Steve Epstein is a renaissance man: an attorney with more than 30 years’ experience specializing in Family Law and Divorce, since 2019 he has also published two true crime nonfiction books MURDER ON BIRCHLEAF DRIVE(Black Lyon Publishing, 2019) and most recently EVIL AT LAKE SEMINOLE (Black Lyon Publishing, 2020). And he has developed spectacular websites that give readers additional information about each case, podcasts about each case, and has been the featured guest on several true crime podcasts. He and his wife Aletia live in Raleigh North Carolina. They have 5 children, most of whom are now “out of the nest.”
SK: Steve, I think the president should put you in charge of the Covid relief rollout. You seem to be able to handle a lot of complicated tasks at the same time and do them all well!
SBE: Thanks, but I sure wouldn’t want to be responsible for managing Covid!
SK: Okay, then let’s talk about your writing. When and how did you become interested in true crime?
SBE: [Laughs] I’ve had a passing interest in true crime ever since reading FATAL VISION, about the Jeffrey McDonald murder case back in the 1980s. But I had never considered writing a true crime book until the day I started working on MURDER ON BIRCHLEAF DRIVE in September 2017. I had followed the story of Michelle Young’s murder on t.v. and in the news for years, knew many of the key legal players, and then one day, with no prior warning, I was overcome with the desire to try to tell the story in a full-length book because no one else had. I literally knew nothing about the writing or publishing process at the time and had no idea I would complete the book, let alone be successful in having it published. In the case of EVIL ON LAKE SEMINOLE, in August 2019 I was in my car waiting in the high school parking lot for my then 14-year-old son Thomas to return from his first football game, an “away” game. It was a long wait and I found a podcast on my iPhone about the Mike Williams case. I was hooked right from the start and by the very next day knew that I just had to write the story.
SK: What engages you most in the cases you write about?
SBE: Murders that involve relationships that started out well and were loving but suddenly became one person wanting to kill the other. Children are often part of the motivation. The perpetrator would rather see the victim dead than having any access to their shared children. I don’t understand that, but it tends to be a common theme in these kinds of stories.
SK: What do you most want to accomplish through your writing?
SBE: The first question I ask myself before I start writing is “Is the narrative of the victim compelling enough that the reader will care about what happens to them?” You are not only telling the story of a crime; you are telling the story of the victim. You can’t have one without the other. That life tells us a story about why they ended up as a murder victim.
I know Cheryl Williams now. She is a strong, determined, loving mother. For her and other parents of victims, I want them to feel that their children came back to earth alive—even if only for a moment—and that people are going to know who they were.
SK: Does being an attorney help you write about the investigation and trial?
SBE: That’s the hope and the goal. Much of what I do as an attorney is quite similar to how I write a true crime book: I thoroughly investigate the facts of a case by marshalling available resources and then trying to distill important themes. Being a trial lawyer involves lots of brief writing where you try to capture a lot of facts and use them to tell a story that will convince a judge or set of judges to see them in a certain way. You wind up knowing the story inside and out, almost as well as your client does. The same thing happens when I write true crime. And having tried quite a few cases, my juices are really flowing when I write about what happens in the courtroom, to try to bring that same energy and drama to the reader, who hopefully can picture the back and forth between judges, lawyers, and witnesses as if they were sitting in the gallery watching.
SK: I heard a recording of Brian’s testimony at his trial. He sounded like a broken man, grief- stricken and remorseful even 18 years after the crime. How could he have so cruelly killed his best friend? Wouldn’t divorce have been a safer alternative for Denise and Brian?
SBE: Denise was a powerful woman. Her husband Mike would literally leave his job to drive to a nearby gas station and pump Denise’s gas. I don’t mean he drove home, picked up the car, and had it filled up. She actually drove to the station and sat in the car while drove out to meet her and then pumped the gas! She knew how to wrap men around her little finger.
Brian said they had discussed divorce instead of murder but that Denise wouldn’t consider the subject, largely because she didn’t want to share custody of her 19-month-old daughter, Anslee. She also didn’t want to go through life with the stigma of being a divorcee. Murder, therefore, became the only option.
SK: As long as I am asking case-specific questions, let me ask a about the Michelle Young case from your first book. Why do you think Jason took her wedding and engagement rings?
I think Jason Young took the rings because he had decided his wife was not “worthy” of them. There was a minor theme of rings in this case: he had also violently yanked the engagement ring off of his former fiancé Genevieve Jacobs when he concluded she wasn’t worthy of wearing it. Then he pretended to swallow the wedding ring of his long-time camper friend Carol Ann Sowerby while he and Michelle were having dinner with her a couple of weeks before the murder.
SK: Why do you think authors and readers are drawn to the subject of murder?
SBE: I think part of the attraction is that as humans, we are all capable of committing these atrocious acts. It is fascinating to consider why some people cross the line of violence and depravity while nearly all the rest of us don’t, even when we are confronted by very similar circumstances. We need to look in the mirror and ask ourselves, “Am I capable of doing that?”
SK: What stops most of us from doing it?
SBE: The realization that we won’t get away with it and that a manageable problem will turn into a much bigger problem.
SK: Who are your favorite true crime authors?
SBE: I have probably read only about a dozen true crime books in my life including Joe McGinniss’s FATAL VISION and CRUEL DOUBT, Jerry Bledsoe’s BITTER BLOOD, and most recently, C.J. Wynn’s WILDER INTENTIONS. Though she is widely considered at the forefront of the genre and was quite prolific, I’ve never read any of Ann Rule’s books.
SK: What about your publishing experience? I think you found a publisher before finding an agent. How did that happen? Has the publisher handled the marketing of your books? I have heard that they generally do not do much for first-time authors.
SBE: You are right about publishers and marketing. I began by looking for an agent, but when I didn’t find one willing to take me on I queried @Black Lyon Publishing. They were specifically interested in getting into true crime at the time and I became their first true crime author. While they were incredibly supportive and publicized any event that was scheduled, as a small company, they have only limited marketing capabilities, so I had to do a lot of marketing on my own.
My wife constructed a commercial Facebook page for me and I developed websites for each book which helps drive some traffic. I’ve become pretty good at learning how best to boost Facebook ads to get lots of eyeballs on my books in people’s Facebook feeds. But “free” media has worked best for me…articles in magazines and newspapers about my books, being featured in podcasts and radio programs, and lately appearances on t.v. documentaries about these same stories.
SK: Thanks so much for your time! You have given me lots to think about. Do you have another book project in the works?
SBE: I do but am not ready to talk about it yet. I have a much looser time frame for this one and am working at a much slower pace. An upcoming trial is my primary job currently and it takes most of my attention. I have a co-author for the next book, another attorney, so that will be a new experience.
SK: I wish you both the best with your new endeavor and will be waiting to read the book!
Phillip Daniel Stephen Ross Anastacia Lynn Smith Piper Ann Ross River Gayle Ross [Photos reposted from Tulsa World (link below)]
Last Friday night 31-year-old Phillip Ross of Sand Springs, Okla. hacked to death his 2-year-old daughter Piper and her 4-year-old sister River. He slaughtered their mother, his girlfriend and the mother of his children, Stacey Smith. Then he killed himself. “This is the worse thing that’s happened in my 28 years of law enforcement,” Fox 23 News reported that Sand Springs Chief of Police Mike Carter said at a news conference yesterday.
What do we do with the sorrow and rage and thirst for justice that are all inevitable in such a tragedy? There will be no trial, no one to convict. Left to mourn their deaths are Stacey’s two teenage children who were not home at the time of the attack, and Phillip’s mother who has lost her son and will have few who will mourn with her without reservation. Details have not yet been released, but Stacey may have left parents and siblings who have lost their daughter, sister, granddaughters, nieces. They will surely find support in their grief, but no justice, at least not on this earth. The investigators and forensics experts will sit with those horrific images of innocence destroyed all of their lives. They will not find the satisfaction of having protected the innocent or helped to punish the guilty, results that most law enforcement professionals can take some satisfaction in having achieved. They were not able to save us from ourselves this time, just left to clean up the mess.
This is a new investigation with many unanswered questions. Phillip Ross had a history of domestic violence but no convictions and none documented with Stacey. We do not know whether he had a military history or ever had a mental health evaluation. The coroner’s office is conducting toxicology lab work to determine if drugs or alcohol were involved. So much we do not know.
Here is what we do know. The neighbors heard sounds of violence that night but did not respond. Phillip’s mother came to the house Saturday afternoon and discovered the bodies. The front door was open. She had planned to babysit for her grandchildren that night so Phillip and Tracey could go out to celebrate her birthday but had tried unsuccessfully to reach them by phone to confirm. She had been worried.
In coming weeks we will find more answers, but none of them will tell us what to do with our feelings. None of them will answer the question of what we can and should do to protect ourselves and our neighbors, especially during these out-of-control pandemic days when political insurrection reigns and 28 murders, many involving children, have been committed in Oklahoma since Covid 19 began its deadly creep.
Cover to bestselling true crime book Convicted murderer Richie Wilder Author C. J. Wynn
She was 10 when true crime author C.J. Wynn and her mom watched “The Burning Bed,” the Lifetime fictionalized account of housewife Francine Hughes’s murder of her abusive husband. Her interest in true crime blossomed from there. Wynn, like her mother, became fascinated with the subject. The married mother of two published her first true crime book, WILDER INTENTIONS: LOVE, LIES AND MURDER IN NORTH DAKOTA, in 2020. We recently Zoomed about her career and why she thinks readers and authors are intrigued by the subject.
SK: I just finished reading your debut book and I loved it! The narrative is full of suspense and you are very talented at setting the scene and conveying the personalities of the people involved—the victim, the perpetrator, the lawyers, and the investigators.
What drew you to this particular case?
CJW: I first found out about the Angila Wilder murder case on Dateline. It happened in the small town of Minot, North Dakota, where I grew up so I was familiar with the area.
By the time I decided to write the book, I had developed a relationship with a great true crime writer—Shanna Hogan—who was very supportive of the project. Shanna died tragically late last year in a freak accident at her pool. She was a wonderful mentor to me, and I miss her friendship and advice more than I can say.
SK: You were a psychology major in college.Has that background influenced your writing?
CJW: I think it has. My interest in crime is based on a fascination about why people do the things they do, specifically related to the murder of someone they once supposedly loved. Certainly we have all had experiences in ‘love gone wrong’, but very few people choose murder as a means of resolving animosity and broken hearts. I think both authors and readers are interested in the difference between these starkly different behaviors.
SK: Besides understanding the killer’s motivation, what else do you want to accomplish with your writing?
CJW: I have a passion to tell the whole story in the most effective possible way. So often in true crime the emphasis is on the murder itself and how the crime was solved. Readers only know the victims for that small amount of time that surrounded their deaths. Their lives were so much bigger than that. I want to give the victims a voice.
My friend Shanna Hogan said it best in her Foreword to my book:
“Every murder is worthy of documentation. When someone’s life ends suddenly and violently through homicide, the victim is robbed of their opportunity to write the end of their own life story. These crimes, while heinous and horrific, need to be told, and every victim deserves to be remembered.”
SK: In these recent months with a lot of public criticism of policing, do you find that investigators are more reluctant to talk to you?
CJW: Not at all. In fact, they are eager for me to tell their stories. The people who investigate these cases are entirely dedicated to getting justice for the victims. They are present at terrible crime scenes and they carry those pictures in their souls forever. They move on and continue to do their jobs, but when they slow down, close their eyes at night, those images come back.
SK: Are you generally able to get background information about the victim from the family?
CJW: That’s tricky. Many family members think we are trying to “get rich” from their family’s tragedy. I try to explain that most of us are not Stephen King or James Patterson: we won’t get rich from publishing these books. Our motive is to tell the story as fully and accurately as possible, so I try to reach family members or friends who are willing to share their memories with me. For example, I could not have written well about Angila Wilder without her sister’s Crystal Morton’s help.
SK: You have interviewed convicted murderers Richie Wilder and his wife Cynthia, haven’t you?
CJW: Yes. I’ve exchanged emails with Richie and visited Cynthia in prison.
SK: Were those useful in your research?
CJW: Not so much by providing details I couldn’t find other ways, but they gave me insight into their characters. I learned that as an author, as much as possible I had to set aside my personal feelings to try to understand the perpetrators’ motivation. I just let them tell their stories.
Neither of them showed any remorse whatsoever. In my opinion Richie Wilder is a narcissistic monster. Cynthia continues to maintain that Angila’s children are better off without her. If either of them had shown any remorse or any indication of regret for what they chose to do, I would have gladly written about that in the book.
With technology being what it is today, I’m amazed that people believe that they can get away with murder without any consequences. For the most part they cannot.
SK: With two young children at home, how do you make time to write?
CJW: Well writing is my fulltime job now. My husband Davidis home on Mondays, and I find that nights are my most creative time. During the day I spend time with my family and do errands and work around the house. At night I write. Sometimes I wake up in the middle of the night with an idea, and I record it on my phone so I’ll remember it in the morning.
SK: I heard that you researched and wrote the book in 18 months. Is that so, and did that include the time it took you to get a publisher?
CJW: Yes. It included the time I spent editing and also preparing a 70-page book proposal which I sent to several publishers who were not interested in the book. For months after that I did nothing but feel discouraged. I queried Black Lyon Publishing in late 2019. They said they were interested , but not to send anything until I finished the manuscript. In February, I sent it off, and just a few days later, they offered me a contract. They have been extremely supportive and encouraging, and I am very grateful to them for taking a chance on me.
SK: What’s next?
CJW: I am currently working on two different projects, and just a few days ago, came upon a third I might consider. While I had originally intended to stay within the realm of North Dakota crimes, there is one outside of that that I have been tracking down and making great progress with. I’ve also begun communicating with an inmate convicted in two grisly North Dakota murders in a case that is way bigger than I originally thought. I am excited to be focusing on new stories and researching once again!
SK: C.J., thank you so much for spending this time with me. The best of luck on your next books. After publication, I hope we can talk about them too!
Part 2 of a 2-part series about John Emil Listwho murdered his family in Westfield, New Jersey in 1971.
WARNING: THIS ARTICLE CONTAINS SEXUAL MATERIAL AND VIOLENCE THAT MAY NOT BE SUITABLE FOR ALL READERS.
While others have written the story of John List’s murders, he wanted the world to hear the story from his own point of view. Journalist Austin “Red” Goodrich, himself quite a character (During the Cold War he spied for for the CIA posing as a journalist), first met List when he visited him in the New Jersey State Prison in 1990. Like John List, he had grown up in Michigan, attended the University of Michigan, and served in the same platoon as John during World War II. With so much in common, they quickly became friends and decided to collaborate on a self-published book about John’s crimes from which he hoped the proceeds could financially help his struggling second wife. They apparently failed to vet the project legally, as it is against federal law for a convicted criminal or his family to benefit from any enterprise that involves the crime. Red Goodrich became the sole beneficiary of the proceeds.
I have read the 115-page account and will save you the trouble: It is an awful book, deplorable literature, and rife with uncorrected proofreading errors. In the introduction List explains his reasons for writing the book: “It may be helpful to psychiatrists and moralists (Christians and others) and I hope will ease the pain caused by my actions to the friends and relatives of my victims.” In light of what he says after that, it is hard to believe it could ease anyone’s pain. Helen’s mother and sister Jean were alive at the time, as were Patty’s coach Ed Illiano, and Alma List’s relatives.
He describes an idyllic childhood, although he admits his mother was overly protective and a close relationship with his father, although neighbors and relatives describe the elderly John Frederick List as a cold, distant man who concentrated on his small business and paid scant attention to his family. His family’s history is summarized in considerable detail, and he seems to be proud to claim a distant relative, German Army General Wilhelm List who reportedly had a regiment named for him and was promoted to Field Marshall, serving in World War II under Adolf Hitler.
John quotes a military associate who hypothesized that John’s desire to move up the ranks of the U.S. army had a genetic basis. In point of fact, List never rose beyond the level of an enlisted man in the infantry, served only five months in Europe, and saw very little combat. Perhaps his lifelong love of complex military games where he always controlled Hitler’s army was also genetic! He devotes nearly a quarter of the book to discussing a somewhat exciting military career of which he was much more impressed than his commanding officers or fellow soldiers. While he wrote detailed letters to his mother during his deployment and named many soldier friends and colleagues, few of them noticed him at all.
He goes to considerable lengths to fairly portray his first wife Helen and to describe a relatively happy marriage. As seemed to be his habit, he could not keep up a narrative for long that did not center on him and his needs. In a few sentences he casually manages to destroy his wife’s reputation. He implies that as the proverbial hot-blooded widow she seduced him, then faked a pregnancy to get him to marry her. Years later she wanted a divorce, an event that would have been a first in the List family (and in Helen’s too, he adds as an afterthought). She spent lavishly, had contracted syphilis from her first husband and hid the fact from John for some time, was an alcoholic, and they had an unsatisfactory sex life. Then he started in on Helen’s daughter from her first marriage, Brenda. Apropos of nothing, he says that Brenda became pregnant when she was 16 and married the baby’s father from whom she was frequently separated. John visited her to “keep her spirits up” but without Helen, who he claims was too upset to see her daughter. The piece de resistance was a remark he attributed to his daughter Patty when she was three or four years old:
Our Patty commented that Brenda had certainly messed up her life. I wonder [said John] if Patty would have acted the same way at that age. Sadly, she died before she reached Brenda’s age. Patty was 16 years and 10 months old at the time of her death. (Italics added for emphasis.)
