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'Redbone' Tells Story of Murder in Atlanta

FARAI CHIDEYA, host:

In August 1996, a prominent Georgia businessman was murdered. New York Times journalist Ron Stodghill covered the case.

Mr. RON STODGHILL (Author, "Redbone: Money, Malice and Murder in Atlanta"): Lance was a self-described millionaire, anyway, in Atlanta, and he owned a computer consulting firm, and he was found bludgeoned to death in his home. There's no murder weapon. He was nude. There was a porn tape in the VCR. It really sort of set off a search for his killer. But at the same time, it sort of sullied his high-end reputation in the community.

I mean, he was a celebrity entrepreneur around town. And he'd won - he'd been cited by the Clinton administration as entrepreneur of the year. He had been cited by the previous Bush administration. And so his demons sort of were let out as they were investigating his murder.

CHIDEYA: As detectives learned, those demons included several lovers, a few ex-wives and some business rivals. The case shocked Atlanta's black elite. Soon details about Lance Herndon's seedy personal life overshadowed his public and professional image.

Now Stodghill has written a book about Herndon's murder and the investigation that followed. It's called "Redbone: Money, Malice and Murder in Atlanta."

Mr. STODGHILL: Redbone is kind of a Southern colloquialism for a fair-skinned African-American woman, and the victim in this book had a penchant for redbones. And so I used that as kind of a motif, if you will, to examine kind of the superficiality of his - of the world he lived in.

CHIDEYA: How did you pick up on this story?

Mr. STODGHILL: Atlanta, you know, is just a fascinating backdrop for the story to occur. It's known as a black Mecca. So you know, the sort of two primary curiosities that drove me into doing this book, one was, you know, how would a 41-year-old millionaire with the world, sort of, at his feet die in such a brutal way, in a bludgeoning in his own suburban enclave? And the other one had to do with Atlanta itself and how much of a role place actually played in his death.

CHIDEYA: So you have, to put it frankly, a lot of sex in your book. Did you have any qualms about writing so frankly about this, and why did you do it?

Mr. STODGHILL: The case became part of the public record when it, you know, went to trial. But in order to kind of really have his character resonate in an authentic way, I had to ask those questions. I spent three years researching this book. And I felt as though, you know, he was driven a lot by money and power and sex.

CHIDEYA: Let's move into the boardroom, because along with the revelations about his sex life that came out during the investigation of his murder, there were also large revelations about what exactly happened to all of the money he supposedly made. Tell us a little about that.

Mr. STODGHILL: Lance Herndon was sort of - he positioned himself in town as kind of a black Jay Gatsby. He was very, very lavish, you know? He threw big parties and he overspent. Upon his death, we realized that a lot of what he had was at that point just image.

CHIDEYA: Image. It's something that really suffuses your book, as you talk about old Atlanta and new Atlanta. People who have been college graduates for five generations within African-American families and then people who were the new strivers. How much was Atlanta a character in your book as much as "Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil" really featured yet another Southern city as a character?

Mr. STODGHILL: What really turned me on about this story initially was you've got this black millionaire. You've got this African-American femme fatale. You've got a black prosecutor and D.A., and I thought that, you know, that was unique, that probably only this sort of cast could probably only occur in a place like Atlanta, which has such a rich history of black achievers, and so that they sit on this perch.

I thought it was just a wonderful place in which to tell this story. I probably wouldn't have been able to tell it necessarily in D.C. or Detroit or Los Angeles, that this was sort of an authentic story about African-Americans in the New South.

CHIDEYA: This book could easily be made into a movie. Have you sold the rights yet?

Mr. STODGHILL: No, no, not yet. I'm, sort of -

CHIDEYA: Maybe you need you to cast Lance Herndon. Who would he be as an actor, if you were to cast him?

Mr. STODGHILL: You know, someone with quite a bit of range. I've seen a Don Cheadle play - just a very rich range. And you know, Don Cheadle has, you know, he's a good-looking guy but not overly so, and so that was sort of Lance Herndon. He was just rich, rich in charm, and I could see a Don Cheadle playing him.

CHIDEYA: And what about the - without giving away too much - the Redbone femme fatale?

Mr. STODGHILL: That's really - that's a good one. I mean, you know, when Halle Berry stretches herself, she can play a really, really good deranged person. So…

CHIDEYA: Are we talking "Catwoman" here? Are we talking "Monster's Ball"? What are we talking -

Mr. STODGHILL: Maybe "Monster's Ball." But if you recall, you may have seen her in, like, she played a crackhead in Spike Lee's -

CHIDEYA: Oh, true. True.

Mr. STODGHILL: Yeah, yeah, alongside Sam Jackson.

CHIDEYA: Yeah. That was a great role. Well, Ron, thank you so much.

Mr. STODGHILL: Thank you, Farai. I appreciate it.

CHIDEYA: Ron Stodghill is the author of "Redbone: Money, Malice and Murder in Atlanta." You can read the first chapter of his book at our Web site, npr.org. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.