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The Kill Jar

A new true crime book pits the personal against Detroit's pedophile underworld


In an early scene in J. Reuben Appelman's new book, The Kill Jar: Obsession, Descent, and a Hunt for Detroit's Most Notorious Serial Killer (Simon & Schuster, 2018), the parents of a young boy abducted by the Oakland County Child Killer appear on television to beg for his release. They promise their son, if he's watching, that they'll make him his favorite food upon his return: fried chicken.

Days later, their son was found dead, an autopsy revealing he'd been fed fried chicken in captivity. The deaths of four children in the Detroit, Michigan, area were linked to the OCCK between 1976 and 1977, but no culprit was ever brought to justice.

Appelman's achievement here is telling a coherent story about OCCK, and the vast and well-organized network of pedophiles that operated in the Midwest in the '70s. It's an uphill battle. The effects of the OCCK murders and child predation fracture lives and communities, and the issue touched Appelman personally, making The Kill Jar an intimate entry into the true crime genre.

Appelman, a Boise State University MFA graduate and two-time State of Idaho Literature Fellow, will appear at a release party for his book at Rediscovered Books on Tuesday, Aug. 14, at 7 p.m. A child living in the Detroit area at the time of the murders, he describes in The Kill Jar being approached by a likely child predator—the starting shot of a youth rife with encounters with pedophiles, family violence, substance abuse and self-harm. Pouring his obsessive, borderline-paranoiac energy into his research, he hastened the demise of his marriage and tripped through a series of other romantic relationships. His damage colored how he approached family and love, mirroring the unanswered questions that plague his investigation into OCCK.

An early writer about the killings explains to Appelman in The Kill Jar that there is no end to the OCCK story. Police misplaced evidence and a prominent suspect was found dead under mysterious circumstances. Left in the lurch were victims' families. If the OCCK killings are murky, the culture of pedophilia is murkier, and Appelman's book is as much a story about a conspiracy of inaction toward the scourge of child abuse as it is about a serial killer.

Appelman, realizing the OCCK story isn't a history but a personal narrative, reveals the lives and habits of people touched by the murders, and he's unsparing when it comes to his own behavior. His chapters are short, as if chipped from a whole that would confound and likely horrify readers if it were left intact.