He accomplished two goals by repeating–or more likely inventing–this scene. First, he raises the question of whether Patty’s life would have been ruined by immorality had she lived longer and second, he totally abdicates responsibility for her death. “Sadly she died,” he says, not “I killed her.” Finally, no four-year-old ponders whether her stepsister has “messed up her life.”
His unsuccessful accounting career is attributed obliquely to his wife’s excessive social drinking, or to company politics or changes in business venue. List is silent on the subject of his inability to earn more than $25,000 a year, even when his position was briefly Vice President and Comptroller of the First National Bank of Jersey City, New Jersey. His lack of job success resulted from his inadequate social skills, his rigidity on the job and failure to keep up with the times as accounting began to rely more on computers, and his insistence that he deserved promotion. John List rarely saw himself as others saw him. While some people described him as kind, generous, and mannerly, others saw him as peculiar, cold, and self-centered.
His self-serving narrative goes on to describe teenage children whose behavior was out of control. The evidence? — He discovered Patty playing with a Ouija Board with her friends, and all the children were in the kitchen with him when he discovered a small snake on the drainboard. They knew he was afraid of snakes and Patty was the ringleader behind this prank, he charged.
Now as to the murders. He says he wishes he had not killed his family and prays daily for forgiveness. He explains his long decision-making process, the perceived infutility of leaving his family helpless without him, and his fear that committing suicide would severe his connection with God and prevent him from being reconciled with his family in heaven. His ability to weigh the moral equivalence of suicide compared with the murder of five people is astonishing. Reverend Alfred Scheips was John’s college Lutheran chaplain and he was called as a witness at the List trial. He was asked to compare his church’s relative views on suicide compared with murder. Finally, he was asked whether he believed there was a greatest sin, one for which there could be no forgiveness. He thought for an instant, then replied with a quote from Christian apologist and author C.S. Lewis: “Pride is the greatest sin.” Bingo.
Regarding the acts themselves, he recalls them in horrifying detail and explains that he killed all of his victims from behind so as not to cause them undue fear, and that his bullets killed each of them painlessly and quickly. All, that is, except for possibly John:
“…After I shot my namesake, his body twitched with convulsions. Seeing this, which had not occurred with any of my other victims, I must have panicked because I emptied the Styre and some of the .22 bullets into John. …I am sure that John was killed by the first shot and that his body movements were only muscular reflexes operating in some automatic manner. In any case, the tragedy was finished.”
He reproduces his five-page confession letter he left for his minister, Pastor Rehwinkel. It ends with this: “p.s. Mother is in the hallway in the attic–3rd floor. She was too heavy to move.” John List was a cold, cold man. Among his final chapters, one is titled “Fast Forward Into a New Life,” an apt description for what John did after he cleaned up the blood, ate his dinner, got a good night’s sleep, and headed off for Colorado. Unfazed by what he had done, John recorded his activities every day between November 9, 1971, which he describes as “the killings,” through November 20th when he arrived in Denver, in his Perpetual Calendar.
There he was “born again” (his words) as Robert P. Clark, a man who found work, a new church, and a loving wife “out West where it’s best.”[my words]. In his narrative he slips in a few paragraphs about the handwriting analysis ordered by his friend and co-author, Red Goodrich. Mark Hopper of the Handwriting Research Corp., apparently concluded that List’s handwriting revealed a writer who was “very intelligent, analytical, disciplined, curious, careful, conscientious and cautious.” On the other hand, Hopper also found a person who could not sustain employment, had poor social skills and “a low capacity for social tolerance along with high levels of anger, aggression, and instability.” He concluded that this was the handwriting of a person who needed psychiatric intervention. Hmmm.
His final chapters describe his arrest and conviction and life in prison which, for the most part, sounds pretty compatible with John List’s love of routine, order, solitude, and lots of rules. He divides one chapter into sections for “Bad Stuff” and “Good Stuff.” While you would not be surprised to hear what he considers “bad,” you would perhaps be caught off guard to hear what he considers “good.” It is, he says, human kindness. I wonder if he ever thinks about human kindness in the context of his actions. Is everything finally forgivable? John List died of heart disease complicated by pneumonia in 2008. Now I believe he knows the answer to that question.
John List when he was arrested in 1989, the List home in Westfield New Jersey, circa 1970, bodies of Helen, Patty, John, and Fred List in home ballroom November 1971, The List family portrait 1971, John’s mother Alma List circa 1970, Helen List and her children, circa 1968. Photos originally appeared in Murderpedia.
This is the first of two articles about John List who murdered his wife, his mother, and three of his four children, then disappeared for nearly 18 years until he was finally identified after his case was featured on the television series “America’s Most Wanted.” The second article will be based on a self-serving book, Collateral Damage: The John List Story which was ghost-written by Austin Goodrich and published in 2006by John List.
In 1971 John List looked exactly like what he was: A conservative religious certified public accountant who wore heavy-framed eyeglasses and lived with his wife and three children not far from Manhattan in Westfield, New Jersey. Many of those who knew him agreed that he had his peculiarities: He mowed his lawn regardless of the season in a suit and tie and when he encountered neighbors, he avoided eye contact and pretended he did not see them. Despite a Master’s degree in business administration and certification as a public accountant and outstanding work habits, he could not hold a job. Even when he was employed briefly as a bank vice president, List never earned more than about $25,000 a year and was able to support his family only with the assistance of his widowed mother Alma.
He was an only child raised in Bay City Michigan in a second-generation strict German household, and was known throughout his life as his mother’s pride and joy, a “Mama’s boy.” Family members and acquaintances reported that his father had focused on operating his general store and left child-rearing to his wife. John’s classmates and neighbors described him as an eager-to-please child whose personality did not stand out, but rather blended into the background.
After serving undistinguished stints in the army during War II and Korea, he attended the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor where he earned bachelor’s and master’s degrees in business administration subsidized by the GI bill and became certified as a public accountant. He dated a few women for brief periods but no one seriously.
In October 1951 John and a few of his army buddies stationed in southern Virginia went bowling. At the bowling alley he met Jean Syfert and her 26-year-old sister Helen Taylor who had, the previous day, buried her husband Marvin. He had been a soldier killed in action in Korea six months before but transporting his remains back to the U.S. had been delayed. Jean hoped that a night out would distract Helen from her terrible grief. A pretty woman with an attractive figure, Helen was not only widowed, but also the mother of a 9-year-old daughter Brenda. She and Marvin had married young; her life so far had consisted of living at home with her parents, then as an army wife and mother. She did not know how she would live the rest of her life.
Jean’s first impression of her future brother-in-law was positive. He was courteous, well-groomed, carefully dressed, and was a man with a profession. She could see he was immediately attracted to Helen and she warned him that her sister was recently widowed and had a young child. Secretly she was also concerned that John did not seem to be a “take charge” man; Helen was careless with money and Jean feared he would not be able to control his wife’s reckless ways. He was not dissuaded by Jean’s caution and by the time they parted company that night he had asked Helen for a date.
Soon he was completely enchanted with her and despite his conservative religious beliefs, they began a sexual relationship. Helen told him with some trepidation shortly thereafter that she was pregnant. While John had not wanted to begin married life that way, he was deeply in love and they married immediately in a small Lutheran church in Baltimore with her sister Jean and her husband Gene as witnesses. After the wedding Helen reported that she had been mistaken and was not pregnant. For the rest of his life John suspected he had been duped and Helen had manipulated him into marriage with a false pregnancy story. Although he knew the truth, he went forward with their wedding plans despite serious reservations about whether their marriage could last. After their honeymoon, John and Helen returned to her mother’s home in Virginia where they picked upBrenda and began their married life as a cozy family of three. All of his life everything John List did followed a rigid path from which he did not–or could not–deviate.
John’s father had died years earlier at the end of John’s service in World War II and Alma was so attached to her only son that while he was in college she took the bus once a month to Ann Arbor to spend the weekend with him. When John brought his new wife to Bay City to meet Alma, things did not go well. Alma told friends she believed that Helen was a desperate widow with a child and had “trapped” her son into marriage. She said her son “Chonny” could have done much better and did not try to hide her feelings. It was not long before Helen and Alma exchanged only conversation that was absolutely necessary. Even when they were together alone in the same house they maintained as much physical distance as possible.
By 1955, the Lists had moved to Inkster, a suburb of Detroit and in January their first child, Patricia Marie was born. She was the light of her parents’ life and adored by Helen’s mother and even Alma whose chilly persona melted at the sight of her first grandchild. She even kissed Helen, something she had never done before. Their second child, John Frederick, was born in October 1956 and that year John accepted a management position at Sutherland Paper Company in Kalamazoo Michigan. Helen liked the city and was a member of three book clubs there. Her sister Jean noted that Helen loved to read, sometimes as many as two books a day. John was less impressed with the way his wife spent her time; when he came home from work she was frequently reading on the sofa sipping scotch with child care, housework, and food preparation left for her husband to manage. He met what he saw as his responsibilities but was not a happy married man. Their last son, Frederick Michael, was born in August of 1958.
When the family moved to Kalamazoo, John immediately enrolled them at a Lutheran church affiliated with the conservative Missouri Synod, the church in which he had been raised. After Frederick was born Helen decided that the Sunday struggle of preparing her family, three small children and teenaged Brenda, was too much for her each week and she began to send John with the children to church alone while she slept late and fixed them a bountiful breakfast upon their return. She was a talented and eager gourmet cook. She had suffered from postpartum depression and, as was par for the day, took several prescription medications, saw a psychiatrist weekly, and added insult to injury by drinking heavily. When Brenda finished high school, she moved out of the house and began her own life, but the household was still a large one to manage. John’s solution to his deteriorating marriage was to buy Helen expensive gifts and jewelry. They did not improve the situation and placed a further strain on their precarious financial situation.
If he couldn’t control expenses, John tried to increase his income. He accepted a position with the new Xerox Company in Rochester New York in 1961. He worked hard, produced well, and earned a substantial salary for the time, but by 1965 his constant requests for advancement were wearing on his boss. He was advised to seek employment elsewhere and given outstanding references; Xerox wanted to make John somebody else’s problem. He applied for positions all over the country and was rewarded by an offer comparable to his Xerox salary, but with the added sheen of an impressive title, Vice President and Comptroller, First National Bank of Jersey City, New Jersey. His office was located in Westfield New Jersey.
The Lists began their new life in Westfield with great enthusiasm. John’s job went well at first, their daughter Patty was thrilled to be a member of her school’s theater group, and Helen was thrilled with the house of her dreams, a 19-room mansion on the highest hill in town that sported a ballroom with a Tiffany stained glass skylight and a billiards room (minus the table) where John stored his books and the many military strategy games he enjoyed playing. Neighbors and coworkers who initially enjoyed playing these challenging games with John soon came to regret it. They were not games to John, but battles of wit and cunning and he played to win, always on the German Nazi side of the World War II versions. John had not really been able to afford the house, but with a contribution from his mother and a corresponding obligation to make a home for her with his family, they were able to manage. Helen told her husband that the presence of her mother-in-law had destroyed her pleasure in living there. Regardless of what he did, John could not seem to please his wife.
Before long, it became clear to John that his position, not reflected by the title, was essentially a marketing job. The bank wanted him to expand their business customer base and that was not the sort of task that John performed easily. He was most comfortable with data, and visibly uncomfortable around people. He made excuses to turn down his colleagues’ invitations to join them for lunch. Instead, among his other eccentricities, he carried a brown- bagged sandwich to work daily and ate it alone in his car with the windows rolled up with classical music playing loudly on the radio to entertain him.
By the end of his first year the bank ended John’s employment for the same reasons his other employers had. His work habits were old-fashioned and inflexible and he was unsociable. He could not bear to tell his family. Growing more desperate by the day, he unsuccessfully applied for job after job. He was mortally ashamed to have failed at the only task he grew up believing was important for a man to accomplish, supporting his family. Surreptitiously he borrowed money from his mother to pay his bills. Every day he dressed in his suit, packed his lunch, and drove to the train station where he sat all day reading until it was time to go home.
Finally, after six months of job charade, John was offered a vice-president/comptroller position for American Photographic Company in New York City. It paid only half of the salary he had earned at the bank and within a year the company relocated, but John wanted to stay in the house in Westfield so he was out of work again. Next he accepted a position selling mutual funds from his office at home and while he was not able to equal his salary at the bank, his income stabilized.
Helen, however, did not adjust her lifestyle in the least. She continued to buy expensive clothing and to demand that he buy expensive items for the children. John never argued. Helen’s days in bed increased. She was hospitalized and her health declined rapidly. She was diagnosed with a fatal neurological condition that resulted from syphilis she had unknowingly contracted from her first husband. Helen’s sister Jean told John she thought he should consider having her institutionalized but he adamantly refused.
In the bigger picture of the world outside of the List household, the 1960s was a decade where John List never belonged. He hated the politics and loose social mores of the era, particularly with regard to his children. None of them got into any real trouble, but Patty was subtly defiant and her emerging teenaged figure and devil-may-care attitude made him perpetually angry. Patty’s last act of defiance occurred on a summer night when she sneaked out of the house and met her girlfriend after 2 a.m. They decided to take a stroll downtown with no clear objective in mind. In the small community of 33,000 residents, it did not take long for a patrol car to notice the two girls out alone with no excuse to be there. He picked them up, drove them to the police station, and called their parents. Patty’s friend’s father was angry and annoyed at their immature but harmless behavior. John, however, was furious. He did not speak to her on the car ride home. Once there, he banged around until the entire family was awake and shouted at his daughter “You are out of control!” He raged on: She was going to hell and there was nothing he could do to prevent it. “Slut! You leave me no choice,” he ended mysteriously.
Beginning in late October 1971 he had concluded that it was impossible for him to save his daughter’s soul from succumbing to–in his mind– her evil ways. He could not afford to make mortgage payments or otherwise support his family in the way they had learned to live, and going on welfare would have been an unbearable embarrassment for them. John frequently slept on a cot he had installed in the Billiards Room, removed from his family.
By November he had brooded and thought and prayed and finally decided how to solve his problems. He concluded that the only viable solution was to kill his family. He felt sure they could not get along without him if he left them. Suicide would have risked his immoral soul, his religious upbringing had taught him. He was God’s child and would ultimately be forgiven, and his family would someday be joyfully reunited in heaven. He was not sure whether his wife and children would remember that he had killed them, but if they did, he knew they would understand and forgive him.
John had tried unsuccessfully to purchase a revolver in Westfield, so he located two aged revolvers in his home, one inherited from his father and the second purchased as a souvenir of his participation in World War II. He bought the necessary ammunition and set the execution date for November 9th.
That morning John fixed his children breakfast, then saw them off to school. Shortly after, his wife Helen descended from her room and poured a cup of coffee which she drank at the kitchen table while she read the newspaper and munched on toast. He retrieved his guns from the garage where he had stashed them in a military jacket pocket, then returned to the kitchen and shot his wife in the back of the head, killing her instantly. Next he mounted the stairs to his mother’s third floor apartment where he kissed her good morning and, in response to her question about a loud noise she had heard, asked her to look out one window while he checked a second one. As she walked to the window, he shot her in the head, also killing her immediately. At Alma’s age, he reasoned, the shock of knowing her daughter-in-law and grandchildren were dead would have been too stressful for her.
Never a man to leave a job half done, he retrieved two sleeping bags from the basement and lying one on the kitchen floor, used it to drag Helen’s body into the ballroom. His mother’s body had been too heavy for him to lift and so, he later told police, he left it upstairs in the third floor hallway. Then he mopped the floors to clean up the blood and brain matter at each murder site. By this time he was hungry, so he fixed himself a sandwich and ate it at the table where his wife had sat when he shot her.
By early afternoon he got to work preparing for the next stage of his plan, escape. He stopped the mail and milk delivery by explaining his wife’s mother was gravely ill and he had put his wife and children on a plane to North Carolina where he would drive to meet them. He called the children’s schools and Pat’s drama class to report that they would be absent for some weeks. Finally he drove to the bank where he withdrew his mother’s cash reserves and cashed in some bonds she had. He netted two thousand dollars in traveling money.
Patty had an after-school job, but felt ill and called him that day to pick her up immediately after school. John and Patty entered the house through the laundry room; he killed her there as they walked toward the kitchen. Fred also worked after school and after driving him home, John disposed of his son as he had his daughter. He drove to his middle son John’s soccer game and brought him home to the same fate to which his brother and sister had succumbed. While his other victims had died quickly, he told detectives that John’s body continued to move and twitch so John shot him several more times, requiring him to switch guns and probably reload. He did not regret or feel guilty for murdering his family. John said once his set his plan in motion, he felt as if everything was an “automatic pilot.”
