Undercover in Prison: Befriending a Serial Killer

When James Keene formed an unlikely friendship with a fellow inmate, he was given an almost impossible mission to shorten his sentence. He was asked to coax a confession out of a serial killer named Larry Hall. Hall had been convicted for the 1993 murder of 15-year-old Jessica Roach and was also suspected of killing up to 19 other young women. He started young; his first victim, 14-year-old Dean Marie Peters, disappeared when Hall was himself a teenager.

Jimmy Keene / Paul Walter Hauser, Taron Egerton / Jessica Roach / Larry Hall.
Source: Moviestillsdb.com

“What I found most interesting about Larry,” Hillel Levin, a writer assistant, stated, “was how wrong popular fiction and nonfiction is regarding serial killers… a lot of what we think we’ve learned from these TV series, from books about FBI profilers, is really wrong.”

The True Story Behind Black Bird

Ironically, it’s from a TV series that many of us have even heard of the Larry Hall story. It was a book first (Keene’s “In With the Devil: A Fallen Hero, a Serial Killer, and a Dangerous Bargain”), which was then adapted into the Apple TV show called Black Bird (starring the late Ray Liotta). So, what did the show get wrong? Well, we need to know the full, true story first.

A portrait of Jessica Roach.
Jessica Roach. Source: CNN

Black Bird is about a man named Jimmy Keene (played by Taron Egerton), a former high-school football star from Illinois who became a big-time drug dealer. Keene eventually got busted and served a 10-year sentence without parole.

The Deal That Changed Jimmy Keene’s Life

A few months into Keene’s sentence, his story got even more interesting. He was approached by the FBI and offered a deal – one that changed his life forever. He was given the opportunity to walk away a free man, BUT (and there’s always a “but”), he had to do something for the Bureau…

A still from the television series.
Source: Moviestillsdb.com/ Copyright: Apple Inc.

The condition for his release was to enter one of the worst prisons in America, Springfield Missouri, and befriend Larry Hall (played by Paul Walter Hauser in the series). At the time, Hall was preparing to appeal his life sentence after being convicted for the murder of Jessica Roach.

The Bond Between Them Was an Obsession With Women

What the FBI needed was to find the remains of other young women. For years, teenage girls were going missing, turning up dead, and Hall was suspected of being responsible for their deaths. If the FBI wanted to keep the killer behind bars, they needed a reason to do so.

A still of Taron Egerton as Jimmy Keene.
Source: Moviestillsdb.com/ Copyright: Apple Inc.

But if they couldn’t get their hands on this information, there was a possibility that Hall would walk the streets again. Black Bird, which was executively produced by Keene himself, provides a disturbing premise – that both Hall and Keene share a common interest: an obsession with women.

Keene Was Everything Hall Was Not

One had no problem charming women, while the other is a pathetic man who could never get a woman without forcing himself upon her. This shared interest is what Keene used to get close to Hall. But there were other reasons why Hall even cared to entertain the new friendship.

A still of Taron Egerton as Jimmy in a scene in jail.
Source: Apple Tv

Keene basically embodied everything that Hall was not – a muscular, charming man with good looks. Hall hid behind his weight, severe acne, and shyness. Now, there was an even deeper basis to this alliance, one that made Hall an inherently jealous and inferior being…

The Hall Twins

Before we get into Keene’s story, there’s another character in Hall’s life that has a lot to do with what went down. You see, Hall had an identical twin brother, Gary, who was his opposite. Gary was the dominant and outgoing one, while Hall was more “backwards,” as Gary put it.

A dated portrait of Larry Hall.
Larry Hall. Source: Pinterest

The Hall twins were born in 1962 in Wabash, Indiana. Gary told CNN that his mother had told him that when he was born, he was blue, “that I hadn’t got enough oxygen to me or something.” There’s something called twin-to-twin transfusion, where the blood from one identical twin crosses over to the other, who gives less back.

Hall’s Brother Knew He Was Evil

According to Levin, the twins shared a “parasitic relationship” where Gary “literally thrived at the expense of Larry.” The brothers grew up next to a cemetery, where their father worked. When the boys were 12, they started working there, too. When they were young, the twins took an interest in Civil War re-enactments, and it’s believed that this is how Hall began targeting women.

A still of Gary Hall during an interview.
Gary Hall. Source: CNN

Despite their unhealthy relationship, Gary had defended his twin brother throughout his prison life and numerous accusations. Eventually, he was pressured to get his brother to confess to more than what he was convicted of.

