if not a legal responsibility, to act in ways that
do not harm the countries that they're operating in. But it does also
kind of, I think, make us broaden the spotlight away from them or just
outside of them and also to our own government, and also to ourselves.
DAVIES: Now, in Equatorial Guinea you have situation where you have a
dictator who rules the country with an iron fist. You also write about
Nigeria, which is, of course, a much larger country in West Africa with
large oil deposits and operations. But there's been a lot of tribal
strife and civil armed conflict there. What's been the effect of oil
production and oil wealth on those conflicts?
Mr. MAASS: Well, Nigeria has just been devastated by oil. In the early
1960s, when Nigeria became independent from British rule, and when also
it discovered commercially viable amounts of oil, it was actually a very
promising country. I mean, it had an educated elite, it had a good
forming sector, it had the beginnings of good manufacturing sector and
quite quickly the country went into a tailspin. And it's not just
because of oil. We have to kind of be clear about this.
You know, when something goes bad in a country where the country is a
major oil producer, it's not necessarily all kind of accounted to by
oil. There are other factors involved. Nigeria kind of obviously was
inherently fragile in the sense of it was composed of a lot of different
racial ethnic groups - excuse me, I mean and religious groups that were
going to cause problems anyways. But there was, of course, the Biafran
War in Nigeria, which was partly related to oil and control over oil
resources, so that wasn't the only consideration by far.
But then, once that was over, you had this period in the 1970s or
whatever, when all this oil money was pouring into Nigeria and it really
wasn't trickling down. I mean so much of it was actually just being
diverted into foreign bank accounts of government officials or local
bank accounts of smaller level officials that were corrupt at the local
level in Nigeria. And so, what you had is a country that actually, after
30 years of oil extraction, by the late 1990s, people realized that
Nigeria generally speaking, had become poorer since it found oil.
So, you had a country that was devastated economically and politically
because the political culture in Nigeria just became, you know, a kind
of carnival of corruption. You had a series of military dictators, the
most well-known of all, Sonny Abacha, who died with several billion
dollars in offshore bank accounts.
And so, you had a country that was really quite devastated by this
legacy of oil extraction to the point where now you had for kind of the
last decade in the Niger Delta, which is the heart of the oil-producing
region in Nigeria, a kind of undeclared civil war going on over control
of these resources because the people who actually live where the
resources are based rather than profiting from them, end up suffering
the very most. And in the Niger Delta the people there have truly, you
know, had their fisheries devastated, their farmland devastated. And so,
they've had a series of rebellions, began peacefully but became violent.
So now it's extremely dangerous to travel around there. Oil extractions
continues. Oil pollution has just been tremendously awful there because
of the incredibly difficult conditions in which the companies operate.
They probably shouldn't even be operating there but they do.
And so, the result - and I went into Niger Delta - is that it's, you
know, a kind of a, you know, a wasteland of violence and failed-state
conditions where you don't in the way of government activity other than
army activity against local people in many parts of the Delta.
DAVIES: Our guest is Peter Maass. His new book is called "Crude World."
We'll talk more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.
(Soundbite of music)
DAVIES: If you're just joining us, our guest is journalist Peter Maass.
He's written a book about the oil industry worldwide and its impacts on
underdeveloped societies. It's called "Crude World: The Violent Twilight
We should talk about BP. It sort of underwent a transformation in the
mid '90s. Tell us about that.
Mr. MAASS: Well BP underwent a, I think we can now assert, rhetorical
transformation. In the mid 1990s, when it had then a new chief
executive, John Browne, it began a really aggressive expansion and it
became kind of instead a second level oil company, really one of the
world's largest oil companies. And John Browne, the chief executive at
the time, was celebrated for that. I mean he had taken this kind of so-
so oil company and really made it kind of a top player in terms of
reserves, in terms of profitability, production, etcetera.
And then around 2000, somewhere around there, he kind of embarked on a
new fold of activity, which was to make British Petroleum the greenest
oil company around. And the transformation that kind of he embarked on
was to kind of do away with British Petroleum being as the title of the
company. Just have it be BP and have it stand for Beyond Petroleum.
There was a certain amount of skepticism over whether or not John Browne
and BP were as green as they said they were, but John Browne did go out
and say he was more or less in favor of Kyoto Protocols and he was one
of the first major oil executives to admit that global warming was
happening and was the result of human activity, particularly the burning
of fossil fuels. So he was quite unusual in that regard in the oil
industry. But, you know, there were questions at the time, okay, this is
very nice rhetoric, but how is this company actually operating? Is it
really operating in a way that's different from the oil companies - the
DAVIES: And what was the company's record on environmental
responsibility, on safety, integrity after this transformation?
Mr. MAASS: Well, it rapidly emerged that BP really wasn't any different
and, in fact, might not have been even as good in terms of actual
environmental operations as its main competitors.
There was, in 2005, an explosion at a BP refinery in Texas City that
killed, I believe it was 15 workers and injured many more. And it - the
investigations that then occurred afterwards revealed that this
explosion was the result of the plant being run with very small budgets,
very little investments in new equipment. Workers safety was not
terribly well-followed at this place. And it was all the result of a
really kind of harsh cost-cutting plan that the company had overall to
increase its profitability.
