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Robert Charles Browne is a Killer Con Man

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This cover story in this Sunday's New York Times Magazine is a lengthy but surprisingly slipshod examination of the Robert Charles Browne case, the former tree farmer who claims to be one of the most prolific serial killers in history, with 48 victims scattered across the country. The piece, by Chip Brown, can be found here (registration required).

At close to 10,000 words, the article is largely a legend-building profile of Charlie Hess, the retired CIA agent who started corresponding with Browne (already doing life in a Colorado prison for one murder) and eventually persuaded him to cooperate with El Paso County authorities investigating other unsolved homicides. It's a nice pump-up for the inevitable book Hess is writing — but the writer displays little journalistic skepticism about Browne's grandiose confessions, which appear to be motivated by Hess's promises to get him better medical care and a transfer to a different prison system.

As the Denver Post reported last month, detectives still haven't found any physical evidence, such as a body, to link Browne to any of the crimes he's claimed. In only seven cases has his information been detailed enough to match up with a known murder case; the rest are too vague to even identify a victim. And, while El Paso County Sheriff's Office investigators have refused to admit they might have been had, insisting that Browne has provided details only the killer would know, other agencies have suggested Browne's kill count relies heavily on details already available in news accounts.

There's a strong precedent of phony confessions by cons doing long stretches and looking to break up the boredom; the Henry Lee Lucas hoax of the 1980s remains the goofiest example of law enforcement's eagerness to clear cases by turning a disturbed drifter into a prodigious mass murderer. But the Times doesn't hint at any of this. Instead, it lionizes Hess, who got Browne to plead to a second killing in Colorado Springs he surely did commit, and Hess's buddy Lou Smit, whose own legendary rep as a sleuth was established by putting Browne away in the first place for the murder of 13-year-old Heather Dawn Church, based on a routine fingerprint check. Never mind that Smit went on to sully that rep by getting mixed up with bogus confessor John Mark Karr and nutty professor Michael Tracey, the odd couple reinventing the Ramsey case, as detailed in our article, "Made For Each Other."

Confessions are easy. Evidence is hard. But when the facts conflict with legend, the Times, of all places, has decided to print the legend. –Alan Prendergast

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