During the late afternoon and evening he cleaned up as much blood as he could, moved his children’s bodies to the ballroom beside their mother, scissored out his face in all the family photos he found around the house, and tuned the house-wide stereo system to a classical music station. Downstairs in the billiards room he composed a 10-page confession and addressed it to his minister whom he thought would be best able to understand what he had done. He turned the heat down to 50 degrees to retard corpse decomposition and turned on lights throughout the house to suggest that the family was home. He fixed and ate dinner, washed his dishes, and retired for the evening.
Once the deed was done, he put all thoughts of it out of his mind and looked toward the future. By dawn he was awake, refreshed, and pulled out of the driveway toward Kennedy airport where he parked in a long-term lot. From there he took public transportation to Grand Central Station where he began his journey west, headed for the part of America known for new beginnings and abandoned pasts.
Although neighbors and acquaintances wondered where the List family had gone and thought it odd that they left their home for many days blazing with lights, there was no reason to suspect foul play. Ed Illiano had been Pat List’s drama coach and she had confided in him recently that she was afraid of her father. While kids in town dared one another to walk up on the porch and often did, Ed was the only adult who was sufficiently concerned to watch the List house regularly. Several times he parked his car on the street near the house to see if there was any activity there. Finally, On December 7th he and his colleague Barbara Sheridan told their drama group that they were going to the house to find out what was going on. When they arrived at 431 Hillside Avenue and began to look around, they attracted the attention of the List’s next door neighbors, William and Shirley Cunnick who called 911 to report an intruder. Just as Ed was preparing to enter the house, police arrived. He and Barbara introduced themselves and explained the situation. Patrolman George Zhelisnik and Ed agreed to enter the house through an unlocked dining room window. Classical music was playing loudly and they immediately detected a musty odor that seemed to be coming from the ballroom located off the center hallway. Zhelisnik shone his flashlight into the dark room, revealing the bodies of John List’s wife and three children. Ed flipped the light switch to the hallway chandelier, then opened the front door to Patrolman Charles Haller, Barbara, and William Cunnick who was a physician. He bent to examine the bodies. The children were dressed in their coats and school clothes. All of the bodies were bloated and swarming with maggots, clearly having been there for a long time. By this time the chief of police and several other officers had arrived. When Ed realized that John’s mother was unaccounted for, officers ran upstairs to the third floor and found Alma’s body, her son’s fifth and final victim.
The city and county police forces began an exhaustive investigation. On December 9th they were joined by the FBI; John List had been charged with interstate flight. Media coverage was national and the FBI prepared “Wanted” posters which were distributed throughout their country-wide network. List’s confession letter was reviewed carefully for clues to his whereabouts. Everyone who knew or recognized John from Westfield and the other places he had lived or worked was interviewed. Every tip was run down. John List seemed to have disappeared from the face of the earth. It would be eighteen years before he would resurface.
Meanwhile, John List had been a very careful man. He planned and followed his mental map cautiously, aiming to move to Colorado. He secured a social security card in the name of Robert P. “Bob” Clark, a man whom John List became, immediately casting off the man he had been. Initially he lived from his modest bank roll and looked for entry level jobs. While he had excellent credentials as an accountant, initially he did not attempt to get a position in his field. When he reached Denver, he found a place in an inexpensive rooming house, then bought a cheap trailer and accepted a night cook’s position at a Holiday Inn across the street. While he had no formal training in culinary arts, he had cooked at home and was creative, observant, and sufficiently dependable to rise through the ranks. Beginning as the night cook, he eventually was offered a sous chef position–the second in command–at that restaurant and subsequently at a country club, a job move he made with his boss Gary Morrison. By 1977, however, Bob Clark began to talk increasingly to Gary about his interest in returning to his original career as an accountant. Gary was disappointed but not surprised. Culinary hours were long, difficult, and inconvenient, and turnover was frequent. He worked briefly
His livelihood was not the only change in “Bob’s” life. That same year at a Lutheran social gathering he met Delores H. Miller, an attractive recently divorced woman with whom he soon fell in love. She was not interested in getting married again right away, but they dated seriously. Bob had formed his own lackluster tax consulting business, then invested in a direct mail operation where he lost money. His previous spotty job history continued even after he had become Bob Clark. Eventually he accepted an accounting position for a small firm, All Packaging, where he was later promoted to controller.
In 1981 the couple bought a two-bedroom condominium together in the Montebello neighborhood of Denver. Delores initially moved in alone. Bob had proposed marriage repeatedly to Delores but she demurred until the summer of 1985. They married in Maryland near her mother’s home the following November.
At first, their marriage was a happy one. Bob was satisfied with his accounting position and Delores was working too. Delores became friends with her next door neighbor, Wanda Flanery. The latter was a lively woman who paid perhaps too close attention to her neighbors and was fond of reading sensational tabloids. In 1987 Wanda bought a copy of The Weekly World News in the supermarket that contained an article about the 1971 murder of the List family and a photo of John List, whom she immediately thought resembled her next door neighbor, Bob Clark. She brought the article to Delores when Bob was not at home and suggested that she show it to her husband. Delores thought the idea ludicrous and discarded the paper.
Five months after their marriage, however, Bob again lost his job. He tried diligently but not successfully to locate another. Delores was increasingly disappointed in Bob’s failure to play his part in supporting them and was not tactful about her feelings. If Bob didn’t find a new job soon, she told Wanda, she would leave him. Fortunately, in November Bob received a job offer from an accounting firm located in Richmond Virginia and needed to report to work right after the first of the year. Bob and Delores decided he would go ahead to Virginia and she would follow when their condo had been sold. Her family lived in Maryland and Delores looked forward to being close to them again. They bought a small condominium in the Richmond suburban subdivision of Brandermill.
The series America’s Most Wanted launched on television in 1988 and was an instant success. Hosted by John Walsh whose 6-year-old son Adam was kidnapped and murdered in July 1981, the program dramatized unsolved crimes and invited the public to offer information they might have that would help to bring criminals to justice. On Sunday evening May 21, 1989 the program featured the List murders. There were no recent photos of John, but the program’s executive director had arranged for a Philadelphia sculptor, Frank Bender, to produce a clay bust of John as he might now appear. Using a psychological profile, a photo of List, and his intuition, Bender produced an amazing likeness of the man who was now known as Bob Clark. Twenty two million viewers saw the program and they included Westfield investigators, Helen’s sister Jean, John himself, and Wanda Flanery, who was already convinced that Bob was actually John List. She had kept in touch with her friend Delores Clark and convinced her son-in-law to call the America’s Most Wanted and report that List was now living in Richmond as Bob Clark. He provided the return address from a letter Delores had sent to Wanda.
The show forwarded that tip along with others they had received to the FBI who routed it to their Richmond Virginia office. Agent Kevin August, assigned to fugitive cases, followed up by interviewing Delores at her home. She had not seen the t.v.episode, but reacted immediately when August showed her a photo of John List. “Could this be your husband?” he had asked. She recognized the resemblance right away but denied that it could be her husband. “He’s the nicest man in the world,” she said. Nonetheless, evidence was mounting against him with every question Delores answered. Yes, he grew up in Michigan. He was an accountant. He had a scar behind his right ear that matching the mastoidectomy scar John List had.
August felt he had enough evidence to make an arrest and after obtaining Bob’s work address from his wife, he drove there where he was met by two FBI colleagues. They took the man into custody who repeatedly insisted–even after investigators matched his fingerprints to those of John List– that he was Bob Clark. He was eventually extradited to New Jersey where he was tried and convicted of five counts of first degree murder. Since there was no death sentence in New Jersey in 1971, the maximum jail term was imposed: Five consecutive life terms, guaranteeing that he would never be eligible for parole.
John List was content in prison. He prayed many times each day, read, wrote letters, and used the mail to play the war games he so relished with friends. In 2006 he self-published a book about his life and the murders, ironically entitled Collateral Damage. The book was ghost-written by Austin Goodrich, a journalist who befriended John in prison. My next post will be a supplement to this one, looking at John’s view of himself and his crimes as he represented them in his book.
He died of a heart attack in 2008. In a book about the case (Death Sentence: The Inside Story of the John List Murders) written by Joe Sharkey, the author quoted the stand-up comedian Moms Mabley who said about someone she despised, “They say you shouldn’t say nothin’ about the dead unless it’s good. He’s dead. Good!” Sharkey ends his book this way: “John List died in prison on March 21, 2008. Nobody came forward to claim the body. Good.”
In preparing this article I read Death Sentence by Joe Sharkey and Collateral Damage by John List with Austin Goodrich and articles about the case that appeared in Wikipedia, Murderpedia, and The New York Times.
L-R victim Karen Hill, Shawcross with his “adopted” daughter Margaret Deming and granddaughter, Arthur Shawcross, and victim Jack Blake
WARNING: THIS BLOG CONTAINS GRAPHIC VIOLENCE AND SEXUAL MATERIAL THAT IS NOT APPROPRIATE FOR ALL READERS.
It is time to make up for lost time. I’ve promised to post 4 articles every month and I’m determined to post this article and one more before the first of September. Watch me!
Today I am writing about a killer close to my my original home, Rochester, New York. Only the people who lived in the Monroe County New York region or the Thousand Island/St. Lawrence River area, or who are obsessed with true crime probably recognize the name Arthur Shawcross. In 2008 he died in prison of heart failure at age 63 while serving a life sentence for killing 12 women in Rochester.
Arthur, called “Artie” by his mother, was the oldest of four children born at a Naval hospital in Kittery Maine. He grew up in northern central New York State in the small city of Watertown, near the 1000 Islands area of the St. Lawrence River that borders the U.S. and Canada. He was known as a peculiar child who spoke baby talk until he was 14 and hid under radiators and the teacher’s desk although he was a bully at school. Although he earned As and Bs in kindergarten, his reported IQ was 86 a below average score and he repeated at least three elementary grades and dropped out of school in 9th grade. He was a suspect in several burglary and arson cases and in 1963 was arrested and placed on probation for breaking a shop window. While family members dispute his accusations, he claimed he was sexually molested by his mother and aunt and had sex with his sisters. He mauled small animals, wet his bed, and was a suspect in several arson and burglary cases, characteristics known as the MacDonald Triad, common childhood traits of serial killers.
Despite his rough ways, Shawcross seemed to be popular with the ladies. In 1964 when he was 20, he married Sarah Chatterton and they had a son together. He continued to get involved in illegal activities and Sarah divorced him in 1966; Arthur readily gave up his parental rights. In September 1967 he married his second wife, Linda Neary. It may have been her good fortune that Shawcross was drafted into the military the following month, where he served for more than a year in Vietnam. Years later he claimed to have killed more than 40 Vietnamese, describing abuse and torture he inflicted in graphic detail. His army records indicated that he was a supply clerk and did not kill anyone during his service. He was discharged in 1969, then convicted of arson for burning down Crowley’s Cheese factory and Knowlton Brothers Paper Mill and sentenced to five years in Attica prison. Neary divorced him.
His killing did not begin in 1988 when he murdered and mutilated the first of a 10 prostitutes and a mentally impaired neighbor. He had been a dangerous man since 1972 when at age 27 he was convicted of sexually abusing and killing 11-year-old Jack Black and 8-year-old Karen Hill in Watertown where his mother Bessie had settled with her children while their father completed his military service.
Jack Blake was a neighborhood child whom Artie often took fishing in a meandering local stream. Witnesses saw them together at their regular spot on April 7, 1972. That was the last time anyone saw Jack alive. Later Artie was observed eating ice cream on the bridge where they regularly fished. Blake’s body was not found until five months later. The small boy had been sexually molested and asphyxiated. On April 22nd, Shawcross married his third wife Penny Sherbino, a girl he had known in high school. She was pregnant with his child at the time but miscarried four months later.
About a month after the discovery of Blake’s body, on September 2nd, 8-year-old Karen Hill was reported missing. Her mother questioned Shawcross repeatedly because she knew her daughter talked to him and was seen in his company frequently. His answers were vague but when she told police they seemed disinterested. Her body was discovered later that month under a bridge that crossed the Black River, a place Shawcross was frequently seen. She had been sexually molested and her mouth and clothing stuffed with mud and leaves.
Shawcross was soon picked up for questioning. At first he denied knowledge of either case but quickly confessed to both killings. Fearing he would not be convicted of the Jack Blake murder due to lack of corroborating evidence, the district attorney offered him a plea: If he accepted a sentence of 25 years for the murder of Karen Hill and agreed to show police where he had buried Jack Blake’s body, he would not be prosecuted for the Blake case. He accepted the plea and served 14 1/2 years of his sentence. He had been a model prisoner during his incarceration, earning his GED and passing a horticulture class, and was given excellent references by prison staff. He was paroled in April 1987. Well-publicized attempts to resettle in Watertown and then in Binghamton NY were not successful and the parole board finally decided to seal his criminal records and relocate him with his girlfriend, Rose Whalley, a few hundred miles south and east in Rochester New York. Apparently their relationship did not meet his needs and he soon acquired a girlfriend, Clara Neal. Nonetheless he married Rose, who became his fourth wife, in 1989. [He later married Clara, wife number five, during his final incarceration.]
Shawcross worked a number of short-lived menial jobs, the last as a salad maker for a produce company. In spite of having a wife, a girlfriend, and a job, he was able to make time to cruise Rochester’s “red light district” on run-down Lyell Avenue. Pretty 27-year-old Dorothy Blackburn was one of them. She disappeared on March 24, 1988 and was discovered dumped in the Genesee River after she had been viciously attacked, bitten in the groin, and strangled. On September 11th the body of prostitute Anna Steffen was discovered near the Blackburn dump site, and on October 21st, the asphyxiated body of a homeless woman 59-year-old Dorothy Keeler was discovered. The body of Patty Ives, sexually abused and strangled, was found 6 days later, on October 27th. While prostitutes were often involved with drugs and found themselves in dangerous situations, Rochester police were now convinced they were looking for a serial killer. They warned the women who cruised the Lake-Lyell avenues to be cautious of strangers and travel in pairs. Arthur Shawcross, though, was a well-known figure to the girls who worked the streets and they did not consider him dangerous.
June Stotts, age 30, was Arthur’s friend. She was neither a prostitute nor a drug-user. He picked her up on the street on October 23rd and they drove to a nearby beach where they had sex, then argued. Stotts was strangled, anally abused postmortem, then her body split open from neck to crotch, and partially eviscerated; her body was discovered on Thanksgiving Day. After June’s slaying, Shawcross strangled and mutilated Frances Brown, Maria Welch, Elizabeth Gibson, Darlene Trippi, Felicia Stevens, and June Cicero.
On January 3, 1990, a police helicopter covering route 31 near Northampton Park where a wallet and boots belonging to Felicia Stevens had been discovered, saw a car stopped on a bridge over Salmon Creek. The occupant was outside the passenger side of the vehicle and below him, frozen in the creek ice, was the nude body of a woman later identified as June Cicero. This was not the first time Shawcross had visited her body, he told police. Two days after the murder he had returned to the scene with a hand saw, cut out her vagina, and ate it. While the vagina had been cut, the cannibalism allegation was never proven Arthur Shawcross had been her last trick on the night of December 18th. She had bragged to police earlier that day that the killer didn’t worry her. She could take care of herself. He should be afraid of her, she had claimed.
Arthur Shawcross justified every murder he committed except the murders of the children, Those he repeatedly refused to discuss. In one videotaped interview, however, he told the questioner that he did not want to talk about the children because he regretted those crimes and felt shame. For the other victims, he always found an excuse. The prostitutes made fun of his inability to perform sexually, he claimed. Several tried to steal his wallet. One bit his penis during oral sex. His written confession was 80 pages long.
He never expressed remorse for any of his crimes and in fact said he was unable to feel any emotion about them. In November 1990 he was tried for 10 cases of second degree murder (one occurred in an adjacent county and was tried separately) and sentenced to 250 years in New York State’s Sullivan Correctional Facility. On November 8, 2008 he complained of leg pains and was transferred to an Albany hospital where he died the same day.
The beginning of this blog reflects my own personal opinions and very likely does not reflect the beliefs of my writing partner, retired Manatee County Sheriff Charlie Wells. His frame of reference is vastly different from mine. It reflects different experiences than those I have had; I deeply respect what he believes to be the truth.
Most of the following blog tells the stories of two fine, dedicated Florida Troopers, Claude Baker and Charlie Campbell, and how their duty to protect the public cost them their lives. By telling their stories in tandem with references to George Floyd and Derek Chauvin, I want to emphasize that we cannot afford to polarize our nation further by simplistically defining complicated people and situations as right or wrong, good or evil, Black or White, racist or non-racist. Abolishing police departments is a foolish idea; making them better trained and accountable for the acts they perform, right now, is essential. God bless the brave men and women who leave their homes each morning in the hope of protecting our communities. May they remain strong, fair, and safe.
