But there’s much more to Ness’ story, including the little-known fact that he tried to solve the case of America’s first true serial killer, the Cleveland Torso Murderer, in 1935. New York Times’ bestselling author and professor William Bernhardt read the factoid in a biography about Ness and was curious enough to start researching Ness’ involvement, which led to Bernhardt’s book Nemesis: The Final Case of Eliot Ness.
That book has been picked up by Sony Pictures Television with plans to become an eight-episode miniseries by the same name for NBC, with Craig Zadan and Neil Meron attached as producers according to Access Hollywood. Bernhardt hasn’t heard any news about casting or locations. “We’re still waiting for Ben Brandt to finish the teleplay. He’s a terrific writer, and I’m anxious to read it,” Bernhardt said.
Unfortunately for Ness, the case — and the end to his own life story — didn’t have a happy ending.
“He (Ness) did a lot of good work for Cleveland as the director of public safety and turned that town around. He was the golden boy of the city, but then he couldn’t nail this one serial killer. Everybody turned on him,” Bernhardt said. “The term ‘serial killer’ didn’t even exist yet. They were trying to catch him with conventional means. What did the murders have in common? Nothing, really. What is the motive? There isn’t one, as one might understand it. They didn’t have the tools to catch this guy.
“After he was unable to bring in Cleveland’s torso murderer, the press turned on him,” he said. “He had trouble finding work after World War II and began drinking too heavily. He died of a heart attack, probably complicated by alcohol abuse, at age 54. This is a man who made major contributions in the world of law enforcement, and he deserved a better end. So in my book, he gets something closer to the finale he deserved and solves the case.”
Bernhardt’s book goes behind the scenes to share what the press of that era never knew.
“While the killer was at large, Ness received taunting, threatening postcards from the killer. He told no one, but he did save them. His adopted son put them in scrapbooks later donated to a Cleveland library, where the postcards were discovered decades later. The cat-and-mouse game between hunter and hunted was far more intense than anyone realized,” he said.
Unlike real life, books require closure, and Bernhardt decided to put on his detective cap and come to his own conclusion about who the real killer was.
“Several experts on the case have been kind enough to say they think I got it right,” he said.
Bernhardt teaches writing at Rose State College and is also the executive director of the Rose State College Writing Short Course, an annual writing conference at the campus that brings together bestselling authors, editors, agents and new writers. He is the author of 33 books, including the acclaimed Ben Kincaid thriller series.
Bernhardt couldn’t let go of the time period so easily. He’s currently writing a book that takes place during the same year as Nemesis. It’s a Dust Bowl road trip tale set in Oklahoma, and he would love to see it adapted for film, as well.