Historical Accuracy (Q&A):Was James Keene a star high school football player?
Yes. The Black Bird true story confirms that James "Jimmy" Keene was a star football player and captain of Illinois' Kankakee Eastridge High School football team in the early 1990s. According to CNN, he didn't have enough money to keep up with the rich kids at school, so he started dealing drugs. Upon finishing high school, Jimmy didn't get recruited by any major universities. He instead embraced dealing drugs.
Is Black Bird based on a book?Yes. The Apple TV+ miniseries is based on James Keene and Hillel Levin's 2010 book In with the Devil: A Fallen Hero, a Serial Killer, and a Dangerous Bargain for Redemption. An expanded version of the book was released in the summer of 2022 with the title Black Bird: One Man's Freedom Hides in Another Man's Darkness. Like the miniseries, the book explores James Keene's attempt to befriend suspected serial killer Larry Hall in order to discover the locations of his victims.Why was James Keene sentenced to 10 years in prison?
The real James Keene is pictured during his teenage years.
James "Jimmy" Keene was a drug dealer in Chicago who was arrested in 1996 by the DEA and FBI. He had been earning more than a million dollars annually and had become one of the Chicago area's biggest independent drug dealers. He used the money in part to bail his father, Big Jim Keene, out of debt and then to financially support him (CNN). Jimmy was convicted of trafficking drugs and sentenced to ten years in a minimum-security prison with no chance of parole. Federal prosecutor Lawrence "Larry" Beaumont (renamed Edmund Beaumont in the series) had advised him to plead guilty in hopes that he would be given a lighter sentence. Unfortunately, the plan didn't work and Jimmy was sentenced to a decade behind bars.
How many people is Larry Hall suspected of killing?
Former drug dealer James Keene (left) is depicted by Taron Egerton (right) in the Apple TV+ miniseries.
In researching the true story, we discovered that federal prosecutor Lawrence Beaumont believed that suspected mass murderer Larry DeWayne Hall was responsible for more than 20 killings. Of Larry Hall's victims, only one body has been discovered, that of Jessica Roach. -In with the DevilIs James Keene the son of a police officer?
Yes. Exploring the Black Bird fact vs. fiction, we learned that James Keene's father, who is portrayed mostly by the late Ray Liotta in the Apple TV+ miniseries, had been a decorated police chief in the Chicago area. He went by the name Big Jim Keene. The actor pictured below (right) portrays Big Jim Keene during his younger years.
Why was Larry Hall sentenced to life in prison?Suspected serial killer Larry Hall was sentenced to life in prison for the 1993 kidnapping and rape of 15-year-old Jessica "Jessi" Roach, whose remains were found in a cornfield not far from Perrysville, Indiana, approximately 20 miles from where she had been abducted in Georgetown, Illinois. Despite signing a written confession that he abducted Roach, sexually assaulted her, and murdered her by strangling her with a belt, investigators could never find enough physical evidence to charge Hall with the murder (he had retracted his confession and claimed he'd actually been referencing dreams he'd been having). They were unable to pinpoint exactly where Hall killed Roach, and they knew little about what happened from the moment she entered Hall's vehicle to when her remains were discovered.
The real Big Jim Keene during his days as a police officer (left) and the actor who depicts him during those days in the Apple TV+ miniseries (right).
Actress Laney Stiebing (left) portrays Larry Hall victim Jessica Roach (right).
A Black Bird fact-check confirms that Jessica Roach's parents knew that the police and FBI had the right man in custody. When Larry Hall confessed, he described finding Jessica walking her bike up a narrow road. Jessica's parents had told her to do this since their narrow road wasn't safe. It was a detail they had never told the press.Was James Keene offered an early release if he could get Larry Hall to tell him the location of Tricia Reitler's body?