Law Enforcement as a career is taking a brutal beating these days with some justification. The world froze in horror at the video image of Minneapolis police officer Derek Michael Chauvin kneeling for eight minutes on the neck of George Floyd, who had been suspected of passing a counterfeit twenty dollar bill. Floyd was only the most recent victim of a flurry of Black American deaths by officers of the law. These deaths are not largely the product of evil racist cops. They are the product of a racialized country that not only permits but in some cases encourages citizens to take the worst parts of their nature, their prejudices and hatreds, out onto the streets and to act on them without fear of recrimination.
I think most law enforcement professionals do the best job they can to protect the public–Black and White–and to put bad people away where they can do no more harm. They risk their lives every day to do so.
Charlie Wells told me the stories of two fellow-troopers he knew, worked with, liked, and respected during his early law enforcement days. I have paraphrased here but have written in the first person: Wells is the narrator. Sections that appear in italics were written directly by Charlie Wells and are part of his forthcoming autobiography.
Troopers Claude Baker and Charlie Campbell were as close as any two troopers I knew. They shared a common vision of what it was to be a law enforcement officers but they were different men with different personalities and characteristics.
Charlie, who stood about 6’1” and weighed around 250 pounds, had little patience when he was confronted by a violator who wanted to give him a hard time. Otherwise he just looked mean. A sinkhole had developed in one of the roadways in Sarasota and troopers were assigned to prevent motorists from driving into it. Charlie was directing traffic that hot summer day when he motioned drivers to turn right or left, avoiding the hole. One vehicle pulled up to the intersection and watching Charlie’s direction, the driver honked his horn. Charlie looked at the guy who was yelling at him, but could not hear what he said because the car window was up. He shrugged his shoulders questioningly and the driver pointed that he wanted to go straight. Charlie once again motioned for the driver to turn.
The driver blew his horn again, this time louder and longer, and once again motioned to Charlie that he wanted to go straight. Charlie moved the barricade, then walked over to the driver who by now had rolled his window down and was still grumbling. Charlie said “Do you see that sinkhole over there?” The driver raised up in his seat to see better and finally said yes. Charlie said “Drive into the hole.” The driver said “I don’t want to drive into the hole.” Charlie said “I told you to drive into the hole.” By this time the driver was red-faced and shaking his head no. Charlie said “If you don’t want to drive into the hole, then you have to turn. Why do you think the barricades are there? Why do you think I’m here?” The embarrassed driver finally got the message, turned right, and drove off.
While Charlie was the more serious of the two, he also had a sense of humor. One night he invited Trooper Ron Getman to go fishing with Claude and him. Getman showed up at the meeting place by the water and got out of his car with a bucket of shrimp for bait. His friends asked him what was in the bucket and Getman told them. Campbell grabbed one of the shrimp from the bucket, threw it in the water, and announced “Well, looks like they aren’t biting. Let’s go get a beer.” Getman caught on immediately. The invitation had not been for a fishing trip, it was strictly a beer drinking night!
Claude, who was the smaller of the pair, was always smiling. When he issued citations to violators they never seemed to get mad at him. Getting promoted within the Florida Highway Patrol (FHP) was difficult. It meant months of studying law, policy and supervision prior to the promotional examinations. On one occasion the promotional examinations were held at the University of South Florida, Tampa. Claude and Charlie rode to the exam together in Charlie’s car. I pulled up in the university parking lot at the same time they did. We got out of our cruisers, shook hands, and walked to the examination room together. I asked Claude if he had been studying. “Yes” he said, “on the ride up here, but it was hard to concentrate because Charlie kept talking to me.” I knew Claude was kidding, he hadn’t studied at all. We all laughed and entered the exam room. After we had finished I saw Claude again and he said “I think I may have missed one or two questions.” We laughed and walked to our cruisers. Claude had no interest in being promoted. He was content with his life and did not care about climbing the chain of command. In many ways I admired him for his contentment. It wasn’t that he was lazy or unintelligent. He was a bright trooper with a good head on his shoulders, but above all he was happy.
Henry Lorenzo Payne was not a stranger to law enforcement. Two days before encountering Trooper Claude Baker, Payne had been serving a three-year sentence for auto theft at Zephyr Hills Prison Camp in his home state of Florida when he escaped from a work release program on November 15, 1973. It didn’t take him long to return to a life of crime. The next day he went to a Ware Construction Company site in Tampa. He reached through a car window where a security guard named Spivey was seated and attempted to grab the guard’s gun. When Spivey refused to give it up, Payne dragged him from the car, beat him, and stole his weapon and a small television set he had been watching.
The following day, November 17th, Payne abducted a twenty-one-year-old female from a shopping center and forced her to drive to a wooded area near Tampa. There he raped her, stole her 1972 blue Oldsmobile, and drove off leaving her in the woods.The victim walked to the nearest phone and called the Hillsborough County Sheriff’s Office.
Payne laid low until nightfall, then headed south, passing through Ruskin, Palmetto, Bradenton, Sarasota, and Venice in the stolen car.He was, unsurprisingly, speeding. Trooper Baker who was on duty and traveling north on route 41 at the time, made a U turn and gave chase.
At 7:58 p.m. , Trooper Baker, #365, radioed the Bradenton dispatcher and advised that he was stopping a blue Oldsmobile Cutlass, license number FL 3W-51397. They were seven or eight miles south of Venice on U.S. 41, otherwise known as Tamiami Trail. The Bradenton dispatcher checked his records and reported that the car was not missing or stolen. Traffic stops like this one occur thousands of times a week and were normally routine. The Hillsborough County Sheriff’s Office report of the rape and car theft had not yet been entered into the system; This stop on this night would be anything but routine.
Terry and Sharon Rhodes were traveling south on U.S. 41 and saw a trooper pass them with blue lights on. They said the trooper went out of sight at a curve in the road, then a few minutes later they saw the trooper’s blue lights again. When their car was adjacent to the patrol car they saw the trooper lying on the ground face down. Terry, who worked for an ambulance service in Fort Myers, jumped from his car and ran to the trooper’s aid.He turned Claude Baker over and attempted to clear his air passage. Claude was moaning and then expelled a lot of blood.Rhodesdid not see Payne who had already left in the blue Oldsmobile.
Everything was quiet in the dispatch system until 8:03 p.m. The on-duty Bradenton dispatcher broke the radio squelch and I detected a nervous quiver in his voice. Ben Clinger, ordinarily a calm dispatcher and a man I knew well was not calm now as he spoke on the radio. He was talking to a citizen speaking from Claude’s radio, which was very unusual. While I could not hear what the citizen was saying I could clearly hear Clinger and some back and forth between Clinger and the citizen. Clinger broadcast words that chilled me to the bone: “Bradenton all units, #365 has been shot on U.S. 41 approximately 7 miles south of Venice.” I had heard a similar message about a trooper earlier in my career and the results had not been good.I felt sick.
Sarasota County Sheriff’s deputies rapidly deployed to the scene. Detective Robert Hampton and his colleagues searched the area to recover evidence.Hampton reported that Claude had been shot twice, once on the left chest and a second time on his right arm near the elbow. His gun lay on the ground behind the left rear tire. Ironically, Sergeant Eric Britt found a check issued by the Ware Construction Company to Henry Lorenzo Payne two feet in front of Claude’s patrol car. Payne had worked at the work site where he had robbed the security guard the day before.
At midnight the Charlotte County Sheriff’s Office reported they had received a call from a Port Charlotte resident. She had been watching television and had seen the news report of the trooper killing with a description of Payne and the car he was driving. She said she had seena car matching that description parked in her neighborhood. Charlotte County deputies immediately responded. They found Payne. In the Oldsmobile he was driving, deputies found a .38 revolver and the clothes Payne had been wearing. There were bloodstains on his jeans.
Payne was not going to give up easily. After his arrest he told Detective Hampton that his name was Leroy Jenkins. He admitted having been in the blue Oldsmobile, but insisted that a man he called “Bee Bop”had picked him up hitchhiking and was the actual shooter.After Hampton left the room, Payne finally admitted his true identity to the other officer interrogating him, Lieutenant Bohanson. Payne invoked his right to an attorney, was assigned a public defender, and refused to talk to detectives any further.
Undoubtedly to avoid the death penalty, Payne eventually plead guilty to first degree murder for the death of Claude Baker. He was sentenced to life in prison at Tomoka Facility. In addition to murder, Payne was convicted of robbery, rape, grand theft auto, and escape. In 1987 he again escaped his Jackson County facility. While out of prison Payne was convicted of additional crimes: Robbery with a firearm and aggravated battery with intent to do harm, and escape. Again, hopefully for the last time, he is serving a life sentence in prison.
Over 700 were in attendance at the Ewing Funeral Home in Venice to show their respect for a fine trooper and an outstanding man. The chapel was filled to capacity and an overflow crowd listened to the service on outside speakers. Staff members from General Headquarters (GHQ) Tallahassee including FHP Director, Colonel J.E. Beach. The Lieutenant Colonel and several Troop Commanders from around the state were also in attendance. Law Enforcement officers from hundreds of state and local agencies were in attendance to honor Claude. Hundreds of local citizens came, even though many of them may have never known Claude, but they wanted to let Claude’s family and law enforcement know they cared for them and many of them wept during the service.
An FHP Honor Guard stood at Claude’s casket. An American flag covered the casket, which I believed would have pleased Claude: He was a patriotic man. Claude’s family was ushered into the chapel and quietly took their seats. Connie Baker, Claude’s wife along with his daughter Sabrina were escorted in by Corporal Steve Ward, Claude’s immediate supervisor. It was heartbreaking for me to look at Connie and Sabrina Baker as the sat, eyes overflowing with tears. Connie was a beautiful, dignified lady. She and Claude had been married for over nine years. The service was almost unbearable for her. At her young age I was not certain that their daughter, beautiful little Sabrina, could understand that her daddy was never coming home again.
The motorcade that accompanied Claude Baker’s body consisted of more than 150 patrol cars and police motorcycles from multiple agencies, blue lights flashing with hundreds of civilians falling in behind them. The procession was two miles long. Along the route, hundreds lined up on the sidewalks and street corners to salute the hearse carrying Claude to his final resting place. The entire experience was humbling, yet bittersweet, bitter because of Claude’s murder, sweet because of the support he was receiving from the public along the way. We had lost a good man and the public knew it.
Losing Claude Baker had been agonizing for Charlie Campbell and he was never the same after his best friend was murdered. He finally asked for and was granted a transfer to Perry. He thought the change might ease his pain and help him get past it all. Before long he settled into his new assignment and seemed relatively satisfied.
On November 16, 1974, near Thanksgiving and one day short of a year since Claude Baker had died, Charlie got into his cruiser, signed on in service, and headed to the Perry Florida Highway Patrol station. He spoke with the dispatcher, jotting down information on a “Be On The Lookout” (BOLO) for a stolen beige Volkswagen. He headed south on U.S. 19, the main arterial highway through Taylor County.
About seven miles south of Perry Charlie spotted a beige Volkswagen that fit the description of the BOLO stolen car. Charlie made a U-turn though the median and fell in behind the car. Reading the license plate, he noticed that it was different from the one on the BOLO. He activated his emergency lights and stopped the Volkswagen to investigate.Charlie had no way of knowing that the driver was one of the most evil human beings in the nation at the time: Paul John Knowles.It was never determined why Campbell had not radioed ahead to dispatch, as was protocol, to report that he was stopping the Volkswagen.
Knowles was a ruthless serial killer who had already murdered and raped numerous times. [See the details in the blog dated July 31, 2020, truecrimemama.com]. As Charlie approached the Volkswagen, Knowles quickly exited with a sawed-off 12-gauge shotgun and got the drop on the trooper.Knowles handcuffed Campbell, then ordered him into the passenger side of the car. The two drove away with Knowles behind the wheel, leaving the Volkswagen behind.
Knowles could not afford to be spotted driving a sheriff’s vehicle, but he used it one final time to stop a blue Ford Torino driven by 30-year-old James E. Meyer of Wilmington, Delaware.Meyer had rented the car from Hertz at the Tallahassee airport and was headed to Perry on business. Knowles subdued Meyer, most likely, by handcuffing him with a spare set of handcuffs found in Charlie’s FHP cruiser, then placed him in the Torino’s back seat with Charlie and took off looking for an escape route to leave the area.
The Taylor County area is a rural county encompassing fewer than 1,300 square miles with a population of 21,600. Perry is the county seat and is located about 50 miles south of the state capitol in Tallahassee. While the County is on the west coast, it is not a beach community but better- known for great hunting and fishing locations. Because of its size, limited financial resources hindered law enforcement in their search for Charlie. The County’s small sheriff’s force relied on wild life officers, state troopers, the marine patrol, the FBI, and local citizens to assist them. All their efforts failed and Knowles drove out of the county and made his way to Georgia, less than 40 miles away.
He traveled on less populated roads, but was not invisible. In Lakeland Georgia a service station attendant reported seeing Knowles in a car with two other men about 1 p.m. Another witness saw him in Abbeville around 4 p.m., and a third witness said he saw the car near the the Houston and Pulaski county lines a short time later where Knowles made a right hand turn onto the dirt state road 247, traveling at a high rate of speed. Between 6 and 7 p.m. purchases of a tape recorder, tapes, clothing, shoes and batteries were made at a Sears store in Macon Georgia with Charlie Campbell’s credit card. By 10:15 p.m. Knowles had checked into the Ambassador Motel in Macon. By then he was alone.
Early the following afternoon, Henry County Georgia Sheriff’s Deputy Charles Hancock received a BOLO for the blue Torino Knowles was driving. He saw the car and called for a roadblock at Highway 52 where Knowles was headed. Seeing the barrier, Knowles sped up and hit a patrol car, then sprang from his car, pointing a revolver at the pursuing sheriffs, but did not shoot. He ran for the nearby woods. Law enforcement officers and a team of tracking dogs were not immediately able to locate him.
Several hours later Knowles was apprehended in Henry County. His escape route covered a distance of 4.5 miles, primarily through a wooded area. During the time he was pursued Knowles forcibly entered two residences located on Springdale Road. He had stolen a single-barrel Stevens shotgun from one of the houses and it was in his possession at the time of his arrest.
Knowles was eventually captured by a soft-spoken young man named David Clark. Clark had spotted Knowles while walking outside his house, calmly walked into his home to get his shotgun, and Knowles surrendered to him without a struggle. He was exhausted after running several miles from the pursuing deputies and dogs. Ironically, the 12-gauge shotgun Knowles had stolen did not have a firing pin and was worthless to the killer. Clark marched Knowles across the street and asked one of his neighbors to call the police. Scores of law enforcement officers quickly appeared at Clark’s address and took Knowles into custody. Clark was considered a hero by his neighbors. The slender 27-year-old had not been figured to be the type to capture a dangerous criminal, his neighbor said.
Four days later, on November 21, 1974 the bodies of Charlie and Meyer were found by two deer hunters, Dennis Thompson and Walter Owens, near Perry, Georgia. Charlie and 7 another miles west where they were killed. Charlie and Meyer were found lying head to head at the base of a large pine tree. It appeared they had been restrained by handcuffs prior to being shot in the head. Charlie was in full FHP uniform, except his hat and gun belt. He had been shot with a .357 magnum, Claude Baker’s gun, the gun Charlie had requested Florida Highway Patrol issue to him after Claude’s death.
A Federal Grand Jury was impaneled in Macon and Sheldon Yavitz, Knowles’ attorney, was subpoenaed to testify regarding tape recordings he possessed that Knowles had made at the scenes of 18 murders he was charged with. He wanted someone to write a book about his exploits using the tapes.
A large number of reporters and curiosity seekers had gathered at the jail trying to get a photo or glimpse of Knowles, which caused authorities to be concerned about his security and the security of police officers at the jail. After careful thought, they decided to move Knowles to Douglas County Jail in Milledgeville, Georgia. The sheriff of Douglas County was Earl Lee who was a big affable man who had a solid reputation in law enforcement. After having served as a deputy for eight years, Sheriff Lee ran for sheriff and was elected. Lee had attended law enforcement schools to sharpen his skills and also graduated from the National FBI Academy. While he was there, Lee became friends with a Georgia Bureau of Investigation (GBI) agent named Ronnie Angel.
After Knowles was incarcerated in the Douglas County Jail, Lee and Angel regularly visited his cell to establish rapport with him. The two lawmen were tenacious and wanted to get as much information as Knowles would give them about other murders he had committed. Sheriff Lee later testified before the grand jury that he had asked Knowles how many people he had killed and Knowles had written in the palm of his hand the number 18. The sheriff also testified that Knowles had written on the wall of his cell Georgia, Florida, Virginia, Connecticut, Mississippi and Ohio as the states where he had committed his crimes. Sheriff Lee and Agent Angel also asked Knowles what he had done with Charlie’s service revolver and after many conversations, on December 10, Knowles finally agreed to show them where he had discarded the weapon. The sheriff knew that Knowles was a vain, cocky man who was upset when he wasn’t mentioned in the media and might cooperate for the attention it would offer him.
