When to Name Names


Early in my writing of The Lost Brothers I considered an ethical question: In telling the story of the 68-year-old case of three young brothers who went missing in Minneapolis and have never been seen since, should I reveal the names of suspects who were never charged with a crime?

There were several different police investigations into the disappearance of the Klein brothers (Kenneth, Jr., 8; David, 6; and Danny, 4) who left home to play in Farview Park on November 10, 1951. The Minneapolis Police Department conducted the first investigation during 1951 and 1952. After the police concluded, on little evidence, that the boys had drowned, decades passed during which only the brothers’ parents, Betty and Kenneth Klein, were looking for the boys. In the 1990s, a Minneapolis Park Police investigator began his own inquiry. Then, in 2012, two Wright County sheriff’s deputies launched a new and thorough investigation, on their own time. Their work unearthed new information on the suspects, both of whom failed to draw the attention of police during the 1950s. Yet both had intriguing connections to the case, and I couldn’t ignore them.

When to protect privacy?

If I were a reporter writing about a contemporary case, I would not name suspects until they were charged. Many news organizations have strict policies about that. Anyone publicly identified as a crime suspect faces a ruined reputation, trouble landing a job or a position of trust, and the hostility of acquaintances and family members. (That’s why the police often use the benign phrase “person of interest.”) It’s an identification that must not be made without cause. Charging the suspect is the official act of law enforcement that provides the cause.

Although it pains, intrigues, and confounds plenty of people today, the disappearance of the Klein brothers is no contemporary case. It goes back to an era of police work that appears primitive compared with today’s investigations, and the Minneapolis police of 1951 seem to have never seriously considered that the boys were victims of foul play. Both of the suspects are long dead now with no known living descendants. They have no reputations, livelihoods, or relationships that disclosing their names would harm. This is a historical case, and the men are historical suspects.

I tried to think of other historical criminal cases in which writers disclose the names of uncharged suspects. Look at the Jack the Ripper case, for instance. The scores of books about those crimes raise countless names of suspects, none ever charged. In fact, I can’t think of a Jack the Ripper book that fails to speculate on the roles of named, uncharged suspects.

My deliberations ended with my decision to name the suspects in The Lost Brothers. It would be irresponsible to my readers for me not to do so. When you read the book, you can reach your own decision on their guilt or innocence.

Jack El-Hai is a Minneapolis author whose writing has been published in The Atlantic, Wired, GQ, Discover, Scientific American Mind, and Minnesota Monthly. He is author of The Lost Brothers: A Family’s Decades-Long Search, and his previous books include the acclaimed The Nazi and the Psychiatrist and The Lobotomist as well as two books from the University of Minnesota Press, Lost Minnesota and Non-Stop: A Turbulent History of Northwest Airlines. He has received two Minnesota Book Awards, the June Roth Memorial Award for Medical Journalism, and fellowships and grants from the McKnight Foundation and the Jerome Foundation.

The Lost Brothers will have a companion podcast, Long Lost, a Twin Cities PBS Original.

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