Yes. In 1998, ten months into Keene's ten-year sentence (with no possibility of parole), federal prosecutor Lawrence Beaumont presented him with a deal. If he agreed to transfer to a maximum-security prison in Springfield, Missouri that housed the criminally insane and was able to get alleged serial killer Larry Hall to divulge information about the murder of Tricia Reitler, including the location of her body, Keene would be granted an early release from prison. Hall had previously confessed to Tricia's murder but recanted his confession the following day. At first, Keene said no to Beaumont's proposition, believing that it would be too dangerous.
"What happens when I gotta deal with all these crazy killers and stuff, you know. What if I get shanked? What if I get killed? I mean, am I gonna survive this?" Keene recalled wondering at the time. -Dateline
Did James Keene change his mind and take the deal in hopes he could get out of prison to be with his ailing father?Yes. James Keene's father, Big Jim Keene, portrayed by Ray Liotta in the miniseries, had a sudden stroke. James believed that the reason his father's health had faltered was because of the stress he had caused him. A sickly and frail Big Jim came to the prison in a wheelchair to visit his son. After the visit, the younger Keene changed his mind about taking federal prosecutor Lawrence Beaumont's deal to go undercover at the maximum-security prison MCFP Springfield and befriend suspected mass murderer Larry Hall, hoping that doing so would ensure an early release. It's true that James got cold feet as he approached the prison with the U.S. Marshalls. They told him it was too late to back out and he agreed to go in.Was the prosecutor concerned that Larry Hall's conviction might be overturned without more evidence?
James Keene was transferred to the United States Medical Center for Federal Prisoners (MCFP Springfield), a maximum security prison that houses the criminally insane.
Yes. The federal prosecutor, Lawrence Beaumont, was concerned that Larry Hall's defense would succeed in getting his conviction overturned, resulting in the suspected serial killer to walk free. In fact, when Beaumont and Jimmy Keene met to discuss the deal, Hall was waiting for the court to consider his appeal. Sending Keene in undercover to befriend Hall was the prosecution's best shot at getting additional incriminating information, including the burial location of another one of Larry Hall's victims.
What was Jimmy Keene's cover story while in the maximum-security prison?
Federal prosecutor Lawrence Beaumont was worried that Larry Hall (left) would be released on appeal without more evidence, specifically the bodies of his other victims. Paul Walter Hauser (right) portrays Hall in the Apple series.
Concocted by federal prosecutor Lawrence "Larry" Beaumont, Keene's cover story while in the prison for the criminally insane was that he was a convicted weapons runner who was pushed over the edge upon learning he would have to serve 40 years in prison. Keene could relate to the cover story since he had felt a somewhat similar sense of shock when he learned he would have to serve ten years for his drug dealing.Is Lauren McCauley a real FBI agent?
Sepideh Moafi's character, Lauren McCauley, seems loosely based on retired FBI Special Agent Janet Butkus, who worked for the FBI in Springfield, Illinois at the time of James Keene's arrest and undercover work in the maximum-security prison MCFP Springfield. The miniseries fictionalizes her character a bit. Unlike Agent Lauren McCauley in the miniseries, Janet wasn't present during Keene's arrest, nor was she present when he was presented with the deal to go undercover into MCFP Springfield. Federal prosecutor Lawrence Beaumont (renamed Edmund Beaumont in the series) was the one who presented the deal to Keene.
FBI Agent Lauren McCauley (Sepideh Moafi) is loosely based on retired FBI Agent Janet Butkus.
In researching the Black Bird
true story, we learned that Janet Butkus, the real-life FBI agent, did pretend to be James Keene's girlfriend while visiting him at MCFP Springfield to gather updates on how his undercover work was going. Keene states in his memoir that Janet (called Janice in the memoir) even kissed him to help establish their cover. Janet Butkus retired from the FBI in 2016.Did a mob boss befriend Jimmy Keene while in prison?Yes. In answering the question, "Is Black Bird accurate?" we learned that Genovese crime family boss Vincent "The Chin" Gigante befriended Jimmy and advised him not to associate with child killers like Larry Hall. The Chin would visit Jimmy's cell, play bocce ball with him outside, and eat breakfast with him. This made it difficult for Jimmy to speak to Larry during the day, so he began stopping by Larry's cell at night. Prior to entering prison, The Chin had been known to walk the streets of New York City in his bathrobe, earning him the nickname "The Oddfather."
