James Patterson and Tim Malloy
Investigate the Murder of a Small Town
by Jay S. Jacobs
They are not the type of towns that most people notice. Belle Glade and Pahokee are on the far west side of Florida’s opulent Palm Beach County. They are an hour drive from the glamorous estates, world-famous shopping and crowded beaches of Palm Beach, and yet in some ways they are a whole world away. There are no five-star-hotels, there is no shiny sheet, there are no world-class stores and dining. Tourism, the lifeblood of the rest of the county, does not reach out to these outer areas.
Also on the other side of the county were world-famous crime novelist James Patterson – who has written or co-written dozens of books – and Tim Malloy, a local TV journalist. However, unlike so many others, Patterson and Malloy did notice the two small towns, which are also known locally as The Muck Cities due to the rich soil once used for growing sugar cane.
Sadly the sugar cane market has gone way down and the towns’ economies have suffered. Unemployment, poverty and crime numbers have exploded in recent years. The area was quickly becoming living ghost towns.
Patterson first learned about the area through his own charitable work, and upon visiting the area he was strongly reminded of his own hometown of Newburgh, New York. On the news, he saw Malloy doing stories about the problems of the area, so the two met up to discuss their mutual desire to shine a spotlight on the problems and the great potential of the people of Belle Glade and Pahokee.
This collaboration led to the one-hour labor-of-love documentary Murder in a Small Town, which is currently available On Demand and through iTunes and other content providers. It will also be on Netflix soon.
There have been some people who have made it out of the Muck Cities to become wildly successful in the world, mostly current and past star football players like Anquan Boldin, Deonte Thompson, Rickey Jackson, Santonio Holmes, Andre Waters, Antone Smith and others. However, you rarely hear stories of people who make it out of the area which are not superstar athletes. Strangely enough, stuttering country musician and comedian Mel Tillis also grew up in Pahokee, but he had left the area by the 1950s, long before the town’s economic downturn.
Patterson and Malloy have captured the highs and lows of life in these two small towns in their movie. These are places where it sometimes seems that the world is passing them by, but at the same time it shows the great joy, pride and hope that still thrives in the people of the two towns.
We recently sat down with Patterson and Malloy to discuss the making of their labor of love, Murder in a Small Town.
What was it that first got you interested in Belle Glade and Pahokee? They are pretty long drive inland from the beach areas of Palm Beach county. How did they cross your radar?
James Patterson: A couple of things. Tim, he can tell you, he has been a journalist in Palm Beach for years.
Tim Malloy: I had covered a lot of bad things that happened out there over the years. I got in touch with Mr. Patterson when I found out that he was intrigued by the area as well. He had gone out and brought books out to kids, and had been quietly going out there for years. So we just said, “Let’s collaborate on a unique look at the place.”
James Patterson: Yeah, I give away a lot of books, in places like Palm Beach County being one of them. I went to these schools and the kids are amazing. They’re engaged, they’re smart. But, that environment out there… Belle Glade is 45% unemployment. It’s the most violent small town in America. Newburgh (NY), where I grew up, is one of the most violent small towns in America. Tim and I just wanted to correct the caricature of these towns. There are a lot of really good people in these towns.
You are an example of the “American Dream,” that you can raise yourself out of poverty and eventually own a beautiful home in Palm Beach. When you brought the kids of the Muck Cities to visit your home, were you trying to inspire them that anything is possible in the country?
James Patterson: I think there was a little piece of that. I thought it would be a treat for them. For the kids, Palm Beach is Disneyland. They got a kick out of it. We try to keep some perspective, but I’ve got to tell you, I was lucky to get out of that situation. A lot of people don’t have the luck that I had. I was a very lucky guy.
Did you think that if things had broken differently in your life, your existence may have been somewhat similar to what these people were experiencing?
James Patterson: Well, I would have gotten out, but yes, it would have been very different. At one point, I thought I would be a teacher. It would have been a lot different. I wouldn’t have been living at Pahokee, but…. I’d be somewhere else.
