The 1970 killing of St. Paul police officer James Sackett is a real-life story with characters and plotline more fascinating than those found in many crime novels.
In "Black White Blue: The Assassination of Patrolman Sackett," veteran Twin Cities journalist William Swanson gives a detailed and "insider" account of one of Minnesota's most notorious murders.
It is a story that was decades in the making. It took police and prosecutors until 2006 to gather enough evidence to charge and prosecute two men -- Larry Clark and Ronald Reed, by then middle-aged -- for a murder committed when they were young men living in turbulent racial times in St. Paul's Summit-University neighborhood.
Both men were convicted of aiding and abetting first-degree murder and were sentenced to life prison terms. Clark's conviction was later overturned by the Minnesota Supreme Court, and prosecutors subsequently struck a plea deal that freed him in 2010 rather than retry him -- a resolution approved by the Sackett family.
Sackett, a young father of four, was cut down by a single rifle bullet fired by a sniper when he and a partner were lured to a house by a bogus call for help.
From beginning to end, police said the motive for the slaying was the young black radicals' hatred for police, whom the men blamed for illegal violence against innocent black community members during the 1960s in St. Paul. Sackett's uniform -- not the individual -- was the target.
The book is a fascinating behind-the-scenes account of how a joint FBI-St. Paul police task force of investigators and prosecutors took up the challenge of solving a decades-old cold case murder in 2003.
This is not a "CSI" television police drama with flashy DNA evidence. It took relentless and patient shoe-leather police work, including cultivation of reluctant witnesses being asked to share information they had not offered at the time of the murder.
The book's details can slow the momentum of the story. And keeping all the characters and details straight can be a chore for the reader. But it's worth the effort.
Swanson is mindful of the sometimes stark differences between police and black community perceptions of the events of the 1960s, and of the police force itself.
Black voices that expressed mistrust and hatred of police back then -- voices that continue to strongly disagree to this day with the prosecution's account of the murder -- are present throughout the story. And Swanson conducted prison interviews with Reed, who maintains his innocence. Yet the book is largely based on the perceptions and views of the investigators and prosecutors, all of whom are white.
The case was controversial, and the book very well may ignite controversy. But that would prove an underlying theme that runs through the book: People of different races in the same community can view events through quite different lenses, and come to completely different conclusions about what is true.
Paul Gustafson is a former Star Tribune reporter who covered the trials of Larry Clark and Ronald Reed.