Did Jimmy Keene gain Larry Hall's trust by beating up another inmate?
James Keene's friendship with Vincent "The Chin" Gigante hampered his efforts to spend time with Larry Hall.
Yes. Keene and Hall were watching America's Most Wanted (one of Hall's favorite shows) in a prison TV room when a large muscular inmate came in and abruptly changed the channel. Seeing an opportunity to gain Hall's trust, Keene got up and changed the channel back. The inmate jumped up and threatened Keene before he again switched the channel. Once more, Keene switched it back. The man approached Keene and took a wild swing at him but missed. Keene landed an uppercut, kicked the inmate through some chairs, and then got on top of him and gave him a beating. Like in the Apple TV+ miniseries, analyzing the Black Bird fact vs. fiction confirms that the incident strengthened Keene's bond with Hall. -DatelineDid James Keene get Larry Hall to divulge information about his crimes?
Yes, but it wasn't enough information to be able to convict Larry Hall of murder. The Black Bird true story reveals that James Keene did befriend Larry Hall and gained his trust. The two began having regular conversations. Eventually, Keene brought up Tricia Reitler, one of the young women Hall was suspected of killing. According to Keene's book In with the Devil, he got Hall to admit to burying Tricia Reitler's body "way out in the country." However, he was unable to get a precise location.
"Without Tricia Reitler's body, I did not accomplish my assignment," Keene states in the book, "and I didn't know what [the prosecutor] Beaumont was going to do about that."
Did James Keene see Larry Hall with a map that possibly revealed the locations of his alleged victims' bodies?Yes. Following James "Jimmy" Keene's conversation with Larry DeWayne Hall about the murder of 19-year-old Tricia Reitler, Keene discovered Hall in the prison workshop with a map that had numerous red dots scattered all over it. Keene also noticed 10 to 15 little wooden falcons lined up on the table. Each falcon had the dimensions of a "good-sized chess piece." Keene asked Hall about their significance. Hall responded, "They watch over the dead, Jimmy." Keene quickly concluded that the red dots were the locations where Larry Hall had buried his victims.
Larry's participation in a reenactment helped police put him in the vicinity of Jessica Roach's murder.
"That map of Illinois, Indiana, and Wisconsin had little red dots all over it," Keene told Dateline. "You'd look down at this map and you could see all of those little spots are burial spots where he's got somebody."
Was James Keene sent to solitary confinement for telling Larry Hall what he really thought of him?
This is an image of one of the real falcons carved by Larry Hall while in prison. He sent it to his mother. Photo: Dateline
Yes. Keene had called the number for his FBI contact and left a message telling them to come get him. He told them he had seen Larry Hall's map and the wood-carved falcons. He believed he had completed his mission and would be going home within 24 hours as they'd promised him. He decided to finally let out the disgust and anger toward Hall that he had been bottling up ever since Hall had opened up about some of his brutal crimes against young women.
"I went across to his cell over there," recalled Keene. "The repulsiveness I felt about him throughout the whole time I had to stay being his friend and the disdain and dislike I had for him, that I thought it was good for me to unload on him and tell him what I really thought of him and who he really was. I said, 'You know, I'm gonna be going home tomorrow, Larry,' and I said, 'You're a crazy killer,' and I started calling him everything you can think of."
Keene's FBI contact never got back to him, and his only contact inside the prison, the chief psychiatrist, was on vacation. The FBI's promise of getting him out within 24 hours of completing his assignment was about to fall through. Larry Hall's psychologist at the prison scolded Keene for upsetting Hall and turning him into an emotional wreck. She told the guards, "Grab him, take him, and throw him in the hole." The federal prosecutor, Lawrence Beaumont, didn't know what had transpired or where Keene went. It was as if Keene had disappeared. It wasn't until two weeks later when Keene's internal contact in the prison, the chief psychiatrist, returned from vacation and discovered what had happened.
