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A true story of going undercover to catch a killer

When I first heard the plotline of this nonfiction book, I rolled my eyes. I thought it sounded like the script for some cheesy made-for-TV movie.

It goes like this:

Keene, a hotshot high school football star -- who happens to be the son of a heroic cop -- gets into drugs and starts dealing cocaine as a teenager. He enjoys the high life for a few wild years, but then gets caught by the feds, and sent to prison for 10 years.

As he sits in a federal correctional facility, the prosecutor who put him there arranges a secret meeting and approaches Keene with an unusual offer. If he agrees to go undercover to dig up information about a suspected serial killer, he'll get an early release from prison.

After much agonizing, Keene decides to accept the assignment, but it is very dangerous. Can he do it? Can he???

As I said, it all sounds a bit Hollywood hokey to me, but it all really happened to Keene.

He and his co-author tell the story well in this dramatic, edgy thriller, which, in fact, is being prepared for a Hollywood movie.

Keene grew up in Kanakee, Ill., south of Chicago. His father, Jim, was a heroic cop, but also, a cop who lived on the edge. He hung around with mob associates and crooked politicians. Keene's grandpa was a driver for the late Al Capone, one of the most notorious mobsters ever.

So it was probably not a huge surprise when Keene became a drug dealer while starring for the high school football team. But an informer blew him in to the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration, and Keene was sent to prison for 10 years in 1996.

While Keene was dealing drugs, a mysterious serial killer was murdering teenage girls, one after another, in Indiana and other states. Police suspected a strange loner, a benign-looking man named Larry DeWayne Hall, of killing them.

Hall, a former janitor who traveled the Midwest to take part in Civil War re-enactments, had been convicted of one murder. But he was appealing the conviction, and cops suspected that Hall was involved in up to 20 more killings.

Larry Beaumont, the federal prosecutor on Keene's case, saw Keene had something more than a low-life drug dealer. He saw Keene as the type of charismatic figure who could strike up a prison friendship with Hall and get him to fess up to some of the murders.

One of the ways he convinced Keene to cooperate was to show him gruesome pictures of Hall's alleged victims -- innocent young girls whose only wrongdoing was to briefly trust a stranger.

Under the tightest of security and secrecy, Keene was moved to a notorious prison in Springfield, Mo., where Hall was held.

Keene faced several huge challenges. His assignment was to befriend Hall and get him to talk about murders. But Keene had other worries. Springfield prison was packed with violent criminals who were suspicious of any outsider. While trying to buddy up with Hall, he had to be constantly on his guard for other prisoners -- mobsters, skinheads and gang-bangers -- who would kill him in an instant if they figured out he was a snitch.

Amazingly, Keene pulled it off, but it took months, and he was nearly found out by other prisoners.

He managed to start conversations with Hall in the prison mess hall and the library. Progress was painfully slow, because Hall was very reluctant to discuss the murders with anyone.

But one day, a breakthrough came. Keene saw Hall reading a newspaper in the library, and Keene told him that his mother had been reading in the Indiana papers that Hall was suspected of serial killings.

"It's not like they said," Hall responded.

"Relax," Keene told him. "It doesn't matter to me what you did, man. Look at all these crazy people in here. Whatever you did, you did for your own reasons."

After that, little by little, Hall began to reveal himself to Keene. With Keene's prodding, he ultimatedly admitted to police that he killed more than 15 victims. He is now serving a lifetime prison term, with no hope of early release.

Keene got his early release from prison, but only after a harrowing ordeal that should make a very exciting movie.

Keene now says he's living a law-abiding life, and he's thankful for the secret assignment the feds gave him. His father, Jim, the ex-cop, died in 2004.

"After my early release, the five years I had with my father meant more to me than all the money in the world," Keene writes. "I'm sure the families of Larry's victims would say the same thing if they could bring those girls back."

A number of the murders that police suspect Hall of committing still remain officially unsolved.

Dan Herbeck is a News reporter and the co-author, with Lou Michel, of "American Terrorist."

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In With The Devil

By James Keene with Hillel Levin

St. Martin's Press

254 pages; $25.99

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