When the Pieces Came Together

Gary later admitted to thinking that his twin was “evil” because he had tried to kill him on several occasions. “I just woke up out of a sound sleep to see my brother standin’ over me with this humongous, long limb, getting ready to smash my skull,” Gary revealed.

A picture of Gary Hall at home.
Gary Hall. Source: Facebook

When Hall was convicted of kidnapping Jessica Roach, he wasn’t surprised. “It just all fit together; it all made sense,” he stated. “There was all these questions growin’ up with him and, you know, him bein’ a young adult and everything, and him not havin’ a girlfriend. There was all these unanswered questions that—that it all made sense.”

The Jessica Roach Case

Even though Hall has been a suspect in over 40 murder cases, he’s only been convicted of one – the 1993 kidnapping of Jessica Roach. The 15-year-old was last seen riding a bike near her family’s home in Georgetown, Illinois, on September 20, 1993.

A portrait of Jessica Roach.
Jessica Roach. Source: Facebook

The high school sophomore was missing for six weeks, until she was found on November 8; her remains were located 20 miles away on a farm near Perrysville, Indiana. Since the body was mutilated by a farmer’s combine before getting discovered, investigators weren’t able to establish a cause of death or gather enough physical evidence.

The Man in the Van

Close to a year later, investigators got the lead they were hoping for. Two young girls in Georgetown reported a man following them in his van. Investigators then traced the license plate number they provided to a vehicle belonging to Larry Hall.

A still from Black Bird.
Source: Apple Tv

In November 1994, Hall was visited by police at his Wabash, Indiana home and questioned about the incident. Hall admitted to following and then speaking to the girls but denied any wrongdoing. But Hall was being connected to other instances where local teens were being followed. The police decided to bring Hall into the station to ask him about Roach’s abduction.

A Guilty Reaction

When the police showed Hall a photo of Roach, “he immediately flinched,” investigator Gary Miller recalled to CNN in 2011. “He turned to his right and put his hand up over his face like he didn’t want to see the picture. And he told me he didn’t think he’d ever seen that girl.”

A dated picture of Jessica smiling at the camera.
Jessica Roach. Source: CNN

According to Miller, Hall was indeed responsible for her death. But after several hours of questioning and nothing other than gut instinct to go by, they were forced to let Hall go.

A Written Confession

Once the FBI got involved in the case, Hall was called back in for questioning. This time, the interrogation lasted over 17 hours. He refused a polygraph, and for some reason there were no notes or recordings of the interview.

A mugshot of Larry Hall.
Larry Hall. Source: Pinterest

An FBI agent wrote out a narrative statement instead and asked Hall to sign it. The written confession revealed that Hall tied up, raped, and strangled Roach with a belt until she stopped breathing. He even admitted to having abducted several other girls – he just couldn’t remember which ones he hurt.

Recanting His Confession the Next Day

Hall was immediately put in jail in the early hours of November 16, 1994. Then, on the following day, the killer recanted his confession. “Why I was just tellin’ you about my dreams. That didn’t really happen,” he reportedly told Miller.

A portrait of Larry Hall.
Larry Hall. Source: YouTube

Despite the fact that investigators found newspaper clippings of Roach’s disappearance in Hall’s home as well as altered pornographic photos, Hall claimed that he only staged the evidence to get attention and feel important. He was fooling no one, and on December 21, he was charged with kidnapping Roach for sexual gratification and transporting her across state lines.

Two Trials, Same Verdict

The trial took place in 1995, and Hall’s defense team argued that the defendant’s personality disorder made him susceptible to suggestion – that he was eager to please and was led to confess to a crime he didn’t commit. They tried to get his confession removed as evidence.

A scene from the trial in the television series.
Source: Apple Tv

Luckily, the judge denied the request. The eight-day trial concluded with the jury convicting Hall, who was then sentenced to life in prison. A year later, a judge granted Hall’s appeal, ordering a new trial, which began a year later. And yet again, the jury found him guilty of the same crime and the life sentence remained.

The Men Who “Really” Killed Her

Hall made his second appeal attempt in 1999, when he offered theories about who he said “really” killed Roach. The defense claimed to have a man named Lester O’Toole, who stated on record that he’d admitted to his involvement in Roach’s kidnapping.

