Reading Last Call, reporter Elon Green’s immersive reconstruction of the murders of four gay men that began (mostly) with encounters in Manhattan’s gay piano bars of the early- to mid-1990s, I was struck by the fact that though I moved to Manhattan at that time, fully immersed in the gay scene, I had basically zero recollection of these hideous crimes. And that, says Green, comports with the legacy of what the tabloids at the time called the Last Call Killer. “To give you a sense of how little remembered these cases are,” he says, “in the three recent years I was working on the book, I only met one person not directly connected to the events who knew about them.”
Still, the fact remains that between 1991 and 1993, the dismembered remains of four men—at least three of whom frequented either the Townhouse, an upscale venue in midtown, or the Five Oaks, a more casual hangout in Greenwich Village (the fourth was a sex worker)—were found in plastic garbage bags in rest stops or wooded areas of upstate New York, New Jersey, and Pennsylvania. In 2001, after the cases were revived due to a new fingerprinting technique and an almost miraculous match, Richard W. Rogers Jr. was arrested, then found guilty. (Officials concede he may have committed more unknown-of murders.) He was sentenced to life in prison in 2006.
Green talked to TheBody about how he seized on this story as a book topic, how he reported and constructed his book, and what meaning he—a straight man—thinks the story has beyond a riveting and chilling true-crime account (which it is).
Tim Murphy: Hi Elon! Thanks for making time to talk. So, why did you think this story—which does not seem to explicitly resonate with modern-day issues or events—needed to be told?
Elon Green: A lot of reasons. This generation of gay men I write about is sort of forgotten relative to other generations. These guys were just on the cusp of being able to live the lives they wanted, yet did not. But they also weren’t as famously closeted as the prior generation. They kind of split the difference. For me, the book is a work of history and not of true crime. We have [of the four victims] Peter [Anderson], who had AIDS and was in the National Guard, versus Tom [Mulcahy] who was married to a woman, versus Anthony [Marrero], a sex worker, versus Michael [Sakara], who was out of the closet but had been thrown out of the military. Once I started focusing on them, the victims, I realized I could write about the panorama of gay experience in those years, which is what I really wanted to do. The true-crime elements were the crutch that allowed me to write the history.
Murphy: So how did the book come to be?
Green: It came out of a failed attempt at a prior book. Years ago, I had written a story about the so-called Doodler murders, unsolved killings in San Francisco in the mid-’70s, during which five or six gay men were stabbed and left on waterfronts. I’d explored expanding that into a book, but it didn’t go anywhere. But the issues it brought up stuck with me, the idea of writing about a community that law enforcement or the legal system didn’t give a shit about, and the way that press coverage affects visibility of the case. And as I was reading a cover story on anti-gay violence in an old October 1994 issue of The Advocate, it mentioned the unsolved cases of the New York City men. I was intrigued. I thought, “Wait, a serial killer was targeting gay men on the cusp of [the] Sex and the City [era], leaving them in garbage bags, and no one seemed to know?”
Murphy: So how did you construct the book?
Green: I did a timeline of events, which involved going through the old court transcripts and newspaper coverage, very little of which was out of New York City itself but more from where the men were from—Philly, Boston, Westchester. The New York Times didn’t cover it until 1993—they found most of the biographical information about Anthony. So I just then started calling people—detectives, family members, friends, anyone I could find to fill in the gaps. I had 30 single-spaced pages of the events. I gave the notes to an editor, she came up with the book structure, and we worked on the proposal together. In the proposal, there was no chapter on Richard [the murderer]. I was very indifferent to him as a person and ended up writing about him only to fill out the narrative.
Murphy: And there is a very shocking flashback late in the book to the early 1970s, which I will not detail in order not to spoil. What was most gratifying to you about the project?
Green: Being able to tell the story of these men’s lives. And also reporting out the 1973 thing you just mention.
Murphy: What was the most challenging part?
Green: No doubt, trying to flesh out the life of Anthony Marrero. I think I talked to his brother, but he wouldn’t confirm that he was his brother—he just said, “I don’t know who you’re talking about.” I even hired a private investigator. I couldn’t even confirm that he was born in the mainland U.S. Maybe he was born in Puerto Rico. He grew up in Philadelphia, supposedly.
Murphy: Did you try to talk to Rogers, who is now in prison for life?
Green: I sent him three letters and made two requests to meet him, which were both rejected [by prison authorities]. But I’m not unhappy, because had he cooperated with me, it would’ve affected the structure and content of the book in ways I can’t even predict, so I’m sort of glad I never had to deal with that. It’s very much not his book.
Murphy: It’s incredible that they finally get a fingerprint match on him.
Green: Yes, once the task force on his case was reassembled in 2000, one of the investigators had heard about [a new way of lifting fingerprints called] vacuum metal deposition, and those new prints were sent to all the crime labs in every state, and they were matched in Maine. I asked the forensics woman in Maine how often that had happened since, and she said never. The prints they had from 1973 were pristine, and they weren’t even supposed to be there, because the case had been expunged. So it was a fluke that he was caught.