And so this was, you know, necessarily and obviously quite a black eye
for the company. And then also, there was a major kind of pipeline
problem up in the North Slope of Alaska, where BP's a major operator. A
lot of oil was spilled from its pipelines, which - subsequent
investigations revealed - where badly maintained and were - had to
actually be shut down because they were in such dire need of maintenance
And then you had, actually, around the same time, too, you had a trading
scandal in which BP traders were found to have been planning the
manipulation of propane markets in America. So, it rapidly became quite
clear that there was a lot of smoke, a lot of mirrors, but really not
much in the way of different behavior, and, in fact, maybe even worse
behavior by BP, despite the rhetoric of being Beyond Petroleum and being
a green oil company.
DAVIES: I'm interested in your evaluation of their response to the Gulf
spill, and whether it would've been any different were it another
Mr. MAASS: Well, their response - their initial response was to downplay
the extent of the accident, to try to keep information about the
accident away. Quite famously, the video feeds that BP had access to
from their submersible robots were not made available to the public, or
even to Congress, until the company was forced to make them available.
And so you had a company that was incredibly in-transparent, that was
trying to downplay and to keep people away from the truth about what was
And, you know, one of the things that's been interesting about kind of
not only what BP did after the accident, but the reaction to it, is that
reaction seems to have been BP's a rotten apple, that, you know, look,
the company lied when this accident happened. The company was incredibly
reckless in its management of the Deepwater Horizon rig, and that's why
the accident happened. It's a rogue.
But actually, as terrible as the company's behavior has been, in my
opinion, it's not necessarily that much different from what might have
been the case with other oil companies. Because, you know, I mean you
need to keep - remember, I think, that quite famously, you know, this
repair plan that BP had - or damage control plan, in terms of cleaning
up any accident in the Gulf of Mexico - included caring for the walruses
that were in the Gulf of Mexico and included kind of the phone number
and name of a disaster expert who actually was dead. And this was kind
of used to show how, you know, kind of BP hadn't planned at all and
wasn't terribly responsive to the needs of - and to its
But then it emerged that, actually, Exxon and other companies had the
exact same disaster recovery-type plan, also mentioned walruses which do
not, of course, exist in the Gulf of Mexico, also mentioned the same
dead disaster expert. So I think that was really interesting evidence of
how, although BP provably has the worst environmental and safety record
than, for example, Exxon, nonetheless, the other companies are still in
the same league in terms of, generally speaking, how they operate, how
they would operate, how well they had planned or not well planned for a
disaster of this sort.
DAVIES: You know, it's interesting, the last chapter of your book, the
one which deals with solutions, is pretty short, because you say it's
not like there's any great mystery about a lot of this. We need to cut
our dependence. We need to look for alternative energy sources. But you
did have one other notion, and that is new transparency in oil
contracts, that there is a movement afloat to make the financial
arrangements surrounding oil extraction public. Tell us about that.
Mr. MAASS: This is actually something that, whenever you feel
pessimistic about the possibilities of change and good things happening,
that now one can point to and actually kind of realize hey, that there
are things happening that are hopeful. Because one of the ways to
diminish the problematic aspects of oil in the sense of the corruption
that it can enhance and nurture, is to just have transparency.
If people know how much is being paid for contracts, what the contracts
are, where the money's going, etcetera, then it's harder for corrupt
rulers to steal. It's harder for companies to bribe. And also, the money
that is then kind of known to be flowing one way or the other will be
used in a better fashion because people will know how it's being spent.
It won't be spent on ridiculous projects, or whatever.
And about two years ago, there was a bill that was proposed in the U.S.
Congress called the Energy Security Through Transparency Act, which
would require every extractive company - not just in the oil industry,
but also coal and other extractive industries - to publish all the
payments that they make to foreign governments for the resources that
they extract. And, you know, of course, this bill went nowhere in the
first year. This is part of the whole transparency movement that began,
really, not so long ago. But actually - and this is quite a wonderful
thing that just happened in the financial reform bill that passed
Congress just quite recently - at the last minute, at the 11th hour,
that bill, the transparency bill, was kind of attached to the financial
And so now, actually, all extractive industry companies that are
registered with the SEC - it's not just American companies. It's also
most of the world's extractive companies - are going to have to publish
if they want to abide by SEC laws and continue operating in American
jurisdiction. They're have to publish what they pay to all these foreign
governments for their extractive activities. And that's really a quite
marvelous and unexpected breakthrough. It's not going to end corruption.
I mean, corruption is, you know, one of the oldest endeavors in human
history, perhaps. But it's going to make it a lot more difficult for
companies and for countries to be corrupt. It's going to give civic
groups a lot more information to make sure that oil is not the curse
that it might've been up until now.
So it's easy to be pessimistic these days because, you know, the world's
a complicated place, and there are a lot of bad things going on. But,
you know, just this one little act here - which is so new that nobody
really knows kind of what its impact truly is going to be - could be
quite a big deal.
DAVIES: Well, Peter Maass, thanks so much for speaking with us.
Mr. MAASS: Thank you.