A still of Paul Walter Hauser as Larry Hall.
Source: Apple Tv

In the end, the court said there was insufficient evidence of the “trustworthiness of the statements.” Hall then pointed to a man named Keith Goble, who apparently confessed to attempting to rape Roach before dropping her off in an Indiana cornfield. Goble even showed up at the funeral home, asking to see Roach’s body.

Enter Jimmy Keene

Again, not enough evidence was found to corroborate his confession, and this too was deemed unreliable. Thus, Hall’s second appeal was denied. Hall seemed to have come to a dead end.

Jimmy Keene speaks during an interview.
Jimmy Keene. Source: YouTube

So, when a fellow convict name Jimmy Keene introduced himself to him, Hall didn’t expect anything of it. He never would have assumed that he was just a pawn in the man’s secret game – one that Keene didn’t even want a part in but had to participate in if he wanted to be a free man.

When Keene Meets Hall

In Black Bird, Keene first meets Hall in the darkness of night; the two men stare at each other from behind the bars of their cells. Of course, TV makes everything seem more dramatic. In Keene’s memoir, he recalls their first interaction.

A dated picture of Jimmy Keene with his father.
Jimmy Keene. Source: Pinterest

Keene remembers his first words to Hall were, “Hey, you look cool. Do you know where I can find the library?” After Hall explained where it was, he then asked, “You think I’m cool?” When Keene affirmed that he did, Hall laughed. It was essentially the perfect way to get Hall to open up…

Breakfast With the Baby Killers

Keene noticed that Hall went to the library every day at 2:30 p.m. to read the newspapers, so he made sure to go at the same time. Eventually, Hall felt friendly enough to invite his new acquaintance to breakfast with him and his prison buddies, known to other inmates as the “baby killers.”

Jimmy Keene attends Black Bird premiere event.
Photo by Emma McIntyre/WireImage/Getty Images

It didn’t take long for this “friendship” to become twisted. Hall, who keeps stacks of pornographic magazines in his cell in which he defaced and mutilated the images of the models’ bodies, asked Keene all kinds of intrusive questions about his sex life.

An Unusual Meeting of the Minds

Keene had no choice but to listen to and indulge Hall in his sick conversations about women, including the teenagers he killed. “For Jimmy to somehow be able to communicate with him,” Levin pointed out, “it has to touch on some of those similar nerves.”

A portrait of a young Keene.
Jimmy Keene. Source: NBC

Keene had to seem sympathetic with his fellow inmate if Hall was ever going to confess to him. Part of the role was being honest about his own relationship with women, “which helped him get inside Larry’s head.” As Levin put it, it was a “really unusual meeting of the minds.”

Hiding Behind a Mask

Hall would also talk to Keene about his passion for the Civil War, and how he belonged to a local, all-male group that portrayed Union soldiers. According to Levin, it’s common and is referred to as “the mask.” Serial killers like to wear a mask of someone else to hid behind in society.

A portrait of Larry Hall in his teens.
Larry Hall. Source: CNN

For those who know the John Wayne Gacy case, he dressed up as a clown. Instead of the clown costume, Hall “wore” this Union soldier costume in the American Civil War. He even grew mutton chop sideburns which made him extremely noticeable.

Between Disgust and Pride

Hall even used what life was like in the 1800s to justify his heinous crimes. In those days, 12- and 13-year-olds were already considered women, and the age of consent was only raised by the government to make money from high schools.

A picture of Larry Hall.
Larry Hall. Source: NBC

While in the show Black Bird, Hall is torn between disgust at his murders and pride in helping his victims feel “seen” by killing them, the real-life Hall told detectives that his recurring nightmares of his murders actually made him depressed.

Detectives Saw Him as an Obsessed Sicko

Hall also told detectives that at time he had an “urge” to be with women – one that he had to satisfy in order to feel better. Detectives found notes in his car that seemed to contain commands –like an instruction guide to serial rape.

A still of Paul Walter Hauser and Taron Egerton as Hall and Keene sitting in jail.
Source: Tv Line

The notes consisted mostly of random words on a page, but one of the few complete sentences was: “I can’t see the faces, but I can hear the screams.” Some of the case investigators wrote him off as a wannabe – an obsessed sicko.

His Friends and Family Called Him a Gentle Soul

Hall’s friends and family, however, painted a different picture. They spoke of him as a gentle, calm soul – the less violent of the twin brothers. In prison, Hall was actually treated with respect by the guards. He reportedly knew how to operate the water systems and boilers and made himself valuable to the guards.

