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Miami’s Murder-Mayhem Maven : Police Reporter Has Covered More Than 5,000 Homicides

The Washington Post

Murder, she wrote.

And wrote.

And wrote.

And wrote.

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More than 5,000 of them over the last 16 years. As the premier police scribe in the country, Edna Buchanan is the Queen of Crime, the Maven of Mayhem, the Sultana of Stiffs.

“A lot of people don’t have time to pay attention to dead people,” she says. “Somebody has to speak for them.” Other victims of crime “can get mad, speak out, join a lobby. But nobody talks for the dead. They’re just dead.”

Buchanan adjusts her huge, round, Olive Oyl sunglasses. “I think I’m touched by people whose lives are cut short.”

In town to plug her newly penned book, “The Corpse Had a Familiar Face,” the 48-year-old Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter for the Miami Herald speaks in rapid-fire sentences and tells long, graphic stories full of lines like, “But anyway, there’s the Canadian tourist, shot five times, sort of thrashing around dying and. . . .”

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There’s a breathless urgency to her, as if she’s on some perpetual deadline. “I want to know what the heck happened. I hate secrets.”

Besides, she says, further explaining her obsession, “Corpses are a heck of a lot easier to get along with.”

Always Prepared

She is nervous, rubbing her bony hands, flattening her Barbie Doll bouffant. Her skinny legs are sheathed in plain stockings, her dainty feet--the ones that routinely cross police lines and trip up competing press and fold demurely in the next-of-kin’s living room while she innocently asks for that high-school picture of the deceased--are strapped into beige high heels.

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She totters a bit, and with that coif the size of a casket spray, looks dangerously top-heavy, as if a strong breeze might knock her down--gold-plated “I LOVE MIAMI” necklace and all.

An ink-stained, pistol-packing, twice-divorced high-school dropout who keeps firemen’s rubber boots in the trunk of her car just for slogging to crash scenes or badly decomposed bodies in the Everglades, and dresses each morning to the cackle of her own police scanner, Buchanan is in the right place at the right time.

Covering murder in Miami is like covering Chicago in the ‘20s, Normandy in the ‘40s, Vietnam in the ‘60s. After the influx of drugs and the Mariel boat lift from Cuba in 1980, Miami went off the crime-o-meter.

“When I first got there, it wasn’t like that,” she says. “It was wonderful. . . . They always did have bizarre crimes, but they were few and far between. It is like a jumping-off place. People from all over the country who have problems they’re trying to run away from, all sort of drift eventually to Miami.”

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Buchanan herself drifted down from a coat factory in Paterson, N.J. Now she’s known simply as “Edna” and is famous for her distinctive writing style.

Her sentences are short.

Pithy.

Like a police report.

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The “Dragnet” school of journalism.

For example: “He took me where no other man did before--to the morgue.”

Edna loves cops. She loves murders and rapes and unsolved crimes, plane crashes and natural disasters. Since going to the Herald in 1970, she has seen every kind of bizarre crime known to woman. A lot of them are sad. Some of them are just wacko.

Telltale Clue

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“People really are funny,” she says, shaking her bouffant. “Like the 89-year-old man, rejected suitor, who was irate. He made a Molotov cocktail and threw it through the window of his sweetheart, a widow in her 60s, who had rejected him for a younger man in his 70s who would take her to the dog track. Well, anyway, she stamped out the fire, and she knew at once it was him, because he had left this telltale clue. Not only that the Molotov cocktail had been fashioned in this prune-juice bottle, it was his brand.”

Or the Haitian who was knitted to death in a Hialeah factory.

Or the guy who tried to murder his wife by filling the house with propane gas and lit the match before he got outside. “Police arrived and found a vacant lot,” Buchanan wrote.

Or the father who was killed while attending a surprise party thrown by his 30 children. “Bewildered officials reported a riot at the emergency room,” Buchanan wrote. “It was no riot. It was just the immediate family.”

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Her leads are legendary. Calvin Trillin, in the 1986 New Yorker profile that spawned Buchanan’s book contract, chose his own personal favorite. It was the story of an ex-con who showed up at a Church’s fried-chicken outlet, shoved his way to the front of the line and was told to wait his turn.