Did James Keene blow his cover when he told Larry Hall exactly what he thought of him?Yes. In investigating the Black Bird fact vs. fiction, we discovered that at some point in the two weeks after James Keene verbally berated and cut down Larry Hall, the suspected serial killer got rid of the map that potentially pinpointed the locations of his victims. Hall had figured out Keene had only befriended him to get information. In fact, Hall's reply to Keene unloading on him was, "Beaumont sent you, didn't he?" Keene admitted he should have waited a few more days before telling Hall his true feelings, something that likely triggered Hall to panic and get rid of the piece of evidence the FBI needed to find the bodies of Larry Hall's victims.
James Keene (left) is pictured in the years prior to his arrest, and Taron Egerton (right) depicts Keene in the miniseries.
"People probably wouldn't understand the mounting pressure, that kettle's ready to boil over at any time, ya know, and it just felt good to unload on the guy," James Keene told Dateline. "I'm disappointed I didn't wait another day or two at least. I should have waited a few more days." However, Keene pointed out that the information he got from Hall led to the reopening of several cold cases that may have involved the alleged serial killer. "I did a good deed, and I did a lot of good things. And that's where I feel the redemption comes in. I’ve done something good for the things that I did wrong."Did the FBI ever recover Larry Hall's map and falcons?
No. In researching how accurate is Black Bird, we discovered that by the time James Keene got out of solitary two weeks later and was extracted from the prison, Larry Hall had hidden or disposed of his map and wood-carved falcons. The FBI apologized for not acting on Keene's message. His other contact, the prison's chief psychologist, apologized for being unreachable due to the fact she was on vacation.
Did James Keene still get released early from prison despite not completing his undercover assignment?Yes. Keene passed a polygraph with regard to what information he was able to obtain in prison from suspected mass murderer Larry Hall, specifically that Hall had killed more women. Federal prosecutor Lawrence Beaumont convinced the judge to give Keene credit for his work despite not getting enough information to lead them to Tricia Reitler's body. However, this arguably wasn't entirely Keene's fault. With regard to facilitating Keene's release from prison, Beaumont commented, "It was the only just thing we could do because, after all, he did sit in the nuthouse with this person."When was James Keene released from prison?
The Apple TV+ miniseries is based on the 2010 memoir by James Keene (pictured).
James Keene was released from prison in 1999 after serving a total sentence of approximately 17 months for his role in a large-scale drug-dealing operation. His father, Big Jim Keene, was still alive at the time, and he got to spend five more years with him before his death in November 2004 at age 67. Keene eventually found success in real estate. He also wrote the 2010 book In with the Devil with author Hillel Levin about his experience going undercover.
Prior to Taron Egerton portraying him in the Apple TV+ Black Bird miniseries, Brad Pitt had expressed interest in bringing Keene's story to the screen. Keene would go on to serve as an executive producer on the Apple miniseries and could be seen at the Los Angeles premiere.
Was suspected serial killer Larry Hall ever convicted of murder?
James Keene's father (left) is depicted by Ray Liotta (right) in the miniseries.
No. A Black Bird fact-check verifies that despite confessing to the murder of Laurie Depies in 1992 and to the kidnapping, rape and murder of 15-year-old Jessica Roach in 1993, Larry DeWayne Hall was never convicted of murder due to a lack of evidence to substantiate his claims. Like in the Apple TV+ miniseries, he had recanted his confessions and claimed they had been events in dreams he had.Where is Larry Hall now?
Alleged mass murderer Larry Hall is currently imprisoned at the Federal Correctional Complex in Butner, North Carolina where he is serving a life sentence with no chance at parole.