A dated image of Keene during an interview.
Jimmy Keene. Source: YouTube

Because of his status in the prison, he was allowed to walk around the premises freely. It was something the newer prisoners, Keene included, couldn’t figure out. There came a time when Keene blew his cover…

Keene Blows His Cover

Both in the show and in Keene’s memoir, the moment when he blew his cover occurred when he saw Hall in the workshop. Keene saw him drawing a map with red dots representing all the locations of the bodies he buried around Indiana, Illinois, and Wisconsin.

Jimmy Keene attends an event.
Photo by Amy Sussman/Getty Images

Keene insisted that Hall should send the map to the victims’ parents, but Hall refused, “because I am going to win my appeal,” he told Keene. Once Keene’s cover was blown, the two had a violent brawl and Keene was sent to solitary confinement.

Sent to Solitary to Keep Him Quiet

Keene said that it was Hall’s psychologist who got the guards to throw him into solitary to prevent him from talking to the FBI and informing them about the map. While Keene was in solitary, Gary had called the police to tell them that he got a call from his brother.

An image of a prison cell.
Photo by Ron Lach/Pexels

Gary told authorities that Hall told him that their father burned the map in a barrel. At this point, the friendship between Hall and Keene was officially over. 17 months later, Keene was deemed to have done his part and was released in 1999.

The Hall-Levin Conversations

After Hall lost his appeal trial, he tried to take his life but didn’t succeed. Levin later spoke to Hall on the phone to corroborate Keene’s story, but Hall was quite defiant. “It’s not like he said, ‘I’m innocent. I never did any of this. They totally set me up,’” Levin recalled.

A still of Paul Walter Hauser as Hall in jail.
Source: Apple Tv

What Hall told him was, “the prosecutor really hated me. Really. I didn’t like him either.” When Levin brought up Keene, Hall grew audibly uncomfortable. “His demeanour really changed at that point,” Levin described.

Understand the Twins, Understand Hall

Levin thinks that in that moment in their conversation, Hall wasn’t just frightened of Keene, but “frightened of what he told Jimmy and what that could do to any of his chances of ultimately getting out.”

A dated picture of the Hall twins as little kids.
Source: CNN

For Levin, it’s Hall’s relationship with his twin that’s “absolutely key to understanding him.” Understanding their dynamic shows just how “abandoned” Hall felt when Gary left the house to live with a girlfriend. “He had lost not just his best friend, but a huge part of his life – almost like a part of himself.”

Is Gary Really the Innocent Twin?

According to Levin, many of the women Hall killed looked a lot like Gary’s first girlfriend. To some, Gary was the innocent brother who was caught in an unusual predicament of having his own flesh and blood as a serial killer. To others, however, Gary was no innocent bystander.

A picture of Gary and Larry as young boy with their parents.
Larry Hall, Gary Hall. Source: CNN

In an interview with True Crime Diary in 2012, author Christopher Hawley Martin Larry claimed Gary was complicit in Hall’s crimes. Martin had a telephone conversation with Hall, where he asked him if he had heard from his brother.

The “Baby Killer”

He said he received a long hate letter from Gary and that his brother had been “talking to police and that Gary had told police that he (Gary) knows where several bodies are buried.” When Martin asked Hall if Gary knew where the bodies are buried, Hall replied, “Only if he put them there.”

A still of Paul Walter Hauser as Larry Hall.
Source: YouTube

Hall then admitted that he was “tired of protecting his brother.” In 2015, Gary spoke with CNN, stating that he believed his twin was guilty of killing Roach, as well as other victims. “Larry…He’s a baby killer,” Gary said in the interview.

Confessing to Another Murder

Gary explained how he helped police try to get a confession from his brother. “He did, in fact, confess on tape to 15 serial murders.” Hall continued his conversations with law enforcement over the years, and in 2010, he confessed to the murder of Laurie Depies.

A portrait of Laurie Depies.
Laurie Depies. Source: Pinterest

Yet Hall was never charged for the murder of Depies because her body has never been recovered. “I felt that Larry did want it off his chest, which is typical of serial killers,” Levin explained. “They go through this back and forth of wanting to tell people what they’ve done and then denying it.”

Where Is Larry Hall Now?

Now 60 years old, Hall is serving the rest of his sentence in the Federal Correction Institute Butner in North Carolina, where terrorists, Mafia bosses, and Ponzi lynchpin Bernie Madoff sit in their cells. At the time of his 2010 confession, Hall was still a suspect in the disappearances and murders of other women in multiple states.