On December 18th, Lee and Angel collected their prisoner from his cell and secured his hands and legs with cuffs and chains to prevent an escape attempt. Lee drove the cruiser and they proceeded south on Interstate 20 toward Henry County. Agent Angel had contacted several GBI agents and members of the Henry County Sheriff’s Office and requested they meet him and Sheriff Lee at Hudson Bridge Road and Interstate 75 to provide additional security for the search for the gun.
At the county line road bridge Knowles lit up a cigarette and Lee directed him to throw the cigarette out. He pulled over to the side of the road for Knowles to dispose of it, but Knowles said he would put it out in the ash tray. Shortly after that Sheriff Lee saw and felt Knowles’ arm reach over his shoulder and grab his gun. Agent Angel also saw Knowles grab the sheriff’s gun. Shots were fired and the vehicle left the roadway. Upon coming to a stop, Sheriff Lee got out of the vehicle and confirmed that Knowles was dead. The latter had actually fired the sheriff’s gun while it was partially holstered and at approximately the same time, Agent Angel fired the shots that killed Knowles.
Examinations by the state crime laboratory recovered three bullets from Knowles body during an autopsy. A metal paper clip was found in the Douglas County Sheriff’s vehicle that Knowles had used to pick the handcuff lock from his right hand. On December 30, 1974, a coroner’s inquest was held in Douglas County to examine the facts surrounding the death of Knowles. After hearing nine witnesses testify, the coroner’s jury ruled that the death of Knowles was justifiable homicide.
In a single year’s time, two outstanding law enforcement officers, Claude Baker and Charlie Campbell, colleagues and the best of friends, lost their lives in the line of duty. Henry Lorenzo Payne was off the streets for life, no longer a threat to innocent Florida citizens. The spree killer, Paul John Knowles, a man who had at the same time gone on a murderous six-month rampage, was also now dead.Without the courage and persistence of men like Baker and Campbell, there is no doubt that the world would be a vastly more dangerous place. We are grateful for their lives. May they rest in peace.
PHOTOS AND SOURCES: Top left: Murder scene of Nora Parker Rieper(Murderpedia.org), Below left: Nora with her daughter Pauline (Murderpedia.org), Lower Right: Pauline Parker Rieper and Juliet Hulme leaving the magistrate’s office after being committed for murder trial (Christchurch Star-Sun).
WARNING: THIS ARTICLE CONTAINS SCENES OF EXTREME AND GRAPHIC VIOLENCE AND REFERENCES TO SEXUAL MATTERS AND IS NOT SUITABLE FOR ALL AUDIENCES.
If you are a fan of mystery novels, particularly British mysteries, you may recognize the name Anne Perry. Since she began in 1979, Perry has published more than 60 Victorian mystery novels, many in popular series such as the William Monk and Charlotte and Thomas Pitt novels. The books have sold 26 million copies worldwide and have never been out of print. Included in her published writing are 27 Christmas-themed books and novellas, as well as books about World War I and a smattering of miscellaneous novels.
What you may not know is that in 1954 Anne Perry was called Juliet Hulme. At that time she was a lovely, intelligent 15-year-old whose manner was mature for her age and who loved stylish clothes…and she helped her best friend Pauline Parker murder Parker’s mother.
Juliet’s father, Henry Hulme was well known internationally as a mathematician and a nuclear physicist. The Hulme family lived in England. In 1948 he accepted the leadership position of rector at Canterbury University College in Christchurch New Zealand and moved his family there. Her mother Hilda was an attractive socialite who loved music and art, entertained lavishly, and was well known to be “sexually outgoing.” We will talk about that later. Juliet’s brother Jonathan, nicknamed Jonty, was born five years after his sister. The Hulme family lived in an affluent suburb of the city of Christchurch in a lovely brick and stucco home owned by the university. The property included a tennis court, woodlands, a meandering stream, an orchard, nearly 40 acres of well-tended gardens, and a housekeeper.
All was not, however, serene in the Hulme household. Juliet had suffered serious bouts of tuberculosis throughout her childhood and lived off and on in sanitariums, with relatives, and in boarding schools as far from home as Barbados and South Africa from the time she was 8 until she permanently rejoined her family’s New Zealand household at age 11. Henry and Hilda loved their daughter, but found her difficult to manage and discovered it was often easier to have her live apart from the family. Another unusual feature of their lifestyle was that Bill Perry, a Canadian businessman known publicly as a “close friend of the family,” was in fact Hilda’s lover and beginning in 1973 lived in an apartment connected to the Hulme’s residence. Hilda had been a volunteer marriage counselor for her church and met Bill when he came to her for counseling about his own crumbling marriage. Hilda finally told her husband that she wanted a divorce; she and Henry were headed toward one, but insisted that it be “civilized” which seemed for them to mean slowly.
Pauline Parker, by comparison, was unattractive, unpopular, and wore a near-perpetual scowl. As a result of a childhood case of osteomyelitis, a serious bone infection, she had been sickly from the age of 5 and sustained a slight limp. Her family was lower middle class; Bert Rieper, her father, managed a fish shop, her 17-year-old sister Wendy worked as a sales person in a lingerie shop, and her mother Honorah–called Nora–kept house in their large, somewhat ramshackle home which had been converted to a boardinghouse. The first born Rieper child had died in infancy, and another daughter, Rosemary, had Downs Syndrome and lived in an institution. Nora Rieper had a demanding life and was known to be strict with her children and may have physically disciplined them. Unbeknownst to the children, Bert and Nora had never actually married; Bert had been married with two children when he fell in love and ran away with Nora. At the time of her murder trial, Pauline Rieper was astonished to learn that her legal surname was Parker, which was her mother’s maiden name.
Christchurch Girls’ High School, a public school with an outstanding academic reputation, was the tenth school Juliet attended, most of them unhappily. While she tested with an extraordinarily high IQ, she was regarded as disrespectful to her teachers and behaved as if she were in a higher social class than almost everyone she encountered. She was narcissistic, condescending to her peers, and demanded to be in charge in every situation. Pauline and Juliet became acquainted at Girls’ High in 1953. When they first met, Pauline had excitedly told her mother that Juliet was the first person she knew whose strong will matched her own. The two had been excluded from all physical activities in the gym and playing fields due to their weak constitutions, and so spent many solitary hours together. They devoted their time to writing and discussing a rich collaborative fantasy life.
Juliet and Pauline soon became inseparable, spending days, evenings and overnights with one another, usually at the Hulme home. There the girls secretly crept outside at midnight to share a picnic with wine in the yard or to ride Juliet’s horse. Nora Rieper disapproved of the Hulme’s freewheeling social style and often used the threat of keeping Pauline from her friend’s company to make her compliant. It worked but also fueled Pauline’s growing anger at her mother and desire to stay away from her family and home.
Both girls had lost their virginity to boys they knew casually, but over time they developed their own sexual relationship. Juliet was the most knowledgeable about the subject, but Pauline became an eager student. The latter kept an almost-daily diary and described in detail their long baths together and time spent in bed when their parents were unaware of their activities. While both girls later denied having had a homosexual relationship, Pauline’s June 13th diary entry suggested otherwise: “We spent a hectic night going through the Saints [their private name for their beloved male film stars]…We have now learned the peace of the thing called Bliss, the joy of the thing called Sin.”
Despite their physical and personality differences, Juliet and Pauline had a lot in common. They were both lonely girls who came to share a rich fantasy life in which they believed they had access to a “4th World,” one that few other people were aware of, and where they would go when they died. They disdained organized religion and believed that they were more beautiful, clever, and talented than other people. They were especially proud of their writing abilities. Juliet preferred the poetic form while Pauline wrote novels and plays. They were much-enamored of then-popular American film stars, Mario Lanza, James Mason, and Mel Ferrar in particular. For a time they saved money to travel to America to meet their film heroes–their private name for them was “Saints”– and have their books published. None of these traits and unfulfilled plans were shared or confirmed by outside sources.
To complicate matters further in the disordered Hulme household, Henry had become embroiled in office politics at the University which forced his premature retirement in the spring of 1954. He planned to pursue a research career in England. Juliet’s tuberculosis was not yet completely cured, so her parents decided she would return to South Africa where her paternal aunt operated a boarding school rather than to chance the damp English winter weather. Hilda planned to take Jonty with her back to England, perhaps with Bill Perry, while Henry would accompany Julie to his sister Ina’s home in South Africa, then proceed on to England. By June of 1954 the Hulme home atmosphere was tense.
To relieve some of the pressure, Hilda and Henry told Juliet and Pauline that they would pay for Pauline to accompany Juliet to South Africa and hinted she would continue on with them eventually to England. All that was required were Nora’s and Bert’s approval. Pauline’s parents believed that Juliet was a poor influence on their daughter and contributed to her displeasure with her own family life, so they hope Juliet’s departure would reduce Pauline’s ugly temperament and disdain for her mother especially. Their refusal to approve was guaranteed.
Knowing that the friends were soon to be parted, both sets of parents were very indulgent, allowing the girls to spend even more time together than usual. In early June Pauline suggested to Juliet that their separation problem could be solved easily if they killed her pesky mother. Nora wasn’t very happy to begin with, Pauline argued, so how much would she lose by being dead? A little reluctantly, Juliet agreed.
Pauline was allowed to stay with Juliet for two weeks in June, the weeks preceeding Nora Parker’s murder. The two best friends confirmed their murderous plan by June 19th and spent the remaining days planning the event. Pauline determined to spend more time at home interacting happily with her family. She would do the chores her mother required cheerfully. Then, having been successfully duped, Nora would agree to an afternoon outing with both girls, a kind of farewell to Juliet, as Nora was unlikely to see her again. Juliet and Pauline doubled down and began to plan the details of the attack.
On Monday, June 21st, Pauline suggested to her mother that the two of them and Juliet take a short bus trip the next day to Victoria Park, a pleasant area on a hill overlooking Christchurch. There they would enjoy tea and have a little hike in the woods. Tuesday morning, June 22nd, Juliet selected a half-brick from the garden and placed it in her shoulder bag. She had also removed a blue decorative stone from a piece of costume jewelry and stored that away too. Her father drove her into town where she had been given permission to have the noon meal with Pauline’s family.
Nora insisted on fixing midday dinner for Bert and Wendy before they left, so the Riepers and Juliet shared a cheerful repast together before the ladies left for the bus stop. Doing her part that morning, Pauline had tucked a single lisle stocking into her purse. In her diary the night before, she had recorded that she felt as if she were anticipating a surprise party. “Mother will be dead. How odd and yet how pleasing,” she wrote. The following morning she continued, “I felt very excited and ‘the night before Christmas-ish’ last night.”
The day was sunny and in the low 60 degrees, a comfortable temperature for a forest amble. The three walked a short distance from the bus stop to a single story tea kiosk where Nora ordered tea for herself and soft drinks for the girls as well as cakes, scones, and chocolates to make the snack festive. According to the manageress of the kiosk, the group appeared to be congenial. After consuming their small meal, they headed off toward a downward trail.
Pauline lead with Juliet’s brick now inserted into the stocking. Her mother followed and Juliet brought up the rear. They crossed a rickety bridge composed of slender logs. A few yards beyond, Nora announced that she had had enough hiking. The group reversed its course. Juliet, now in the lead, dropped her blue trinket and pointing it out to Nora who bent to examine it. Pauline slammed her brick-laden stocking into her mother’s head. Nora moaned and tried with her hands to block the blows now coming in rapid succession. The murder was much more difficult than either Pauline or Juliet had foreseen. They took turns striking Nora repeatedly until she stopped moving. Then they ran back to the tea kiosk and reported that Pauline’s mother had been badly injured, possibly dead. She had fallen on the path and struck her head on a rock, they said. An ambulance needed to be immediately dispatched.
Police reported to the crime scene almost as soon as the ambulance arrived. Investigators noted the numerous head and facial wounds the woman had sustained and immediately concluded that Nora had not been the victim of an accident. They began to collect evidence and transferred Nora’s body to the mortuary. Bert Rieper was contacted. Stunned and horrified, he was required to identify the body of the love of his life, the mother of four of his children.
Henry Hulme had been quickly summoned to the tea kiosk to collect his daughter and her friend. He took them to his home immediately and he and Hilda saw that the two girls were bathed, their bloody clothing washed, and they were given their supper. Not far behind, detectives appeared at the residence and requested permission to interview Juliet and Pauline separately. Their request was honored. Juliet denied any role in the homicides and Pauline accepted full responsibility for them. The parents had consented to the interview of both girl without the presence of attorneys, an error they all lived to regret, and the girls were subsequently arrested.
Both families secured legal counsel, and the prosecution and defense teams obtained reputable psychiatric experts to plead their cases of culpability or mental incapacity. The cases were tried together in the late summer of 1974, Juliet and Pauline were reportedly relaxed, laughing and exchanging whispered remarks throughout the trial. Juliet refused to see or communicate with her mother who attended the trial daily; her father and brother Jonty were now living in England. Bert was too grief-stricken to attend and was never able to bring himself to reestablish a relationship with his daughter.
After five days of testimony, a jury found both young women guilty of murder without mitigating psychiatric circumstances. As minors, Pauline and Juliet were sentenced to indeterminate terms, a minimum of five years, and much to their dismay in separate penal institutions. Within a week of the trial Hilda Hulme legally changed her name to H. Marion Perry and she and Bill sailed to England without seeing Juliet and never returned to New Zealand. After Hilda’s divorce from Henry became final, she and Bill married.
The girls, at the time of sentencing 16 and 17 years old, each served 5-year terms in which they toiled in their respective laundries, sewing rooms, and housekeeping staffs. They were released two weeks apart and allowed to legally register with alternate names to protect their identities. Juliet Hulme became Anne Perry, her surname taken from her stepfather. Pauline Parker became Hilary Nathan. They never saw one another again.
Anne lived in England and in San Francisco for five years, supporting herself as a librarian, a nanny, and in various other entry level professional jobs. She eventually settled in the small village of Portmahomack in Scotland. Beginning in 1974 she began publishing her numerous popular historical crime novels and actively participated in a local Morman congregation. In 1979 a New Zealand journalist tracked her down for the first time since her release from prison. While she repeatedly insisted that she had paid her debt to society and wished to put the murder behind her, she gave several interviews to the press. After Bill Perry’s death, her mother settled nearby and mother and daughter reconciled and became close. She continues to write and publish. A Google search will produce many more recent photos and information about her life and her books.
Hilary eventually moved to the Orknay Islands, a desolate spot in the far north of Scotland, about one hundred miles away from Anne’s home. Until her whereabouts was discovered in 1997 and she retired, she had lived in the tiny village of Hoo St, Werburgh in Kent where she taught special education and operated a riding school, her lifelong dream. She was described by neighbors variously as a nice woman and an eccentric one. Once discovered, she quickly sold her property. The new owners found a mural in one of the bedrooms, probably painted by Hilary. It depicted two young girls, one blonde like her best friend Juliet and the other dark like she had been. The blonde girl was riding a horse into the sky while the dark girl tried to restrain the horse and rider to the earth. Regardless of what Anne Perry was able to put behind her, Hilary Nathan apparently still carried some ghosts.
Hilary has refused to give interviews but she has permitted her sister Wendy to speak on her behalf. Wendy reported that Hilary, a devote Roman Catholic, is another person than the one who murdered her mother in 1974. She lives a solitary life devoted to prayer and attends daily mass in a nearby town. She lives like a nun, perhaps working out her own salvation.
It may be true, as Anne Perry says, that there is nothing to be gained by dwelling on past events that cannot be undone. She once told a journalist that she had gone down on her knees in prison and prayed about her participation in the event. She has never, though, claimed any responsibility for it. Public humiliation is not the only or best way to pay one’s penance, yet it does seem to me that something more than “sorry” is due.
During the trial some psychiatrists hypothesized that Juliet and Pauline were bound together in a folie a deux, a sort of psychotic hallucination they came to share. After hearing all of the testimony the jury concluded that they knew what they were doing was wrong and had been able to control themselves. No amount of bad parenting or childhood illness excused them from taking full responsibility for their actions. Only Anne and Hilary will ever know the truth of what happened on that June day or why.
Much has been written and produced about the Nora Rieper murder. The case was included in a number of crime anthologies, and in 1991 the first serious treatment was published, Parker and Hulme: A Lesbian View by Julia Glamuzina and Alison J. Laurie. Also in 1991, the play Daughters of Heaven. written by American playwright Michelanne Forster, opened in the Court Theater in Christchurch. Perhaps most famously, in 1994 filmmaker Peter Jackson and his wife and collaborator Fran Walsh released the film Heavenly Creatures, starring Kate Winslet and Melanie Lynskey, which launched Winslet’s film career.
