A DARK ROOM IN GLITTER BALL CITY
Murder, Secrets, and Scandal in Old Louisville
By David Dominé
A polyglot and former expat who had dreams of far-flung diplomatic postings, David Dominé never meant to put down roots in Louisville, Ky. But a planned couple of years for law school turned into an unplanned couple of decades: “Glitter Ball City,” he writes, using a less familiar nickname for his adopted hometown, “had a way of sucking people in.”
Once, while house hunting in Old Louisville, the city’s historic preservation district, Dominé and his partner toured an old brick house, admiring the handsome fireplace and walnut wainscoting, while also noting the general “strange vibe” of the place. They didn’t buy it, but the home made enough of an impression on Dominé that he recognized it more than a year later on the morning news, when the police announced the discovery of a body, treated with lime and sealed in a Rubbermaid storage container, buried in the dirt-floor basement.
Details dribbled out shortly thereafter; the deceased was a drag performer named Jamie Carroll whom some knew as a cutthroat drug dealer. Two gay men — Joey Banis and Jeffrey Mundt, who were living in the home at the time — had been arrested and charged with his murder. For Dominé, the specifics were too good to resist.
“Drag queens. Lovers’ triangle. Revenge. Body in the basement. Spooky old mansion. Drugs. Kinky sex. Counterfeit money,” he ticks off breathlessly. “You couldn’t make this stuff up.”
One of the many questions surrounding the case: Would Dominé, a true-crime author with a softness for the paranormal (previous works include “Ghosts of Old Louisville” and “Voodoo Days at La Casa Fabulosa”), write about it?
He had his reservations, including worries about “sitting through trials” and annoying the neighborhood by “exposing the soft underbelly that always gets exposed when writing about real-life individuals.” But after eventually beating back his doubts, he decided to take the plunge. The result is “A Dark Room in Glitter Ball City,” a tale that’s part true-crime mystery, part portrait of Louisville.
The gradual unspooling of the murder trials frequently takes a back seat to Dominé’s descriptions of living and snooping in Louisville, robbing the book of an expected source of narrative thrust. But when one of the resident eccentrics captures his attention, the story comes alive: Practically every page of “Dark Room” is shot through with Dominé’s obvious affection for the constellation of local characters he eats with, drinks with, gossips with and gawps at. Busybody socialites and chatterbox drag queens; a joint practitioner of S&M and witchcraft; the owners of a bizarre roadside attraction showcasing mutilated toy dolls: All are described as lovingly as the parquet flooring and elegant molding of Old Louisville’s aging mansions. Meanwhile, Dominé’s passion for the social and architectural history of the city animates some of the book’s most memorable passages.
Though he loves the city, Dominé doesn’t shy away from documenting the prejudices and reflexive homophobia that erupt during the trials. In one remarkable scene, Dominé reproduces prospective jurors’ responses to voir dire questioning about whether they could fairly consider a gay defendant. “I am very disgusted by homosexuals,” said Prospective Juror No. 823394. Another would-be juror, who at first maintained that he could be impartial, later ventured that, on second thought, he might struggle once actually confronted with “homosexual details during the trial,” Dominé writes.
The intolerance on display during the trial complicates Dominé’s picture of a Louisville that, while in some ways a gleeful hodgepodge of oddballs, is not immune to bigotry’s greatest hits. Dominé gently corrects a detective’s use of the word “gypsy” (“I think they go by the term ‘Roma’ today”), but merely blushes at another acquaintance’s habit of wearing a Nazi uniform around town. The occasionally delicate treatment of Louisville’s uglier qualities offers a reminder of the importance of critical distance: As one of Louisville’s biggest boosters, Dominé is not necessarily the best source for an impartial, warts-and-all accounting of the city.
More than the sad details of Carroll’s murder, the book’s kaleidoscopic array of personalities are much more likely to stay with readers. Any one of them, after all, would almost certainly be the most interesting person you’d meet all week.
Maybe at next year’s Derby.