A dated picture of Laurie Depies smiling at the camera.
Laurie Depies. Source: CBS

The problem is there was little hard proof that Hall actually committed any one of the crimes; all they had to go by were his confessions, which he tended to recant after admitting. The string of abductions dates back to the early 1980s.

Up to 40 Women

Most of the cases in which Hall is a suspect involve Jane Doe remains, or those who vanished and were never found. There were dozens of young women who were reportedly stalked by a man who matches Hall’s description, either in an area Hall was known to frequent or in a vehicle that matched Hall’s.

A picture of one of Larry’s victims.
Tricia Reitler. Source: Pinterest

As for 20-year-old Laurie Depies, her name is mentioned in Hall’s diary. Hall admitted to being involved in the disappearance of 40 women, but almost always took back his confession. Hall is a major suspect in the 1981 disappearances of two young girls: 14-year-old Dean “Deanie” Marie Peters and 12-year-old Debra Jean Cole.

The Bodies Are Likely All Underground

19-year-old Paulette Webster (who disappeared in 1988) is just one of the girls who was never found and tied to Hall, even though he has implied his involvement in the case by once writing a letter to an author. In his letter, he taunted the author by saying, “If I did it, I would have put her in a river or in a field.”

A dated portrait of Paulette Webster.
Paulette Webster. Source: Pinterest

Most of Hall’s (alleged) still missing victims are thought to be underground. The theory is that because he grew up digging graves in a cemetery, he was well versed in how to bury evidence. The bodies that were uncovered were all sexually abused and either strangled or stabbed to death.

Where Is Jimmy Keene Now?

Keene is alive and well and has recently worked as the executive producer of Black Bird and played a cameo role in the final episode. Keene also works as a consultant, helping authorities profile serial offenders.

Bradley Thomas and Jimmy Keene attend an event.
Photo by Kevin Winter/Getty Images

He was deeply affected by his time behind bars, having been surrounded by the worst individuals in America, men whom, he said, had “no soul left” and no hope of release – the ones who were unpredictable and violent. Keene wrote a letter to his sister, telling her that “The inhuman screams of the patients around me sounded like something straight out of Dante’s Inferno.”

Brad Pitt Almost Played Keene

In 2010, Keene wrote his memoir with the help of Hillel Levin. Shortly after, when the book was being discussed for a screen adaptation, Brad Pitt was initially attached to play Keene. In the years since, the book was reimagined as a series (Black Bird).

Brad Pitt attends an event.
Photo by Matt Winkelmeyer/WireImage/Getty Images

Taron Egerton, who played Keene, told Radio Times how Keene cameoed in the show, “which was great fun, at a very intense, emotional, dramatic part of the story. But he’s a really nice guy and he was very pleased that I got in the shape I got into to play him.”

The Difficulty of Playing Such a Character

Egerton signed on to play the role in Black Bird in the summer of 2020 (a year after he played Elton John in Rocketman). He didn’t hesitate to play the role of Keene, finding the man an interesting character to play – and a challenging one.

Egerton poses for the press.
Photo by Cindy Ord/Getty Images

Egerton shared that it was hard for him to get out of character. There were days when he went home “just feeling sh*t.” He felt “enraged about something that hadn’t happened to me.” Above the acting, Egerton wanted to be a producer on the show.

Paul Walter Hauser Lost 40 Pounds to Play Larry Hall

Paul Walter Hauser, who played the character of Hall, transformed himself in full, losing 40 lbs. to realistically portray the serial killer. Despite the fact that he lost all that weight, Hauser still credits the show’s hair and make-up teams for making it work.

Paul Walter Hauser attends an event.
Photo by Michael Kovac/Getty Images

They were the ones who perfected his hair and those infamous muttonchop sideburns, which Hall called “burnsides.” But Hauser admitted that he was initially hesitant to take on the role. It was the intense subject matter that made him stop and think about it.

Why He Signed on for the Role

“To be honest, I don’t know that I would’ve even signed on, had it been a gross-out serial killer story,” Hauser said in an interview with Entertainment Weekly. “The older I get, the less interested I am in watching true crime because the world is in such a place.”

Egerton and Hauser pose for the press at the series premiere.
Photo by Emma McIntyre/WireImage/Getty Images

The reason he eventually signed on for the role was because of the idea of getting to the core of the dynamic between Hall and Keene. “I think what we did here is we’re telling a story about a relationship, and it’s really an undercover kind of crime story,” the actor said.