I am personally grateful for many newspaper accounts and articles written about this case, and especially for two books that have provided a wealth of facts and opinions that have influenced this account. They are Anne Perry and the Murder of the Century by New Zealand barrister and author Peter Graham, and The Search for Anne Perry by Joanne Drayton, also a well-known New Zealand author. The more I research and read and interview, the less I feel I know about the motives behind seemingly inexplicable murders. These are mysteries behind mysteries and while I may never understand them, they continue to grip my mind and my soul. If you are still reading I believe they grip yours, dear reader, too.
Top: Paul John Knowles Left: Cocktail Waitress Angela Covic Right: British Journalist Sandy Fawkes
WARNING: THESE CONTENTS DEPICT EXTREME VIOLENCE AND ARE NOT SUITABLE FOR A VARIETY OF READERS.
My writing partner, retired Manatee County Sheriff Charlie Wells, first told me the story of Paul John Knowles. Wells’ law enforcement career had begun with the Florida State Troopers, and in that role he worked and became friends with Trooper Charles Campbell, one of Knowles’ two final victims, whom Knowles kidnapped and killed in Macon Georgia in November 1974. That event will be the subject of another blog.
By the time Charlie Campbell was shot, Knowles, then 28 years old, had become a brutal predator who strangled, shot, tortured and raped at least 20 people; he claimed to have killed 35, as many as better-known serial killer Ted Bundy. There is no conceivable justification for such cruelty, but after researching his life and his crimes, it is possible to understand how such a monster came to be.
If nurture is a factor in creating a killer, Paul John Knowles’ family life would have easily qualified him. The 5 Knowles children lived near Jacksonville Florida with their parents in a 3-room house–a main room, one bedroom, and a kitchen. Their toilet needs were met by an outhouse. Paul’s younger brother Clifton Knowles told a reporter that if the things that happened in his family were to have occurred today, the children would have been placed in foster care. What his father described as a “whippin,” he said, “I called a beating.” The children bore bruises from his belt and Clifton said his father nearly beat Paul to death more than once. He would run off into the woods until he healed, then come home until the next time.
At age eight, he had stolen a bike and committed other petty crimes. Beatings not having tamed his son, his father turned Paul over to the state where he was placed in the infamous Dozier School for Boys located in Marianna Florida where he remained off and on until his early teen years. It was the ideal place to feed his growing rage. A reformatory that operated from 1900 until its forced closing in 2011, the institution was known for its extreme brutality. Boys whose spirits could not be easily broken, known as “The White House Boys,” were taken to a special building where they were severely beaten, raped, and sometimes killed by guards. The State investigation that resulted in the institution’s closure uncovered at least 81 child deaths that had resulted from abuse or neglect at the hands of Dozier School employees. An NPR documentary was produced that portrayed the school through the eyes of many of its victims, now adults who could finally speak up and defend themselves. In 2020, novelist Colson Whitehead won a Pulitzer Prize for his book TheNickel Boys, based on facts uncovered about the Dozier School. The reformatory did not “reform” Paul. It may very well have helped to transform him from a bad boy, a budding criminal, into a stone killer.
As an adult, Paul John Knowles was a red-haired, six feet tall handsome man sometimes described as a combination of Robert Redford and Ryan O’Neal, and dubbed “The Casanova Killer” because of his good looks and charm. In the last half of 1974, in at least 6 states, he killed 14 women and 6 men. Because he murdered several victims in a short time span at different locations, he was branded a special breed of serial killer known in law enforcement as a spree killer. Most of his victims were complete strangers. They did not resemble one another: They were gay and straight; men, women, and children; attractive or not so much; homebodies and hitchhikers; ages ranging from 7 to 65, engaged in various occupations–waitress, teacher, retiree.
He did not strike out because he lacked love or companionship in his life. Paul may have despised his father, but he loved at least three women: His mother for whom he wanted to publish his life story and support her with the proceeds; Jackie Knight whose marriage to him did not last, but nonetheless remained his lifelong friend; and Angela Covic, a San Francisco waitress and his pen pal who obtained his early release from prison. They intended to marry immediately, but when he arrived in California he found that she had become disenchanted and called off the nuptials. He claimed to have killed his first three victims that night in San Francisco although it could not be proven. Only weeks later, Knowles began the rest of his murder spree.
In July, he entered the Florida home of 65-year-old Alice Cooper, ransacked her residence, gagged and tied her to a chair, and stole her car. Cooper wore false teeth which slipped and caused her to die choking; Knowles discovered her body when he returned to her house a second time that night. She was his first victim.
That evening, while he was attempting to abandon her car, he spotted two family acquaintances, 7-year-old Mylette Anderson and her 11-year-old sister Lillian. Afraid they might identify him for police, he strangled the little girls and dumped their bodies in a swamp. These were victims 2 and 3. In addition to the trooper and James Meyer with whom he was kidnapped, 15 other strangers were murdered, singly and in pairs. A father and his 15-year-old daughter were killed. A mother was strangled in front of her 3-year-old child. He killed gay men whose bodies he left nude, and a woman whose corpse he had sex with. No one seemed immune from his carnage except young boys. Even when they were present at killings, he left them untouched. They reminded him, perhaps, of himself as a young boy, abused by his father and again by his keepers at the Dozier School. He could live again through these boys, unassaulted this time.
Sandy Fawkes was one woman he charmed but did not kill. She was a British journalist on assignment for an American publication and she met Paul John Knowles in the bar of a Holiday Inn in Atlanta Georgia. They spent the night together and while Fawkes reported that the sex was unspectacular, she accepted his invitation to travel to Florida and see southern America with a native. Why did he leave her unmolested? Many hypothesized that he wanted her alive because she was a writer, and he craved being famous like his hero Jesse James and having the opportunity to earn book royalties that he could give to his mother. As a convict he and his family could not have benefited from such a book, but he did not know that.
Moreover, his life ended on December 18, 1974, a month after parting company with Sandy Fawkes. He had been arrested again and was terrified of the electric chair. He accepted an invitation to accompany Georgia Bureau of Investigation Agent Ron Angel and Douglas County Sheriff Earl Lee on a road trip to visit some of his crime scenes in the hope of gathering more information about his motives and victims. Seated in the back of the squad car, he surreptitiously worked his hands free of handcuffs using a paper clip and made a grab for Lee’s gun, perhaps a bid for “suicide by cop.” Agent Angel obliged him with three bullets, ending six months of national terror.
Readers who may want to know greater detail about Knowles’ specific crimes are referred to Google or to any of the following resources: The Casanova Killer: A Documentary; The Casanova Killer: The Life of Serial Killer Paul John Knowles a Kindle edition written by Jack Smith and Marjorie Kramer; and Natural Born Killer: In Love and On the Road with a Serial Killer and Killing Time: The Bizarre But True Story of Two Weeks of Love and Terror, both written by Sandy Fawkes.
Thanks for reading, stay well, and keep safe!
NEXT UP: The Killing of Charlie Campbell and James Meyer
On February 19, 1982 I was a 34-year-old stay-at-home mom living in Rochester NY when my sister phoned to tell me a woman about my age had been murdered in her home near where we lived. Her 3 1/2-year-old daughter Sara had been left all day in the house: Upstairs Cathy Krauseneck’s body, an ax embedded in her head, lay where she had been asleep in the master bedroom of their neat suburban house in Brighton, a Rochester suburb.
Unsubstantiated rumors spread like wildfire: The husband, an economist with Eastman Kodak Company, did it. Theories about motive abounded. The single fact that most stunned and horrified me was that a little girl, only slightly older than my two baby boys, had been left alone in that house.
My sister and I had long been intrigued about murders without apparent motive, particularly murders by strangers. I had been writing mainstream fiction for many years. In the summer of 1991 I decided to research and begin to write a non-fiction book about the Krauseneck murders, the first of my true crime writing projects. I began by having breakfast with Detective Gary Printy, then retired, who was the primary investigator on the case. He told me that the house appeared to have been staged to look like a burglary attempt, but no valuables were taken. More oddly still, he said there were no fingerprints at the murder scene. I interviewed Brighton Police Chief Tom Voelkl who described the investigation, answered my questions, and arranged to have me spend a day with one of his investigators. A friend hosted a meeting with a woman who knew Cathy Krauseneck in Rochester and who offered her opinions and described conversations she had with Cathy near the time of the murder. I drove to Mt. Clemens MI, the home of the Krauseneck family and the Schlossers, who were Cathy’s family, where I interviewed family members and conducted research at the County courthouse and public library. I toured the Krauseneck home on Del Rio Drive and photographed all the rooms.
After several years of research, conducting interviews, and writing, I hit a dead end. There had not been an arrest for the crime and so my story could have no satisfying end. I put my notes away. Eventually I retired and moved with my husband to Florida. Then, in November 2019, 37 years after the murder was committed, I got an email from a Rochester friend. A Monroe County NY grand jury had indicted James Krauseneck for the murder of his wife.
Advances in forensic technology had allowed detectives, with assistance from an FBI cold case task force, to re-examine the case and develop refined evidence they felt was sufficient to prosecute the case. Krauseneck was arrested and is now out on bail living with his fourth wife in Arizona. He awaits a trial that was scheduled to begin this month before the coronavirus slowed down the world.
I will never know why I kept all my notes and drafts and photos about the case, but I did. And in November, I got a call from Nancy Monaghan who had been a reporter, editor, and publisher for Gannett News Service and U.S.A. Today. She and her colleague Laurie Bennett, also a reporter who had worked for a Rochester newspaper at the time of the Krauseneck murder, had begun to write a book about the case. Would I be willing to discuss it with her if she flew to Sarasota to meet? I would. I did, and I gave her my case files to add to the mountain of information she and Laurie had already collected and were analyzing. They have a website with greater detail about the case that I have embedded below. I hope to be in Rochester for the trial, and look forward to Nancy’s and Laurie’s book.
WARNING: THIS POST CONTAINS MANY INSTANCES OF GRAPHIC AND DISTURBING VIOLENCE AND IS NOT SUITABLE FOR ALL AUDIENCES.
What do true crime writers do on their days off? I cook, sew, write children’s books with my grandchildren, socialize with friends and family, travel,…and read–among many subjects– about true crime! I don’t think it is possible to write well about murder without attempting to understand what makes random murderers (those who kill without an obvious motive) “tick.” I read about killers both famous and unknown, trying to identify psychological and social patterns that might unite them. I read books about murder investigation, psychopathology, forensics and the judicial system. I read about other authors of true crime and fans of true crime, trying to find out how they are the same or different from me. After all that reading, I am only marginally closer to understanding the phenomenon and why I am fascinated by it.
Ed Kemp was a serial killer with genius-level intelligence. I have watched a simulated interview with him featured on Mindhunter. While what he says is horrifying, his ability to speak about his crimes articulately allows us to understanding how his mind works. That may lead law enforcement and psychologists to be able to better predict violence in some personality types and, it is hoped, prevent some similar crimes from being committed.
The material that follows is re-posted from Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia
Edmund Emil Kemper III (born December 18, 1948) is an American serial killer and necrophile who murdered ten people, including his paternal grandparents and mother. He is noted for his large size, at 6 feet 9 inches (2.06 m), and for his high intellect, possessing an IQ of 145. Kemper was nicknamed the “Co-ed Killer” as most of his victims were female students at co-educational institutions.
Born in California, Kemper had a disturbed upbringing. His parents divorced and he moved to Montana with his abusive mother as a child before returning to California, where he murdered his paternal grandparents when he was 15. He was diagnosed as a paranoid schizophrenic by court psychiatrists and sentenced to the Atascadero State Hospital as a criminally insane juvenile.
Released at the age of 21 after convincing psychiatrists he was rehabilitated, Kemper was regarded as non-threatening by his future victims. He targeted young female hitchhikers during his killing spree, luring them into his vehicle and driving them to secluded areas where he would murder them before taking their corpses back to his home to be decapitated, dismembered, and violated. Kemper then murdered his mother and one of her friends before turning himself in to the authorities.
Edmund Emil Kemper III was born in Burbank, California, on December 18, 1948. He was the middle child and only son born to Clarnell Elizabeth Kemper (née Stage, 1921–1973) and Edmund Emil Kemper II (1919–1985). Edmund II was a World War II veteran who, after the war, tested nuclear weapons in the Pacific Proving Grounds before returning to California, where he worked as an electrician. Clarnell often complained about Edmund II’s “menial” electrician job, and he later said “suicide missions in wartime and the atomic bomb testings were nothing compared to living with her” and that Clarnell affected him “more than three hundred and ninety-six days and nights of fighting on the front did.”
Weighing 13 pounds (5.9 kg) as a newborn, Kemper was a head taller than his peers by the age of four. Early on, he exhibited antisocial behavior such as cruelty to animals: at the age of 10, he buried a pet cat alive; once it died, he dug it up, decapitated it, and mounted its head on a spike. Kemper later stated that he derived pleasure from successfully lying to his family about killing the cat. At the age of 13, he killed another family cat when he perceived it to be favoring his younger sister, Allyn Lee Kemper (born 1951), over him, and kept pieces of it in his closet until his mother found them.
Kemper had a dark fantasy life: he performed rituals with his younger sister’s dolls that culminated in him removing their heads and hands, and, on one occasion, when his elder sister, Susan Hughey Kemper (1943–2014), teased him and asked why he did not try to kiss his teacher, he replied: “If I kiss her, I’d have to kill her first.” He also recalled that as a young boy he would sneak out of his house and, armed with his father’s bayonet, go to his second-grade teacher’s house to watch her through the windows. He stated in later interviews that some of his favorite games to play as a child were “Gas Chamber” and “Electric Chair”, in which he asked his younger sister to tie him up and flip an imaginary switch, and then he would tumble over and writhe on the floor, pretending that he was being executed by gas inhalation or electric shock. He also had near-death experiences as a child: once, when his elder sister tried to push him in front of a train, and another when she successfully pushed him into the deep end of a swimming pool, where he almost drowned.
Kemper had a close relationship with his father and was devastated when his parents separated in 1957, causing him to be raised by Clarnell in Helena, Montana. He had a severely dysfunctional relationship with his mother, a neurotic, domineering, alcoholic who would frequently belittle, humiliate, and abuse him. Clarnell often made her son sleep in a locked basement, because she feared that he would harm his sisters, regularly mocked him for his large size—he stood 6 feet 4 inches (1.93 m) by the age of 15—and derided him as “a real weirdo.” She also refused to show him affection out of fear that she would “turn him gay”, and told the young Kemper that he reminded her of his father and that no woman would ever love him. Kemper later described her as a “sick angry woman,” and it has been postulated that she suffered from borderline personality disorder.
At the age of 14, Kemper ran away from home in an attempt to reconcile with his father in Van Nuys, California. Once there, he learned that his father had remarried and had a stepson. Kemper stayed with his father for a short while until the elder Kemper sent him to live with his paternal grandparents, who lived on a ranch in the mountains of North Fork. Kemper hated living in North Fork; he described his grandfather as “senile,” and said that his grandmother “was constantly emasculating me and my grandfather.”
On August 27, 1964, Kemper was sitting at the kitchen table with his grandmother Maude Matilda Hughey Kemper (b. 1897), when they had an argument. Enraged, Kemper stormed off and retrieved a rifle that his grandfather had given him for hunting. He then re-entered the kitchen and fatally shot his grandmother in the head before firing twice more into her back. Some accounts mention that she also suffered multiple post-mortem stab wounds with a kitchen knife.
When Kemper’s grandfather, Edmund Emil Kemper (b. 1892), returned from grocery shopping, Kemper went outside and fatally shot him in the driveway. He was unsure of what to do next, so he phoned his mother, who told him to contact the local police. Kemper called the police and waited to be taken into custody.
After his arrest, Kemper said that he “just wanted to see what it felt like to kill Grandma” and testified that he killed his grandfather so he would not have to find out that his wife was dead.Psychiatrist Donald Lunde, who interviewed Kemper at length during adulthood, wrote that, with these murders, “In his way, he had avenged the rejection of both his father and his mother.” Kemper’s crimes were deemed incomprehensible for a 15-year-old to commit, and court psychiatrists diagnosed him as a paranoid schizophrenic before sending him to Atascadero State Hospital: a maximum-security facility that houses mentally ill convicts.
At Atascadero, California Youth Authority psychiatrists and social workers disagreed with the court psychiatrists’ diagnoses. Their reports stated that Kemper showed “no flight of ideas, no interference with thought, no expression of delusions or hallucinations, and no evidence of bizarre thinking.” They also observed him to be intelligent and introspective. Initial testing measured his IQ at 136, over two standard deviations above average. He was re-diagnosed with a less severe condition, a “personality trait disturbance, passive-aggressive type.” Later on in his time at Atascadero, Kemper was given another IQ test, which gave a higher result of 145.