I thought possibly the most interesting part of the documentary was the part that may have in some ways been the most similar to your day job – talking about the murder of the grocer Jimmy McMillan and how it affected the community. You said in the film that the grocery store was so vital to the community that there was a sort of unstated agreement not to rob it. How did the loss of McMillan and the sale of the store change the area?
James Patterson: Tim knew the store and the owner for a bit, and the reputation.
Tim Malloy: Yeah, he was a white man in a black community, who cashed checks and was trusted. A respected, nice family. The father had the store before [him]. So when he was taken, it was felt greatly by the black community.
James Patterson: Yeah. I mean, it was a triple tragedy. It was a tragedy for the town. It was a tragedy for the McMillan family. And it was a tragedy for the family of the shooter.
It was sad, because Corey Graham, Jr., who had been a football player who had never been in trouble, ended up robbing and killing McMillan.
James Patterson: I think the murder was an accident.
Well, he certainly wasn’t planning on it.
James Patterson: The thing about this film is that people that watch it, they are riveted, which is a little unusual for a documentary. People usually tear up during this thing. It’s a very emotional film.
How can people see it?
James Patterson: It’s going to be available on Video On Demand, I guess September 9. iTunes, and Google Play. And then on Netflix, I think, on October 15.
Did Corey Graham, Jr. ever explain why he decided to rob the store?
James Patterson: Corey hadn’t been interviewed during the trial. Then, Tim actually met Corey’s dad and his grandmother. There was a little relationship that was formed, but Corey hadn’t spoken to anybody. I sent a letter to the prison. Much to my surprise, I got a letter back from Corey. “Dear Mr. Patterson, I wouldn’t mind talking to you…” So we went to the prison. You know this whole thing was shot for nothing. We edited it in a strip mall. We made this movie for $40,000 or $50,000. But up we went with the cameraman to the prison, and Corey was…. You interview a kid like that and you go, no record beforehand. He’ll never get out of prison.
Do you think the desperate straits of the towns and the lack of jobs almost makes crime seem a reasonable option to some people?
James Patterson: Yeah. It’s mainly young males. In a lot of cases, drugs become part of the problem. It’s different in Newburgh than in Belle Glade and in Pahokee. In Newburgh, it’s also gang wars.
The scene where you walked through the crack den seemed like something out of your fiction – but it was in real life. What was it like seeing how the drug problem was decimating the town and literally experiencing how they lived?
James Patterson: Well, like I say in the film, I write about Alex Cross, and I write about The Women’s Murder Club, but Alex Cross is not going to come in and solve this problem. It’s a lot scarier than certainly the fiction that I write. On the other hand, when we were filming this, we had nothing but cooperation from people.
Were there any people that you interviewed or talked to in the film that you had particularly high hopes for – that they would break free of this world?
James Patterson: Yeah, and that’s what got me doing it in the first place. I went out to some of the grade schools there, and I just found the kids to be terrific. They were sharp. And I go into a lot of schools. I go into big schools in rich neighborhoods. These kids were just as sharp, just as quick. When we asked them questions during the filming, they ran right with it. No hesitating, no shyness. Poised. You look at these kids and go their situation is very tough, because of the poverty in these towns.
One thing is that the film shows football stardom as just about the only way of getting out of the Muck Cities. While it is certainly a lovely dream, maybe one in a million will get the chance to play in the pros.
Tim Malloy: The serious side is that you either go to prison or you go to the NFL.
What do you think are some more realistic ways for citizens of Belle Glade and Pahokee to make it out of poverty?
Tim Malloy: It needs an industry. It doesn’t have one. When the sugar companies automated, jobs went away. Unemployment is 40-50%. No one invests. It’s a drive-around and fly-over community. Nobody stays.
James Patterson: And education. The state can do a little. The county is actually working on it. It’s just hard. You’ve had four generations of people living a certain way out there. It’s hard to change that. It’s hard to get the kids going. The kids are bright, and the kids are resourceful, but they fall into a pattern, or a lot of them do. Or they get out of there.
