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James Keene and HIllel Levin

  • In with the Devil: The Fallen Hero, the Serial Killer and a Dangerous Bargain for Redemption
  • (St. Martin's, Summer 2010)
  • by James Keene and HIllel Levin
  • When we got this letter, we knew journalist/author Hillel Levin had found a great story in James Keene. The pitch alone (one of the best we’ve ever received) resulted in an auction for the film rights and the book rights—and the book delivers the goods.

    Here’s the letter, as we received it:

    Dear Nat,

    Here’s a twist. Over the weekend I was approached by Jim Keene, who has been pursued by some producers and actors, including Sean Penn, to do a movie about his life, but sees the wisdom of doing a book first.

    In 1997, Jim was convicted as a big-time drug dealer in central Illinois. He received a 10 years-to-life sentence but after serving a few months was given the option of a quick release if he could get a serial killer to confess to his crimes. He was transferred, under cover, to the nation’s most maximum security prison for the criminally insane in Springfield, Missouri – the first time the federal prison system ever permitted this ploy. The only employee in the facility aware of his mission was the head psychiatrist. His only contact with his outside handlers came through periodic visits from his “girlfriend;” actually an FBI agent (and, oddly enough, daughter of Dick Butkus – evidently much better looking). Jim not only had to infiltrate the killer’s strange retinue of psychopaths, he had to survive fights with other deranged inmates and somehow maneuver around the prison’s ruling clique of “ailing” Mafia chiefs who forbade him from having anything to do with “baby killers.” Another obstacle was the killer’s strangely protective therapist, who even had Jim thrown into solitary to get him to confess to the real reason he was in the facility.

    For me, the most interesting part of the story is Jim’s own background. He grew up surrounded by that unique Illinois blend of power, influence and corruption. His father was a police chief, but also tied closely to the machine of George Ryan – the state’s recently convicted governor. Jim, like his father, had a habit of reaching a little too fast, a little too far – first in high school football, where he was an accomplished running back, and then in drug dealing, where he ultimately made millions and once had to confront a crazed, gun-toting cartel leader in Mexico, who had kidnapped his partner.

    A central figure in the story is the prosecutor, who pursued Jim for ten years to shut down his drug operation. In the process, he gained a grudging respect for Jim’s courage and wiliness, and suspected he might still have the desire to redeem himself. As a result, so soon after convicting him, he was ready to let him go if he could help the feds finally nail Larry Hall.

    Suspected of killing as many as two dozen girls and young women, Larry Hall had never been tied conclusively to any of the crimes by physical evidence, and because of police incompetence, a confession (which he later recanted) had been ruled out as evidence. His only conviction was for attempted abduction, which was overturned once on appeal. A skilled hunter and outdoorsmen, who re-enacted revolutionary war battles, Hall would drag his victims deep into the woods and then, to strangle them, would bind their necks to trees with a tell-tale loop of belts. He never forgot where he left them. A map and meticulously carved falcons helped Jim ultimately break through to Hall and helped the authorities tie him to the location of more victims.

    Once Jim got the confession from Hall, he was literally led through the back door of the prison where a jet was waiting to return him to Chicago. He was not only released, but efforts are now underway to grant him a full pardon for his crimes.

    Looking forward to hearing from you.

    Best,

    Hillel Levin

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