Kemper endeared himself to his psychiatrists by being a model prisoner, and was trained to administer psychiatric tests to other inmates. One of his psychiatrists later said: “He was a very good worker and this is not typical of a sociopath. He really took pride in his work.” Kemper also became a member of the Jaycees while in Atascadero and said he developed “some new tests and some new scales on the Minnesota Multiphasic Personality Inventory,” specifically an “Overt Hostility Scale,” during his work with Atascadero psychiatrists. After his second arrest, Kemper said that being able to understand how these tests functioned allowed him to manipulate his psychiatrists and admitted that he learned a lot from the sex offenders to whom he administered tests; for example, they told him it was best to kill a woman after raping her to avoid leaving witnesses.
Release and time between murders
On December 18, 1969, his 21st birthday, Kemper was released on parole from Atascadero. Against the recommendations of psychiatrists at the hospital, he was released into the care of his mother Clarnell—who had remarried, taken the surname Strandberg, and then divorced again—at 609 A Ord Street, Aptos, California, a short drive from where she worked as an administrative assistant at the University of California, Santa Cruz. Kemper later demonstrated further to his psychiatrists that he was rehabilitated, and on November 29, 1972, his juvenile records were permanently expunged. The last report from his probation psychiatrists read:
If I were to see this patient without having any history available or getting any history from him, I would think that we’re dealing with a very well adjusted young man who had initiative, intelligence and who was free of any psychiatric illnesses … It is my opinion that he has made a very excellent response to the years of treatment and rehabilitation and I would see no psychiatric reason to consider him to be of any danger to himself or to any member of society … [and] since it may allow him more freedom as an adult to develop his potential, I would consider it reasonable to have a permanent expunction of his juvenile records.
While staying with his mother, Kemper attended community college in accordance with his parole requirements and had hoped he would become a police officer, but was rejected because of his size—at the time of his release from Atascadero, Kemper stood 6 feet 9 inches (2.06 m) tall—which led to his nickname, “Big Ed”. Kemper maintained relationships with Santa Cruz police officers despite his rejection to join the force and became a self-described “friendly nuisance” at a bar called the Jury Room, which was a popular hangout for local law enforcement officers.
Kemper worked a series of menial jobs before securing employment with the State of California Highway Department (now known as the California Department of Transportation). During this time, his relationship with Clarnell remained toxic and hostile, with them having frequent arguments that their neighbors often overheard. Kemper later described the arguments he had with his mother around this time, stating:
My mother and I started right in on horrendous battles, just horrible battles, violent and vicious. I’ve never been in such a vicious verbal battle with anyone. It would go to fists with a man, but this was my mother, and I couldn’t stand the thought of my mother and I doing these things. She insisted on it and just over stupid things. I remember one roof-raiser was over whether I should have my teeth cleaned.
When he had saved enough money, Kemper moved out to live with a friend in Alameda. There, he still complained of being unable to get away from his mother, as she regularly phoned him and paid him surprise visits. He often had financial difficulties, which resulted in him frequently returning to his mother’s apartment in Aptos. At a Santa Cruz beach, Kemper met a student from Turlock High School to whom he became engaged in March 1973. The engagement was broken off after Kemper’s second arrest, and his fiancée’s parents requested that her name would not be revealed to the public.
The same year he began working for the Highway Department, Kemper was hit by a car while he was riding a motorcycle that he had recently purchased. His arm was badly injured in the crash, and he received a $15,000 (approximately $90,000 in 2019 when adjusted for inflation) settlement in the civil suit he filed against the car’s driver. As he was driving around in the 1969 Ford Galaxie he bought with part of his settlement money, he noticed a large number of young women hitchhiking and began storing plastic bags, knives, blankets, and handcuffs in his car. He then began picking up young women and peacefully letting them go. According to Kemper, he picked up around 150 such hitchhikers before he felt homicidal sexual urges, which he called his “little zapples,” and began acting on them.
Between May 1972 and April 1973, Kemper killed eight people. He would pick up female students who were hitchhiking and take them to isolated areas where he would shoot, stab, smother or strangle them. He would then take their bodies back to his home where he would decapitate them, perform irrumatio on their severed heads, have sexual intercourse with their corpses, and then dismember them.
During this 11-month murder spree, he killed five college students, one high school student, his mother and his mother’s best friend. Kemper has stated in interviews that he would often go out in search of victims after having arguments with his mother, and that she refused to introduce him to women attending the university where she worked. He recalled: “She would say, ‘You’re just like your father. You don’t deserve to get to know them’.” Psychiatrists, and Kemper himself, have espoused the belief that the young women were surrogates for his ultimate target: his mother.
Mary Ann Pesce and Anita Luchessa
On May 7, 1972, Kemper was driving in Berkeley when he picked up two 18-year-old hitchhiking Fresno State students, Mary Ann Pesce and Anita Mary Luchessa, on the pretext of taking them to Stanford University. After driving for an hour, he managed to reach a secluded wooded area near Alameda, with which he was familiar from his work at the Highway Department, without alerting his passengers that he had changed directions from where they wanted to go. Here he handcuffed Pesce and locked Luchessa in the trunk, then stabbed and strangled Pesce to death before killing Luchessa in a similar manner. Kemper later confessed that while handcuffing Pesce he “brushed the back of [his] hand against one of her breasts and it embarrassed [him]”, adding that he said “‘whoops, I’m sorry’ or something like that” after grazing her breast, despite murdering her minutes later.
Kemper put both of the women’s bodies in the trunk of his Ford Galaxie and returned to his apartment. He was stopped on the way by a police officer for having a broken taillight, but the officer did not detect the corpses in the car. Kemper’s roommate was not at home, so he took the bodies into his apartment, where he took photographs of, and had sexual intercourse with, the naked corpses before dismembering them. He then put the body parts into plastic bags, which he later abandoned near Loma Prieta Mountain. Before disposing of Pesce’s and Luchessa’s severed heads in a ravine, Kemper engaged in irrumatio with both of them. In August, Pesce’s skull was found on Loma Prieta Mountain. An extensive search failed to turn up the rest of Pesce’s remains or a trace of Luchessa.
On the evening of September 14, 1972, Kemper picked up a 15-year-old dance student named Aiko Koo, who had decided to hitchhike to a dance class after missing her bus. He again drove to a remote area, where he pulled a gun on Koo before accidentally locking himself out of his car. However, Koo let him back inside as he had previously gained the 15-year-old’s trust while holding her at gunpoint. Back inside the car, he proceeded to choke her unconscious, rape her, and kill her.
Kemper subsequently packed Koo’s body into the trunk of his car and went to a nearby bar to have a few drinks before returning to his apartment. He later confessed that after exiting the bar, he opened the trunk of his car, “admiring [his] catch like a fisherman.” Back at his apartment, he had sexual intercourse with the corpse before dismembering and disposing of the remains in a similar manner as his previous two victims. Koo’s mother called the police to report the disappearance of her daughter and put up hundreds of flyers asking for information, but did not receive any responses regarding her daughter’s location or status.
On January 7, 1973, Kemper, who had moved back in with his mother, was driving around the Cabrillo College campus when he picked up 18-year-old student Cynthia Ann “Cindy” Schall. He drove to a sequestered wooded area and fatally shot her with a .22 caliber pistol. He then placed her body in the trunk of his car and drove to his mother’s house, where he kept her body hidden in a closet in his room overnight. When his mother left for work the next morning, he had sexual intercourse with, and removed the bullet from Schall’s corpse before dismembering and decapitating her in his mother’s bathtub.
Kemper kept Schall’s severed head for several days, regularly engaging in irrumatio with it, before burying it in his mother’s garden facing upward toward her bedroom. After his arrest, he stated that he did this because his mother “always wanted people to look up to her.” He discarded the rest of Schall’s remains by throwing them off a cliff. Over the course of the following few weeks, all but her head and right hand were discovered and “pieced together like a macabre jigsaw puzzle.” A pathologist determined that Schall had been cut into pieces with a power saw.
Rosalind Thorpe and Allison Liu
On February 5, 1973, after a heated argument with his mother, Kemper left his house in search of possible victims. With heightened suspicion of a serial killer preying on hitchhikers in the Santa Cruz area, students were advised to only accept rides from cars with University stickers on them. Kemper had such a sticker as his mother worked at University of California, Santa Cruz. He encountered 23-year-old Rosalind Heather Thorpe and 20-year-old Alice Helen “Allison” Liu on the UCSC campus. According to Kemper, Thorpe entered his car first, who reassured Liu to also enter. He then fatally shot Thorpe and Liu with his .22 caliber pistol and wrapped their bodies in blankets.
Kemper again brought his victims back to his mother’s house; this time he beheaded them in his car and carried the headless corpses into his mother’s house to have sexual intercourse with them. He then dismembered the bodies, removed the bullets to prevent identification and, the next morning, discarded their remains. Some remains were found at Eden Canyon a week later, and more were found near Highway 1 in March.
When questioned in an interview as to why he decapitated his victims, he explained: “The head trip fantasies were a bit like a trophy. You know, the head is where everything is at, the brain, eyes, mouth. That’s the person. I remember being told as a kid, you cut off the head and the body dies. The body is nothing after the head is cut off … well, that’s not quite true, there’s a lot left in the girl’s body without the head.”
Clarnell Strandberg and Sally Hallett
On April 20, 1973, after coming home from a party, 52-year-old Clarnell Elizabeth Strandberg awakened her son with her arrival. While sitting in her bed reading a book, she noticed Kemper enter her room and said to him, “I suppose you’re going to want to sit up all night and talk now.” Kemper replied “No, good night.” He then waited for her to fall asleep before returning to bludgeon her with a claw hammer and slit her throat with a knife. He subsequently decapitated her and engaged in irrumatio with her severed head before using it as a dart board. Kemper stated that he “put [her head] on a shelf and screamed at it for an hour … threw darts at it,” and, ultimately, “smashed her face in.” He also cut out her tongue and larynx and put them in the garbage disposal. However, the garbage disposal could not break down the tough vocal cords and ejected the tissue back into the sink. “That seemed appropriate,” Kemper later said: “as much as she’d bitched and screamed and yelled at me over so many years.”
Kemper then hid his mother’s corpse in a closet and went out to drink at a nearby bar. Upon his return, he invited his mother’s best friend, 59-year-old Sara Taylor “Sally” Hallett, over to the house to have dinner and watch a movie. When Hallett arrived, Kemper strangled her to death to create a cover story that his mother and Hallett had gone away together on vacation. He subsequently put Hallett’s corpse in a closet, obscured any outward signs of a disturbance, and left a note to the police. It read:
Appx. 5:15 A.M. Saturday. No need for her to suffer any more at the hands of this horrible “murderous Butcher”. It was quick—asleep—the way I wanted it. Not sloppy and incomplete, gents. Just a “lack of time”. I got things to do!!!
Afterwards, Kemper fled the scene. He drove non-stop to Pueblo, Colorado, taking caffeine pills to stay awake for the over 1,000-mile journey. He had three guns and hundreds of rounds of ammunition in his car, and believed he was the target of an active manhunt. After not hearing any news on the radio about the murders of his mother and Hallett when he arrived in Pueblo, he found a phone booth and called the police. He confessed to the murders of his mother and Hallett, but the police did not take his call seriously and told him to call back at a later time. Several hours later, Kemper called again, asking to speak to an officer he personally knew. He confessed to that officer of killing his mother and Hallett, and waited for the police to arrive and take him into custody, where he also confessed to the murders of the six students.
When asked in a later interview why he turned himself in, Kemper said: “The original purpose was gone … It wasn’t serving any physical or real or emotional purpose. It was just a pure waste of time … Emotionally, I couldn’t handle it much longer. Toward the end there, I started feeling the folly of the whole damn thing, and at the point of near exhaustion, near collapse, I just said to hell with it and called it all off.”
Kemper was indicted on eight counts of first-degree murder on May 7, 1973. He was assigned the Chief Public Defender of Santa Cruz County, attorney Jim Jackson. Due to Kemper’s explicit and detailed confession, his counsel’s only option was to plead not guilty by reason of insanity to the charges. Kemper twice tried to commit suicide in custody. His trial went ahead on October 23, 1973.
Three court-appointed psychiatrists found Kemper to be legally sane. One of the psychiatrists, Dr. Joel Fort, investigated his juvenile records and the diagnosis that he was once psychotic. Fort also interviewed Kemper, including under truth serum, and relayed to the court that Kemper had engaged in cannibalism, alleging that he sliced flesh from the legs of his victims, then cooked and consumed these strips of flesh in a casserole. Nevertheless, Fort determined that Kemper was fully cognizant in each case, and stated that Kemper enjoyed the prospect of the infamy associated with being labeled a murderer. Kemper later recanted the confession of cannibalism.
California used the M’Naghten standard, which held that for a defendant to “establish a defense on the ground of insanity, it must be clearly proved that, at the time of the committing of the act, the party accused was laboring under such a defect of reason, from disease of mind, and not to know the nature and quality of the act he was doing; or if he did know it, that he did not know he was doing what was wrong.” Kemper appeared to have known that the nature of his acts was wrong, and had shown signs of malice aforethought. On November 1, Kemper took the stand. He testified that he killed the victims because he wanted them “for myself, like possessions,” and attempted to convince the jury that he was insane based on the reasoning that his actions could only have been committed by someone with an aberrant mind. He said two beings inhabited his body and that when the killer personality took over it was “kind of like blacking out.”
In the California Medical Facility, Kemper was incarcerated in the same prison block as other notorious criminals such as Herbert Mullin and Charles Manson. Kemper showed particular disdain for Mullin, who committed his murders at the same time and in the same area as Kemper. He described Mullin as “just a cold-blooded killer … killing everybody he saw for no good reason.” Kemper manipulated and physically intimidated Mullin, who, at 5 feet 7 inches (1.70 m), was more than a foot shorter than he. Kemper stated that “[Mullin] had a habit of singing and bothering people when somebody tried to watch TV, so I threw water on him to shut him up. Then, when he was a good boy, I’d give him peanuts. Herbie liked peanuts. That was effective, because pretty soon he asked permission to sing. That’s called behavior modification treatment.”
Kemper remains among the general population in prison and is considered a model prisoner. He was in charge of scheduling other inmates’ appointments with psychiatrists and was an accomplished craftsman of ceramic cups. He was also a prolific reader of books on tape for the blind; a 1987 Los Angeles Times article stated that he was the coordinator of the prison’s program and had personally spent over 5,000 hours narrating books with several hundred completed recordings to his name. He was retired from these positions in 2015, after he experienced a stroke and was declared medically disabled. He received his first rules violation report in 2016, for failing to provide a urine sample. Kemper on November 17, 2011
While imprisoned, Kemper has participated in a number of interviews, including a segment in the 1982 documentary The Killing of America, as well as an appearance in the 1984 documentary Murder: No Apparent Motive. His interviews have contributed to the understanding of the mind of serial killers. FBI profiler John Douglas described Kemper as “among the brightest” prison inmates he ever interviewed and capable of “rare insight for a violent criminal.”
Kemper is forthcoming about the nature of his crimes and has stated that he participated in the interviews to save others like himself from killing. At the end of his Murder: No Apparent Motive interview, he said: “There’s somebody out there that is watching this and hasn’t done that – hasn’t killed people, and wants to, and rages inside and struggles with that feeling, or is so sure they have it under control. They need to talk to somebody about it. Trust somebody enough to sit down and talk about something that isn’t a crime; thinking that way isn’t a crime. Doing it isn’t just a crime, it’s a horrible thing. It doesn’t know when to quit and it can’t be stopped easily once it starts.” He also conducted an interview with French writer Stéphane Bourgoin in 1991.
Kemper was first eligible for parole in 1979. He was denied parole that year, as well as at parole hearings in 1980, 1981, and 1982. He subsequently waived his right to a hearing in 1985. He was denied parole at his 1988 hearing, where he said: “society is not ready in any shape or form for me. I can’t fault them for that.” He was denied parole again in 1991 and in 1994. He then waived his right to a hearing in 1997 and in 2002. He attended the next hearing, in 2007, where he was again denied parole. Prosecutor Ariadne Symons said: “We don’t care how much of a model prisoner he is because of the enormity of his crimes.” Kemper waived his right to a hearing again in 2012. He was denied parole in 2017 and is next eligible in 2024.
In popular culture
Kemper has influenced many works of film and literature. He was an inspiration for the character of “Buffalo Bill” in Thomas Harris‘ 1988 novel The Silence of the Lambs and its 1991 film adaptation. Like Kemper, Bill fatally shoots his grandparents as a teenager.Dean Koontz cited Kemper as an inspiration for character Edgler Vess in his 1996 novel Intensity. The character Patrick Bateman, in the 2000 film American Psycho, mistakenly attributes a quote by Kemper to Ed Gein, saying: “You know what Ed Gein said about women? … He said ‘When I see a pretty girl walking down the street, I think two things. One part of me wants to take her out, talk to her, be real nice and sweet and treat her right … [the other part wonders] what her head would look like on a stick’.”
