The gasoline-soaked horror of Jerome Isaac, up close

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Today's tabloids, Dec. 19, 2011. ()
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Each day, the New York tabloids vie to sell readers at the newsstands on outrageous headlines, dramatic photography, and, occasionally, great reporting. Who is today's winner?

Daily News: I knew I had seen this headline before. On the front of today's News is Jerome Isaac, in a Tyvek suit on his perp walk, looking out at the cameras. He's sort of looking a little to your right if you face the page, as though there's someone looming behind your right shoulder whom he really, really hates or fears. "EYES OF A KILLER," reads the hed.

Isaac, as you know if you've been reading the papers over the weekend, is suspected in the horrifying murder of 73-year-old Delores Gillespie, who, upon returning from buying groceries, was sprayed with gasoline in her apartment-building elevator, then lit on fire with a long barbecue torch. The killer sprayed more accelerant and then threw a molotov cocktail into the elevator before fleeing. A camera caught the man on tape, and Isaac turned himself in, reeking of gasoline.

The last time a New York paper attempted to read into the eyes of a murder suspect, it was Jared Lee Loughner, the man presently charged in the January shooting at a Safeway mall in Tucson that left six dead and 14 injured, including congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords. But it was the Post, and they added one more word: "MAD EYES OF A KILLER" was their headline back then.

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New York Post: "BURN IN HELL" is the Post's headline, with a slightly different, closer-cropped photo of the accused. "'Fire fiend' busted in elevator slay." Again a bell rang in my brain: There was a prior "fire fiend" in the pages of the Post.

Remember Peter Braunstein, who was convicted of sexual assault after a Halloween attack in 2005 that led to a citywide manhunt (and absorbed the media classes of New York, given Braunstein's history as a reporter for WWD and The Village Voice)? In Braunstein's case, the crime was also horrific, but he set fires not directly to harm his victim. Instead, dressed as a fireman, he set two small fires in the lobby of a Chelsea apartment building, then knocked on his victim's door claiming to be a fireman. When she let him in, he subdued her with a chloroform-laced rag and assaulted her over a period of 13 hours. The story continued with a manhunt for the disturbed attacker that lasted for over two weeks and ended when someone spotted him in Memphis, Tenn., where police finally tracked him down.

Today, the Post also marks the lopsided losses of our two football teams on the front; they've chosen Mark Sanchez (name visible on jersey) as their poster-boy for the headline "Sad sacks! Jets, Giants lose big." See sports.

Observations: It will take little to get readers this morning to turn to the terrible story of this woman's death, and the details as they emerge only make the story sadder. "It was one of the most appalling crimes in recent city history," the News asserts. "Veteran cops said they'd never seen anything like it."

The papers basically tie on the news, though it's always my tendency in the case of a developing crime story like this to reach for the News version. I think of the paper as more boots-on-the-ground, less One Police Plaza. People will pick up the paper they think is better on crime stories, and that's just my inclination. As far as the pictures, I think the News' is more abstract, because further away. His eyes actually are a little glazed and don't tell me much. But in the closer crop I can see his face better, and the headline that accompanies that face in the Post is angry and compelling.

The News' taller page lets them put more stories on the front without reducing the amount of space they have to sell their big story, but all these boxes are distractions: The death of Kim Jong-Il is something I plan to read about elsewhere; multiply that by four, basically, to account for the other three half-hearted Page One sales. They're not terrible but they don't do the paper any favors.

Winner: New York Post.