Is Black Bird based on a true story?
Taron Egerton's gripping new drama is streaming now. **WARNING: Contains spoilers**
Taron Egerton's new Apple TV+ drama Black Bird is earning high praise from critics and fans, who are hooked by its dark story in which a convict must earn the trust of a serial killer in order to gain a confession.
It feels ripped straight from an airport fiction crime novel and yet, in this case, it really did happen to golden boy turned drug dealer Jimmy Keene in the late '90s.
Growing up in Kankakee, Illinois, Keene was raised by his father, local police officer 'Big Jim', and showed promise in American Football – and it seemed as though he could have a bright future in the sport.
He went on to become the best player on his high school team, nicknamed 'the assassin' for his powerful takedowns, with Keene telling CNN that he was "the most popular guy around".
However, in order to keep up with his wealthier friends, he started selling drugs on the side and by his 20th birthday, his operation was earning him $1 million per year.
Keene used this cash to live a high-flying lifestyle as well as to support his struggling father, but it all came crashing down one fateful day in 1996, when authorities stormed his home.
He told Dateline podcast: "All of a sudden, BOOM! The whole door blew off its hinges and came flying into the house, and all of these DEA, FBI and locals all came in a single-file line with their automatic weapons pointed at me. 'Freeze! Get on the ground!'"
After refusing to offer up any of his associates in the illegal trade, Keene was given the maximum possible sentence of 10 years.
It seemed that life, as he knew it, was over. Until his prosecutor, Larry Beaumont, visited him in 1998 with a shocking offer: transfer to a maximum-security institution, get a confession out of a suspected serial killer, and walk free.
The suspect was Larry Hall. He had been convicted for kidnapping 15-year-old Jessica Roach, who was later found dead, but authorities believed that this was not the extent of his crimes.
This is partly because Hall had confessed to murdering Roach and three other women in a police interview, but later retracted that statement, claiming he was only referring to dreams he'd had.
Authorities were unable to tie any murders to Hall, but still considered him a suspect in several unsolved cases, particularly that of college student Tricia Reitler, who had been missing (presumed dead) since spring 1993.
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Finding her body was a top priority for Beaumont, who decided to turn to an unlikely source for help.
"He's smart. He's articulate. He's not afraid. And I knew he wanted to get out," said the federal prosecutor on why he chose Keene for this particular mission.
Understandably, Keene was apprehensive about the idea of moving to an institution for the criminally insane, but events unfolding on the outside ultimately compelled him to do so.
His father, who he thought of as his "best friend", had suffered a stroke and his health was rapidly deteriorating, with all signs suggesting he wouldn't be around for much longer.
Horrified by the prospect of not seeing him again, Keene took the dangerous bargain presented to him, going "through hell and back" to earn his freedom.
"It was highly risky," he explained to CNN. "These people in those types of places haven't got anything better to do than try to hurt you and kill you, too."
Although instructed not to make contact with Hall until at least six months into his stay, Keene ended up doing so shortly after being transferred, knowing that every second would matter.
Keene told CNN: "I made it a point for us to bump shoulders together, and as we gently bumped shoulders together I turned around and said, 'Excuse me.' I said, 'Listen... I'm new here... You wouldn't happen to know where the library is, would you?'"
When Hall agreed to show him around, Keene continued his charm offensive: "I just reached over and I kind of slapped him on the shoulder and I said, 'Thanks a lot. I appreciate that from a cool guy like you.'"
As depicted in Black Bird, a big step forward came some time later, when Keene beat up a fellow inmate in the TV room, who had tried to turn off the programme that Hall had been watching.
This seemed to prove the authenticity of his friendship to Hall as well as making it clear that Keene was someone who could look out for him on the inside, all of which led him to open up more.
Keene claims that Hall confessed to murdering Reitler several times during their time together, but only gave a very rough idea as for where he had buried her – in the woods near a river in Indiana.
That wouldn't be enough to secure Keene's freedom and so he had to keep going.
He had a lucky break one night when he stumbled across Hall unattended in the woodwork area of the prison, where he was looking at a map dotted with locations across Illinois, Indiana and Wisconsin.
Hall also had several wood-carved falcons on the workspace, which he claimed "watch over the dead", according to Keene.
It seemed to be the smoking gun that he needed to secure his freedom, so Keene quickly left a message for his FBI handler and returned to his cell elated by the thought of his release, which he expected in the next 24 hours.
Keene was so thrilled that he decided to tell Hall his true opinion of him, letting off a tirade of abuse which left his fellow inmate an emotional wreck.
For that, he was placed in solitary confinement, but remained unfazed – after all, the feds would be getting him out soon, right? Wrong.
In a cruel twist of fate, the message he had left for his handler went unreceived and authorities had no way of contacting him during his time in "the hole".
By the time he was finally extracted from the institution, the map and the falcons he alleged to have saw had all disappeared. Therefore, he technically hadn't fulfilled his part of the deal and thus his promised freedom was on the line.
Ultimately, following satisfactory results of a polygraph test about his experience on the inside, Beaumont urged a federal judge to grant Keene's agreed early release.
This allowed him to be present for his ailing father's final years, as well as to make a fresh start, which included writing a book about his extraordinary experience titled In With The Devil, on which Black Bird is based.
However, the family of Tricia Reitler are still awaiting answers.
Read more: Taron Egerton recalls Jimmy Keene's "surreal" Black Bird cameo
Black Bird is available to stream on Apple TV+. Check out more of our Drama coverage or visit our TV Guide to see what's on tonight.
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