Murphy: I was curious if the murder of Matthew Shepard in 1998, and the outrage it caused around anti-gay violence, helped reboot the case?
Green: Oh God, no. It was purely a function of Margaret Mulcahy, the wife of victim Tom Mulcahy, being a pain in the ass and not letting the case die and pushing for the task force to be reformed. At that point, they didn’t have a real reason to look into it again.
Murphy: I loved that you wrote about the gay hustler economy that revolved around 53rd Street and Third Avenue at that time, including the Townhouse, the more overt hustler bar Rounds—which was quite a fun shock for me to visit when I was 23 or so—and the street hustling. Does it still exist?
Green: I have friends who live in that area and say they never see any such thing. It’s not something I ever noticed despite hanging out at the Townhouse a lot. I think the so-called “Loop” was gone ages ago.
Murphy: Yes. So, AIDS was really raging in gay New York at the time of the murders. Does that figure in the story?
Green: It is the story in a lot of ways. I think most people don’t remember these cases because there was already so much death going on. Four deaths over three years—does that really register in the context of the AIDS epidemic? That’s like five minutes in St. Vincent’s Hospital [at that time].
Murphy: So it’s so funny, because I usually don’t assume someone’s gender, race, sexuality, etc., if I don’t know it, but I did sort of assume that only a gay journalist would wade into this story, and then I find out halfway through the book from your publicist that you are straight. And in the final pages, you say you often wondered if this was “your story to tell.” What was it like for you going into this world as a straight man?
Green: I hate that I think this is true, but I think it would’ve been much harder to tell this story if I were gay, because if I’d approached detectives and said, “I want to talk to you about this case involving the murder of gay men,” they would’ve thought that I had an agenda, whereas being straight, I was a neutral presence to them. But even on the side of talking to gay antiviolence advocates or people in gay bars, it was a plus to some degree because I was asked, “Why do you care about this?” I was always presumed to be gay because I cared about the story, and though I would not volunteer my sexuality, I would say I was straight if asked.
Murphy: But do you think there might’ve been aspects to the story you had a blind spot on?
Green: That could be, but if it’s a blind spot, then I couldn’t tell you. I’m curious to hear if I didn’t do something well enough. I always felt that as long as I was curating other people’s stories, it didn’t matter who I was. If a gay journalist with my skill set had been interested in the story, I’d say have at it. But that’s not what happened. It was either I do my best with the story or it not be told at all.
Murphy: What was it like wading into a community not your own?
Green: I spent a lot of time at the Townhouse. I was so happy and relaxed there—I sometimes went when I wasn’t reporting just to watch Rick [Unterberg, the beloved longtime pianist, who died of COVID-19 in April 2020] play. I was presumed to be gay, and if people asked, I’d say no.
Murphy: You were reaching out to a lot of the survivors of the victims. Was there a split between those who felt you were doing right by their memory and those who felt you were just dredging up past pain?
Green: It was a mix. Tom’s daughter talked to me on the record and Mike’s sister was helpful, but some reacted very negatively to my calling them, saying I was reopening old wounds. And they’re not wrong. That’s what I was doing on some level. To some people, this was me writing about how their dad cheated on their mom, and I don’t judge them for thinking that.
Murphy: What is the book about to you personally?
Green: It’s about these men who have these moments in their lives when they get to be themselves, short periods during business trips or after shifts at work when they get to settle in at the bar and the world around them disappears, AIDS disappears, homophobia disappears. As someone said to me, it’s about what a straight person feels every day of their life. That’s why the bars mattered so much.
Murphy: So, to go back to our point about blind spots, I sort of agreed with the New York Times review and with some friends I’ve talked to, in that it felt like Rogers himself, the killer, remains a cipher in the book. We don’t want to psychologize away a serial killers’ actions, but I did yearn to know more about him. Only toward the end of the book when detectives are searching his home and they find so many items of such gay banality, such as his Golden Girls video collection, did I really feel the chill that an actual everyday gay person, a respected nurse at that, had this horrifying other life.
Green: I did the work. I talked to a lot of people who knew him. He was from the same generation as the men whose lives he took. But as far as why he did what he did, I don’t write about it because nobody’s sure and I didn’t want to speculate. Some of the detectives thought the killings were not premeditated in the traditional sense, because he went home with plenty of guys and didn’t kill them. One trope I hate myself in true crime is baselessly psychologizing, when some forensic psychologist comes in and gives some stock answer. I didn’t want to do that. When people talk about motives, they’re generally talking about a single instance of murder. By the time you’re a serial killer, you’re doing it ’cause you like it—and to me, that’s uninteresting.
Murphy: It was hard not to think that the whole thing would make a great Ryan Murphy–type limited series, a bit like The Assassination of Gianni Versace. Is there a chance that might happen?
Murphy: Can you talk about that more?
Murphy: Haha, fair enough. So what’s next for you?
Green: I’m a fulltime freelancer, so at the moment, nothing. Just dealing with this book and looking for another book idea.
Last Call (Celadon Books, $27) can be purchased via Amazon and IndieBound.