The journalist and author has spent a lifetime pursuing stories about people
By Colin Battis
“I stayed by the phone that entire time, just waiting to be sued. A week, maybe ten days later, I got a call from the main source, who was a medical examiner. He told me she had confessed, and nobody else knew. I remember I fell on the ground in my office crying, because I realized at that point how worried I was, ‘cause we hadn’t heard anything, that we had gotten some major thing wrong.”
Stephen Fried speaks casually about solving the largest-ever case involving children killed by their own mother, sitting in an office that seems like that of a stereotypical professor or academic. Every available surface of desk, shelf, or windowsill seems weighed down by books, magazines, or sticky notes.
Some of that material relates to Fried’s latest project: a foray into history to write an acclaimed biography of Dr. Benjamin Rush, a signer of the Declaration of Independence and important figure in treating mental illness.
As he leans back in his chair, Fried’s face is accidentally framed next to a bobblehead figure of himself, which does a great job of capturing his shock of curly white hair and the eyebrows that arch sternly above his glasses.
There are a few concessions to the accomplishments of his 40-year career in journalism- framed newspaper articles and magazine covers, copies of his own books, and a cluster of awards. One of those awards is a medal from the Vidocq Society, an organization of forensic professionals specializing in cold cases, given to him for his investigation of a woman who had killed eight of her ten children and had gotten away with it, fooling authorities into believing it was a tragic case of SIDS.
This is the story Fried is currently caught up in telling, having passed the part where he turned over his material to the police and just now caught up to when the killer confessed to her crimes.
“People always said that this woman is either the most sympathetic woman in history and we were reopening every one of her wounds, 30 years later,” Fried said. “Or this is the worst unsolved crime in the history of being a mom, in which case you are saving the memories of the most kids ever killed by the person who gave birth to them…”
Though he might look perfectly suited to the stereotype of a ‘writer’, Fried is harder to pin down in person, leaning back in his office chair and seeming to enjoy each question that comes his way as an exercise in dissecting his own career. He pivots from decade to decade, jumping from high to low points as he questions or looks back fondly on his own decisions and strokes of luck.