The Long Shadow
of Small Ghosts

nolead begins Murder and Memory in an American City nolead ends

nolead begins By Laura Tillman

Scribner. 256 pp. $26

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Reviewed by

Michael E. Young


nolead ends This poetically titled book about the most horrifying of crimes weaves together a tale of true crime and the sociology of the dirt-poor border town where it took place - Brownsville, Texas.

Author Laura Tillman arrived in Brownsville as a newspaper reporter five years after a couple murdered their three children in a decrepit apartment. She had been assigned a story about the debate over the apartment building - whether it should be demolished, physically wiping away a city's reminder of the crime.

Haunted by what she learned, Tillman began a six-year investigation into the murders and the circumstances surrounding them. She spoke with neighbors and family members, teachers and aid workers, and even one of the murderers, John Allen Rubio, a troubled, drug-dazed young man fascinated by the supernatural. After his arrest, Rubio was diagnosed as having paranoid schizophrenia.

"The sadness here was suffocating," Tillman wrote, "a tidal wave that threatened to crush all in its path, then pull the wreckage out to sea."

Court files held the medical records of the children. At 2 years and 3 months, Julissa had been taken to a children's health center, where she was described as dirty, her feet black, wearing smelly clothes, her skin scarred from insect bites. John Stephan, 4 months old at the time, was also filthy. He was in the third percentile for height and the fifth for weight.

From his early days in school, Rubio was described as troubled, with a quick temper. He suffered frequent beatings from his father until at one point, Rubio told Tillman, all the anger welled up in him and he punched his father and knocked him out.

The Long Shadow of Small Ghosts is about the murders, but it is about place, as well, and beliefs that combine religion and folk tales, apparitions and worlds beyond our own.

Even in the horror, though, there are glints of hope, bright moments, people doing their best to get along, to make things better for their families and their neighborhoods.

A few miles away, in a cemetery, three graves sit side by side, a few toys scattered on one. Tillman describes a small mesquite tree that provides a bit of shade, and a farm off in the distance.

"The place was lovely in its way," she writes. "The grass and the lonely tree obliterated the violent images of the children that had been swimming in my mind. Here at last, they had a peaceful place to rest."

This review originally appeared in the Dallas Morning News.