DAVIES: Peter Maass' book is called "Crude World: The Violent Twilight
of Oil." It's now out in paperback, and you can read an excerpt on our
Coming up, David Edelstein reviews the new film "Scott Pilgrim vs. the
This is FRESH AIR.
*** TRANSCRIPTION COMPANY BOUNDARY ***
'Scott Pilgrim': Taking On The World, An Ex At A Time
DAVE DAVIES, host:
The new film, "Scott Pilgrim vs. the World," stars Michael Cera as a
Canadian slacker who plays in a rock-'n'-roll band and does battle with
his girlfriend's ex-boyfriends in the style of a video game hero. It's
based on a series of graphic novels.
Critic David Edelstein has this review.
DAVID EDELSTEIN: In the films of British director Edgar Wright, there's
a fluid connection between real life and the trashiest pop culture. His
"Shaun of the Dead" was a zombie rehash, but Wright used all those
borrowed tropes to satirize provincial English complacency in a way that
had never been done.
Now, in the comedy "Scott Pilgrim vs. the World," Wright uses a series
of Canadian graphic novels by Bryan Lee O'Malley as a springboard for
showing how rock and roll and video games fuel the most outrageous
fantasies, even in the most mundane places.
O'Malley's "Scott Pilgrim vs. the World" centers on a 20-something,
down-and-out Toronto bass player, played onscreen by Michael Cera. Most
of the time, Scott shares a mattress in a crummy one-room dive with a
gay friend played with sly understatement by Kieran Culkin, and he dates
a high-school girl named Knives Chau, played by the buoyant Ellen Wong.
Then he falls for Mary Elizabeth Winstead's magenta-haired punk
rollerblader Ramona Flowers, and learns that he might soon be besieged
by her jealous exes.
(Soundbite of movie, "Scott Pilgrim vs. the World")
Ms. MARY ELIZABETH WINSTEAD (Actor): (as Ramona Flowers) If we're going
to date, you may have to defeat my Seven Evil Exes.
Mr. MICHAEL CERA (Actor): (as Scott Pilgrim) You have seven evil ex-
Ms. WINSTEAD: (as Ramona Flowers) Seven Evil Exes - yes.
Mr. CERA: (as Scott Pilgrim) And I have to fight...
Ms. WINSTEAD: (as Ramona Flowers) Defeat.
Mr. CERA: (as Scott Pilgrim) Defeat your Seven Evil Exes if we're going
to continue to date?
Ms. WINSTEAD: (as Ramona Flowers) Pretty much.
Mr. CERA: (as Scott Pilgrim) So what you're saying right now is we are
Ms. WINSTEAD: (as Ramona Flowers) I guess.
Mr. CERA: (as Scott Pilgrim) Does that mean we can make out?
Ms. WINSTEAD: (as Ramona Flowers) Sure.
Mr. CERA: (as Scott Pilgrim) Cool.
EDELSTEIN: That mix of the deadpan and the outlandish is "Scott Pilgrim
vs. the World" at its best. Seven Evil Exes? Well, yes. They appear, one
by one, in the rock clubs where Scott and his band are playing. And
suddenly, with no explanation, Scott transforms into a superhero, a
flying, kung-fu fighting, rock and roll warrior. People blast one
another with death rays and fling one another through walls. And in
several scenes, the screen splits horizontally: Scott rockets from right
to left on top, while his adversary barrels from left to right below.
Crazy as all this is, there's a level on which it does connect with
Scott's emotional reality, with the feeling of transcendence he has
onstage playing bass - a bass that here throws bolts at the sky.
At first, the crazy-quilt inventiveness of Wright's movie is elating. It
has a look all its own, part comic-book panel, part arcade video game
screen from the era of Pac-Man and Space Invaders. Even the Universal
pictures logo is rendered as a crude arcade game. Fun facts and
character IDs pop up. When Scott and Ramona smooch, pink hearts float
out of the screen.
"Scott Pilgrim vs. the World" could have been among the coolest movies
ever made. But it runs down. The parade of super-villain exes - among
them Chris Evans, Brandon Routh and Jason Schwartzman, as their evil
overlord - is like a forced march. I felt I'd had my fill of the fights,
and there were still five exes to go.
But the biggest problem is, alas, Scott Pilgrim. Michael Cera dials down
his patented high-pitched hysteria, but our superhero is still a super-
cipher. That might work if the disjunction between his wishy-washyness
and his powers were played for satire. But it's just a disjunction. He
doesn't earn those powers, and he certainly doesn't earn the dishy
Ramona, who inspires the film's most lyrical sight gag when she heads
off into the night and the snow glows and melts under her Rollerblades.
Director Edgar Wright has done thrilling work, but he can't find here
the connection between life and pop that he found in his other films.
Scott Pilgrim doesn't seem lit from within. He's a superhero for dim
DAVIES: David Edelstein is film critic for New York magazine.
You can see clips from "Scott Pilgrim vs. the World" and download
podcasts of our show at our website: freshair.npr.org. And you can join
us on Facebook and follow us on Twitter @nprfreshair.
Transcripts are created on a rush deadline, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of Fresh Air interviews and reviews are the audio recordings of each segment.