Five minutes later he was shot by a security guard after slugging the woman behind the counter when she told him they had run out of breasts and suggested chicken nuggets instead.

The lead?

“Gary Robinson died hungry.”

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A close study of Buchanan would reveal a female, 5-foot-5 1/2, 110 pounds, with crow’s feet and a “Charley the Tuna” wristwatch, covered with telltale, if microscopic, cat hairs from her four stray felines--Fancy Flossie, Misty Blue Eyes, Baby Dear, Sharkey--and her dog, Rocky Rowf.

“They’re incorrigible,” she says with a laugh, “like most people who come out of Dade County jail.”

Soft Spot for Strays

She has a definite soft spot, not only for strays, but for the “unexpected heroes, some middle-aged businessman, some myopic housewife, or the passing truck driver who is suddenly called upon to do something, and they have the right stuff and they do it. It’s everybody’s fantasy. I love to write those stories.”

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She can also overdose on corn. “It seemed so intrusive,” she writes. “Strangers in her home, rifling through her personal belongings--but that’s death. A corpse has no privacy.”

As for the contents of Buchanan’s own purse, “You won’t believe what I’ve got in here.” She dumps the bag on the table: Aspergum, airline tickets, two packages of tissues, comb, glasses and a large metal object that turns out to be the key to the city of Coral Gables. The vice mayor gave it to her in October after one of her stories resulted in the arrest of the Coral Gables Rapist.

“Usually politicians don’t even want me in their town. I’ve been barred from city halls, barred from police stations.”

Disney has optioned her book for a feature film. The producers have mentioned Diane Keaton for the title role in what will undoubtedly be a black comedy. Edna doesn’t really care much who will play her.

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“As long as it isn’t Bette Midler.”

Ask Edna Buchanan what her biggest fear is, and she says without hesitation, “Not getting back to Miami. I’m always afraid that if I leave, something will happen and I won’t be able to get back.”

Born and raised in Paterson, she grew up working at the sock counter at Woolworth’s, the baby counter at W. T. Grant, a candle factory, a dry-cleaning shop. Her last job was as a finisher in a coat factory.

She moved to Miami in the mid-'60s with her mother and got a job on the now defunct Miami Beach Sun writing society items and crime stories and celebrity interviews.

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‘A Real Klutz’

No, she never really wanted to go into police work herself. “I never would have passed the physical. I’m nearsighted. I can’t even swim. I’m very clumsy. I’m a real klutz.”

She says she knew she always wanted to be a writer, ever since her Polish grandmother read the tabloids to her as child. Her father, who worked in a factory and later operated a tavern, deserted his wife and two daughters when she was 7.

“He turned up several years ago,” she says. “Dead.”

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She takes a deep breath. “All my life I bitterly resented him. He never sent a birthday card or a Christmas card. My mother had to work so hard to take care of me and my sister. I always had these fantasies of finding him and punching him in the mouth.”

Her history with men has not been great. “Both my marriages were pretty brief.” Her first husband was a soldier-of-fortune type, she says, her second a cop. “I knew 24 hours into it that it was a mistake.”

She says she is not lonely. “I find comfort in the job. It doesn’t give you time to think about anything bad in your life, because you can just throw yourself into it.”

Obsessed, dedicated, Buchanan--a member of the Miami Sherlock Holmes Club--is also a member of the journalistic old guard. She wouldn’t dream of applying for a fellowship or taking a glassed-in office or writing a column. There’s no time for schmoozing in the newsroom, and she works every weekend.

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“I never took a lunch hour for 15 years,” she says. “One young reporter came up to me and asked where I wanted to be in 10 years. I haven’t the faintest idea. . . . I never looked ahead further than next week’s paycheck.”

Fame and fortune threaten to change that, but Buchanan says she’s having a hard time on her promotional tour. “I should enjoy this. Maybe if I weren’t filled with so much anxiety, I would.”

She hates to fly. With good reason. Who knows what evil lurks in the cockpit?


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