Deep dive into chemsex paints Ed Buck victims in three dimensions
White Smoke has the soul of a true crime podcast, but its ambitions are far loftier. Host Patrick Strudwick, a British investigative journalist with a long history of reporting on crimes targeting the LGBTQ community, tells the despicable and salacious story of Ed Buck, a well-connected Democratic donor in Los Angeles with a nasty habit of fatally drugging young Black sex partners in his apartment.
The case broke into the national news only after the second of these deaths, and Strudwick makes excellent points about that. First, Buck was not arrested even after that second death until a third victim, Dane Brown, nearly dies. When that young man escaped and made his way to a gas station, where he told the attendant he was overdosing, it finally became impossible for the police and DA to ignore the two prior victims. He also makes the strong case that Buck should have been arrested in both prior deaths at the very least for the massive amounts of drugs in his possession at the times the overdoses were reported.
Much less compelling, however, is the constant, over-the-top way Strudwick attributes this lack of accountability to racism. Buck is an older white supplier of drugs and money. The victims are Black. There is zero doubt that race played a major role in Buck’s fetish and his sociopathy. But Strudwick provides zero evidence that racism is behind Buck’s mysterious ability to evade responsibility for his misdeeds. I don’t doubt that racism played a role. Possibly a decisive role. But in a 10-part podcast that is scrupulously reported and presents tons of first-hand evidence and source material, Strudwick simply declines to provide any evidence that Los Angeles, under its Black female district attorney, Jackie Lacy, was any less inclined to investigate and charge white defendants than Black ones.
European journalists have developed an annoying habit of depicting American cities with all the nuance of an 80s rap video. This is especially true of British chroniclers in The Guardian, who tend to romanticize the violence and mayhem of Los Angeles like they’re Ali G. Strudwick cites no statistics or academic expertise for his assertions about American racism. He simply lists the race of every lawyer, judge and prosecutor in the sordid tale and asserts over and over and over that race played a critical role. Again, maybe it did. But the one Black former law enforcement officer he had on, who happens to be an expert on race in policing, suspects that the reason Buck kept skating had much more to do with status and power than race.
This ham-handed tell-don’t-show impulse is a large flaw in an otherwise excellent podcast. Strudwick tells the story with a compelling mix of empathy and objectivity. His accent as well as his lisp are adorable. And his explanation of the chemsex scene — known as party and play in America — feels richly well-informed without being either judgey or unable to see where others might not quite approve of a scene built on casual sex and drugs.
Strudwick speaks to an astonishing number of primary sources, as well as experts, who contribute compelling insights. An expert on drug addiction talks about cues that are triggered by the iPhone movies Buck would send of himself shooting up others, hoping to re-trigger dependency in victims who are trying to escape his clutches.
But the most compelling reporting — such a credit to the integrity of this reporter, but also, such strong contrast to most true crime podcasts — is the effort the show takes to make its victims three-dimensional and real.
Nearly everyone recognizes the names Jeffrey Dahmer and John Wayne Gacy. But how many Americans, even true crime obsessives, can name a single one of their victims?
Strudwick renders Gemmel Moore and Timothy Dean as complex, interesting, worthy, three-dimensional human beings. He speaks to their friends and their lovers and people who understood what compelled them to enter the apartment of such a fucking creep. By revealing not just the factual history of these men, but their hopes and dreams, and what they were like years before they were turned into victims, Strudwick reminds us that every one of Buck’s victims—including the many whose names we’ll never know because they didn’t die, or at least didn’t die right in his apartment—were human souls, worthy of love and respect.
The worst trope of true crime podcasts — I’m looking at you, Crime Junkie — is its romanticization of the quirks of its evildoers. The idea that every killer is a potential Hannibal Lecter, or at least a Jame Gumb, ignores the fact that most of these deviants actually have very little to offer in terms of psychological depth or complexity. They’re just psychos and sadists. But here we truly have an unusually high functioning killer.
Buck started and sold a company for millions and led a successful effort to oppose Governor Evan Meacham in Arizona. He wormed his way into friendships with LA Democrats and contributed enough to figures like Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama to have grip-and-grin photos on his wall, artifacts that helped intimidate the men who visited his apartment. The podcast never lets us forget that his victims were equally interesting, complex, loved, valued, if not by the Los Angeles sheriff’s department, then at least by the listeners of White Smoke.
The series takes its name from the clouds that occur when a user of meth or Tina exhales. One of Buck’s fetishes — just in case purposely addicting homeless people and others experiencing desperation isn’t quite charming enough — is that he likes to videotape Black sex partners wearing white underpants while he exhales clouds of white smoke into their crotch. He calls many of them the n-word. When Dane Brown was overdosing and needed a shower to survive, Buck made him ask for it by calling him “massa.” The Wikipedia entry about Ed Buck calls him “an American convicted felon, businessman and buck breaker,” using the term for the sadistic way slaves were treated in 19th Century America, where sexual abuse and whippings were key features of control.
According to the WeHo Times, which admirably covered the story throughout, despite its editor’s acquaintance with Buck, the police eventually found 2400 videos Buck had taken. Over a thousand featured drug use, including some showing Buck injecting unconscious victims with a syringe. “One video reportedly shows Buck tightly tying dozens of socks around a man’s penis. When the man says it is too tight, Buck refuses to loosen it.”
This deranged lunatic somehow found himself in the room with major figures in the Democratic Party, even though, at a half million total dollars donated during his lifetime, he wasn’t a particularly generous donor. Strudwick points out that Buck lived in a one-bedroom, thousand dollar a month rent-controlled apartment in West Hollywood, not exactly ostentatious wealth.
One of the resonant messages of the series is the powerful need for family many of these men experience as they find their way in Los Angeles. Many grew up feeling rejected by their families in their hometown, so when they hit the streets of West Hollywood, they seek surrogate families in the gay community. The series vividly and lovingly portrays some of the scenes, such as ballroom and gay basketball, as wholesome expressions of need for community, even as it unsparingly takes the listener into the much seamier world of Chemsex.
Strudwick also is fair-minded in awarding credit to the few outlets that paid attention to the body count at the Buck apartment even as mainstream media protected the killer by ignoring him. While it’s crystal clear his personal political sympathies are far left of center—he tangled with JK Rowling after making a false claim in iNews that a Let Women Speak event featured ‘a mass Nazi salute’—Strudwick acknowledges that the right-leaning Drudge Report and several other conservative outlets played a key role in shedding attention on the matter, even if they did so more to tsk-tsk excesses in the gay community rather than out of genuine concern for the victims.
White Smoke is a painful cautionary tale, one that’s exceptionally difficult to hear in spots. But necessary, because, as its host mentions, learning to recognize signs of danger in a community unlike your own is a critical first step toward preventing future harm. Buck, who is in his 70s, was convicted and sentenced to 30 years. But as Strudwick also makes clear, there will surely be future harm. Learning to recognize the signs when fun turns to danger might just save someone you love.