The film is called Murder of a Small Town, but unlike real murders, do you think that the small town can actually be revived?
James Patterson: Yeah, but we have to pay more attention to it. The government has to pay more attention to it. You watch all the debates right now, and the poor, tragically, aren’t in the discussion very much.
In this election year, the whole idea of income inequality is a huge concern, and it’s basically a lot of what the film is about. What do you think that it says about Palm Beach County – or even the US in general – that in the same county that a Presidential candidate has an estate that is essentially a monument to conspicuous consumption that there is such desperate poverty? Will the people of Belle Glade and Pahokee ever be welcome at Mar-a-Lago, or The Breakers or Worth Avenue?
James Patterson: I don’t know if that’s the relevant thing, but I think that the big thing here is that it’s the richest country in the world, and we’re doing very little to help people who are not making it, at all. There are 45 million Americans living below the poverty line. Many are children. And we’re not dealing with it.
How do you think people can help to deal with it?
James Patterson: The first thing we have to do is just raise the consciousness. It’s like anything you try to attack. A long time ago people started raising the consciousness about the dangers of smoking. Eventually, you get to a point where things change. Hopefully this kind of film will start to raise the consciousness. I will say, people watch this movie and they go: “How can I help?” So that’s a start.
You are not only shining a light on the problems of the Muck Cities, you are putting your money where your mouth is. Tell me a bit more about the charitable foundations you have set up for the people of Belle Glade and Pahokee.
James Patterson: We have scholarships for the high schools in Belle Glade, Pahokee and Newburgh. There’s a choir out there that we hope will be famous, like the Harlem Boys Choir, (laughs) which we are helping out. It’s something we do. There’s also a grammar school for Hispanic kids that we are helping out with scholarships. So, we’re doing some of those things. Sometimes it’s hard to help. I went up to Newburgh and met with the mayor, said how can I help? It isn’t as easy to help as you’d like it to be, sometimes. Beyond that, I have scholarships, or my family does, at 28 universities around the country. I forget, there’s like 400 funds for teachers we have right now. So, we’re doing a lot of things. But more than anything else, and that’s what the film does, we’re drawing attention, shining a spotlight on it. We have a thing with school libraries where we give away almost two million a year. But more important, it shines a light on it. When we announced that we try to help school libraries, we got 28,000 pleas for help in ten days. That demonstrates how enormous the need is. And then you get a lot of stories on it, like you’ll do a story. That’s helpful.
You’re a writer, which is general sort of a solitary process. Although obviously films have been made of some of your books, this was a more hands-on labor of love for you. How was the idea of making a film an intriguing proposition for you? Did you enjoy the process of getting out there and meeting all these people and experiencing their lives?
James Patterson: Working with Tim, it was a pleasure. (laughs) I’ve been involved with films before. The nice thing here was we weren’t working for anybody. Nobody could tell us what to do. We went out and priced this thing initially and filmmakers put a price of like a half a million, $600,000. We went out and shot it for $40,000. It was a labor of love. We just kept shooting it until we got it right.
Obviously you are a very busy man, putting your books together and releasing several books a year. How important was it to you to make time for the documentary, and do you ever get to sleep?
James Patterson: We just made the time. Like I said, we edited it at a strip mall.
Tim Malloy: He’s a one-take guy. He doesn’t sit around. He does it.
James Patterson: Yeah, when you watch the film, we shot in Newburgh for three hours. Seven set-ups and my wife did all the stills for three hours.
You have obviously created a publishing empire with your books. Looking back on your career, are you ever amazed at how far you have come?
James Patterson: Yeah. I don’t think about it, but when you ask me the question, yeah. It’s pretty stunning. I mean, I’m not impressed with myself, but it is kind of a heady.
Copyright ©2016 PopEntertainment.com. All rights reserved. Posted: September 16, 2016.
Photo 1 ©2016 Sue Patterson. All Rights Reserved.
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