Below I am re-posting photos, a video interview clip, and narrative that was originally posted February 21 2020 on buggedspace.com.
No one in Ed Kemper’s life had a hint of what he was like in real life. Ed Kemper had a genius IQ of 145 and was the kind of person you could imagine having a fascinating conversation with over a cup of coffee.
Ed Kemper was so likable, indeed that no one would have ever guessed that he could be capable of killing a total of 10 people and defiling their corpses. He covered his tracks so thoroughly, that he would have never been caught until he picked up a payphone and turned himself in.
The video clip below compares an actual interview with Ed Kemper with the dramatized interview portrayed on Mindhunter.
Ed Kemper Quotes
“Well, Cops like me because they can talk to me, more than they can talk to their own wives, some of them.”
“I look at the wreckage behind me, the dead people caused by my self-indulgence in fantasy life and then my self-indulgence in not doing something about it—getting help, or taking action against myself, even.”
“I was raging inside, there was just… incredible energies… positive and negative. Uh… depending on a mood, that would trigger one or the other. And outside, I looked troubled at times, other times, I looked moody. Uh, other times, perfectly serene. Not very sane. But again… people weren’t even aware of what was happening.”
“I stabbed her all over her back, she turned around and I stabbed her on the side and the stomach once. As she turned around I could have stabbed her through the heart, but her breasts were there. Her breasts actually deflected me. I couldn’t see myself stabbing a young woman in her breasts. That’s embarrassing.”
“I just wanted to see how it felt to shoot Grandma.”
“One side of me says, ‘Wow, what an attractive chick. I’d like to talk to her, date her.’ The other side of me says, ‘I wonder how her head would look on a stick?’”
“When I got out on the street it was like being on a strange planet. People my age were not talking the same language. I had been living with people older than I was for so long that I was an old fogey.”
“If I killed them, you know, they couldn’t reject me as a man. It was more or less making a doll out of a human being . . . and carrying out my fantasies with a doll, a living human doll.”
“Maybe they can study me and find out what makes people like me do the things they do.”
I may not be so much to look at myself, but I have always gone after pretty girls.
I remember it was very exciting.….there was actually a sexual thrill.… It was kind of an exalted triumphant type thing, like taking the head of a deer or an elk or something would be to a hunter…. I was the hunter and they were the victims.
“Alive, they were distant, not sharing with me. I was trying to establish a relationship and there was no relationship there…”
“The first good-looking girl I see tonight is going to die.”
“I killed my mother and her friend. And I killed those college girls. I killed six of them and I can show you where I hid the pieces of their bodies.”
“At first I picked up girls just to talk to them, just to try to get acquainted with people my own age and try to strike up a friendship.”
When they were being killed, there wasn’t anything going on in my mind except that they were going to be mine….That was the only way they could be mine.
“I couldn’t please her…. It was like being in jail….I became a walking time bomb and I finally blew …”
“My mother was there. She was there to beat me, she was there to humiliate me, she was there to use me as an example of how inferior men are.”
“She loved me in her way and despite all the violent screaming and yelling arguments we had, I loved her, too. But she had to manage your life…and interfere in your personal affairs.”
“Sometimes, afterward, I visited there…to be near her…because I loved her and wanted her.”
“I decided to mix the two and have a situation of rape and murder and no witnesses and no prosecution.
“I suppose as I was standing there looking, I was doing one of those triumphant things, too, admiring my work and admiring her beauty, and I might say admiring my catch like a fisherman.”
“They were like spirit wives….I still had their spirits. I still have them.”
“Appx. 5:15 A.M. Saturday. No need for her to suffer any more at the hands of this horrible ‘murderous Butcher’. It was quick—asleep—the way I wanted it. Not sloppy and incomplete, gents. Just a ‘lack of time’. I got things to do!!!”
“I didn’t hit her. I killed her, but I never hit her.”
“My mother and I had had a real tiff. I was pissed. I told her I was going to a movie and I jumped up and went straight to the campus because it was still early. I said, the first girl that’s halfway decent that I pick up, I’m gonna blow her brains out.”
“Oh, what is it like to have sex with a dead body?… What does it feel like to sit on your living room couch and look over and see two decapitated girls’ heads on the arm of the couch? The first time, it makes you sick to your stomach.”
“I came up behind her and crooked my arm around her neck, like this. I squeezed and just lifted her off the floor. She just hung there and, for a moment, I didn’t realize she was dead….I had broken her neck and her head was just wobbling around with the bones of her neck disconnected in the skin sack of her neck.”
“The head trip fantasies were a bit like a trophy. You know the head is where everything is at, the brain, eyes, mouth. That’s the person. I remember being told as a kid, you cut off the head and the body dies. The body is nothing after the head is cut off … well, that’s not quite true, there’s a lot left in the girl’s body without the head.”
“I just wanted the exaltation over the party. In other words, winning over death. They were dead and I was alive. That was the victory in my case.”
“I was really quite struck by her personality and her looks and there was just almost a reverence there….”
I initially asked Larry Parks to add me to his prison visitors list but he repeatedly put me off, not exactly refusing, but claiming family visits keep his schedule full. Desperate to find out what made him tick, to discover what I could about him generally as a person, I began to read the letters he received while he was in jail but not yet tried. In Florida these are a matter of public record.
Many of his letters were from his sisters Chris, Joyce, and Nancy. Chris wrote to him most often. She told him repeatedly that no one in the family believed that he had committed the murders. In one letter, she claimed that detectives had “really messed up your trailer” looking for evidence. Photos of the trailer interior revealed that the space had been filthy and messy well before investigators arrived.
In mid-November 1999 she discussed their family. “I had three years in prison to think about my life and who should be blamed for all the things I went through. I finally decided the only one I could blame for what happened in my life was me. I know we didn’t have a great childhood. I don’t think anyone denies that at all. Not even Dad. But the decisions I made in my life I made, not Dad, not Mom but me. Who’s to say that my life would have been any different even if Dad and Mom had stayed together? No one knows what lies ahead. I sure would have never thought that I would end up in prison on a murder charge, but I did. I didn’t do it but I went to prison anyway.” She said that the media was covering Larry’s case as a third murder or murder attempt in the Parks family. “It makes the Parks’s sound like the Charley Manson family.”
In another letter she talks about his offer to take whatever she wanted from his trailer. Among the small items she said she took was a punch bowl. She wondered whether it had belonged to his now-deceased wife, Debbie. Chris wanted something that had belonged to her. Interwoven with all the specifics of a dysfunctional family, here was a scrap of family life. It might have been anyone’s family, anyone’s life.
By February, 2000 Chris talked of her concerns about the pile-up of DNA evidence against Larry. She said she knew he had written to Joyce and his stepmother Marty and asked what he might do to make things easier for the family. “There is something you can do. If you done (sic) this, confess! I’m not saying to confess to make it easier on us, I’m saying to confess if you done (sic) it. If you are completely innocent, then say you are. If your (sic) guilty, then say your (sic) guilty. That’s all your family wants from you. Nothing more, nothing less.”
A letter from Joyce also mentions media coverage and she begged him to confess to stop people from digging up “dirt” about their family. “You are my brother and I will love you no matter what. We have the same blood running through our veins and I can’t abandon you.”
Nancy wrote to Larry from Old Town, Florida where she had moved. She told him she loved him and missed him but knew he didn’t want to see family and didn’t like family. Nonetheless, she asked him to write to her.
Beginning in March of 2009 I started to write to Larry in prison in Raiford Florida where he was incarcerated for life without possibility of parole. I told him I was writing a book about the Brannon case and asked if he might talk to me. I told him about my own life and my family and asked general questions about his. My hopes were not high.
I was surprised to get a reply within a matter of weeks. He was polite but firm: He would not talk about the case. He said to do so would risk harm to his family. It was hard to believe: He had confessed to three murders and told detectives and prosecutors that he had acted alone. What more could happen to him or his family? I continued to write and he responded, always refusing to discuss the Brannon case.
I was frankly impressed that his letters were so articulate and neatly written. My son is an attorney who worked one summer in a federal judge’s office. One of his tasks had been to manage the hand-written pleas that prisoners regularly sent to the court requesting new trials or pardons or reductions in sentences. He said what he read was often much like the letters I got from Larry. They were grammatically correct and the handwriting was neat. He hypothesized that every prison had some prisoners who were more literate than others and they may have written the correspondence in return for some favor, or that volunteers who supported inmates’ rights wrote them for the prisoners. I’m not sure. I am perhaps too trusting, but there seems to be some thread of truth in the letters Larry Parks wrote to me.
He answered the questions I asked about prison life. He worked as a welder six days a week, he said, and had a window in his cell from which he often looked out. He wished he could “look me in the eyes” and tell me things no one else knew about his crimes. He would never speak of the murders, he insisted, but if he ever did talk to anyone, he thought it would be me because of how open I had been about my own life. [I knew when I was being played.] He said that before the Brannon murders he thought we might have been friends. As every crime writer knows, you do not alienate the person you want to interview. I didn’t lie but was silent on that subject.
I now suspect that I had visualized him as a more evil man, but one living the life of the Birdman of Alcatraz. He could guess what I wanted to hear and he fed me the “right” answers. Nevertheless, sometimes I thought he spoke the truth. He did not want to be buried on prison grounds, he said. He told me his family members would faint if they knew how much he had written to me because he didn’t write very much.
The last handwritten letter he sent was closely written on narrowly ruled notebook paper and it nearly ran off the end of page two. “I wish that I would have never took the plea they offered me, because I know I’m not a prison person. I know now if it would’t be for my Dad still living I would rather had been executed. But I couldn’t do it to my family. But the Meyers [Sherry Brannon’s parents and twin sister] deserve to see me Dead. My heart really goes out to them for what I’ve done.”
While I continued to write occasionally, I did not hear from him again until November, 2018. Amazingly, an email appeared in my inbox. He said only “hi how” and attached was a color photo of him taken when he was perhaps in his mid-twenties. By this time prisoners had laptops and limited ability to exchange emails, photos, and videograms. I emailed him immediately. He wrote back a mostly incoherent response explaining that his email had been a mistake. I guessed he might have been courting some young woman who had to love a random murderer. I emailed him again in August 2019 about some family matters and he replied briefly.
Larry Parks and I are somehow linked through a great Tragedy. We are not friends, but I still crave an understanding of how he became a man capable of killing a woman he barely knew and her four- and seven-year-old daughters. It is likely that I will never understand that great and tragic mystery. Gaining some comprehension of this central fact, though, is why I write.
The Manatee County District Attorney did not have an easy time deciding whether to prosecute Larry Parks. DNA evidence had linked him to the Brannon murders, and a painstaking investigation by the Manatee County Sheriff’s Office concluded that Dewey Brannon had no part in the homicide and that Parks had acted alone. To the layman, it would seemed a slam-dunk. The Meyers family– parents and grandparents and sister of Sherry Brannon– and Dewey Brannon wanted to see Larry Parks tried and convicted. Most or all of them wanted to see him get the death penalty, the penalty he had inflicted on an innocent woman and her two small daughters. He had been their judge, jury, and executioner, and now it was his turn to be judged, they felt.
Parks was entitled to a jury trial, and great pains were made to find a trial location outside of Manatee County where publicity might not have tainted the jury pool. Nonetheless, Charlie Wells remembered, “I had had a case not too many years earlier where we had an eye witness to the homicide but the jury voted ‘not guilty.’ Juries can be wild cards.”
The Sheriff’s Office reviewed the Brannon case evidence with the local and state District Attorneys’ offices. While they all agreed there was sufficient evidence to try Parks, Bob Meyers–Sherry’s father and Shelby and Cassidy’s grandfather–had spoken frequently to the press and the public about his belief that Larry Parks had not acted alone. He had posted a bulletin board notice in the courthouse offering a $125,000 reward for anyone who could produce proof that someone besides Parks was involved. He could never bring himself to believe that his smart, careful daughter opened the door to a sketchy landscaper she barely knew. Knowing that, jurors might have concluded there was “reasonable doubt” and not convicted him. There might have been a hung jury that couldn’t reach consensus, thus forcing the DA to decide whether or not to re-try him. A trial was a risky move.
A plea agreement could guarantee that Larry Parks went to prison for life while avoiding the time and expense of a trial. The Meyers family felt that they could not rest until they knew the details of what happened on September 16, 1999. Painful though those might be, they seemed preferable to a lifetime not knowing. The DA and Larry Parks, with advice from his attorney, agreed that Larry would make a truthful confession detailing the crimes and agree to life in prison without parole possibility, and in return the DA’s Office would take the death penalty off the table.
Two years and six months after the murders, on March 2, 2002, Larry Parks appeared in Florida’s Twelfth Judicial District Circuit court and testified to the confession he had made on February 26, 2002. Present at the Manatee County Jail in Port Manatee to record his testimony and ask clarifying questions that day had been Manatee County Sheriff’s Office Major Connie Shingledecker and Lieutenant Keith Keough; attorneys for the defense Steven Schaefer and Jim Slater; and Art Brown, Assistant State Attorney. I will not share the details of his confession here because, very honestly, I want you to read our forthcoming book, Yellow Twine: How Outstanding Detective Work Solved the Brannon Triple Homicides!
Members of the Meyers and Brannon families attended the official courtroom proceeding on March 2nd. As Larry Parks testified about the manner in which he had killed Sherry Brannon and her daughters, their father, Dewey Brannon, grew increasingly more flushed. His distress and rage were unmistakable. Without warning, he rushed from his seat and catapulted over the wooden rail separating the judge and perpetrator from the audience. Before he could reach Larry Parks, sheriff’s deputies tackled Brannon and brought him down to the floor. He was removed from the courtroom until it was decided he was calm enough to return. “I let them down,” Brannon said afterward. “And I let them down again by not getting to him. I would have killed him.”
At the hearing Sherry’s identical twin sister, Mary Ann Nevitt, made a witness impact statement on behalf of her family. Larry Parks would not look at her as she spoke. She said that her family would fight through their pain just as Sherry had fought for her life and the lives of her daughters that morning. “We will heal and we will recover,” she said. “Just remember every time that cell door closes behind you, three little girls put you there.”
Parks was remanded to Union Correctional Facility in Raiford, Florida where he remains today and will remain until his death. Robert Meyers passed away in 2018; his wife Dolly and daughter Mary Ann still reside in Florida on the Gulf coast. Dewey Brannon married the woman he was living with when Sherry was murdered and they are still married.
Next Up: I have corresponded with Larry Parks while he is in prison. I’ll talk more about that next time.
I’ve been writing seriously since 1966 and this is the first time I’ve ever experienced writer’s block. It’s a scary, unsettling feeling. I go days and weeks where I cannot write at all, and others when I write and hate everything I’ve written.
In the past, I have often felt more as if I were taking dictation from my subconscious than inventing something new. The sentences flowed, one after another, until I got to the end (of my energy or time). Then I stopped for sleep or supper or to spend some time engaged with my husband and friends. The next day I picked up where I had left off and simply continued.
Last night my husband and I watched a documentary about author Tim O’Brien, National Book Award Winner (Going after Cacciato), best known for his Vietnam antiwar books. He and his wife each discussed his periods of writer’s block. At the time of the filming, he had not published anything for 15 years (gasp!). He sat at his desk every day, his wife said. His goal was to produce two pages, but some days he produced nothing. He filled his waste paper basket, he said, with rejected pages. A year later, he finished writing the autobiography he wanted to create for his two young sons.
I was heartening to realize that writers I admire have had–and overcome–debilitating blocks in creativity. I will work through this and come out on the other side. I’ll write every day until my internal writer speaks to me once more and I begin to take dictation again.
Warning: The following contains scenes of graphic violence that may not be suitable for all readers.
In this post we will look at three of the several reasons Dewey Brannon was considered a “person of interest” when his wife of 16 years, Sherry Brannon, and his four-year-old and seven-year-old daughters were brutally murdered in Manatee County Florida in 1999. In essence, he was not the first nor the last family man who might have been capable of committing such a heinous crime.
In 1970, Green Beret surgeon Jeffrey MacDonald, husband of Colette and father of 2-year-old Kimberly and 5-year-old Kristin, murdered his family without any apparent motive. His wife and two small daughters had been stabbed numerous times and beaten with a club in their Fort Bragg North Carolina home. He told detectives at the scene that hippies had entered his house in the early morning hours, attacked him where he slept on the livingroom sofa, then went to the bedrooms and slaughtered his wife and daughters. MacDonald had been stabbed, but not to a life-threatening extent, possibly a feat rendered possible through his experience as a practicing surgeon. The entire country, including the Manatee County Sheriff’s Office, was aware of the murders.
By all outward appearances, the MacDonalds had been a happily married couple with two daughter they both adored. Colette was a pretty, vivacious woman and an attentive mother. Jeff and Colette had married when they were young and she became pregnant with Bella. She was five months pregnant with their third child when she died.
A best-selling non-fiction book, Fatal Vision, was written by Joe McGinnis about MacDonald’s murder trial. While McGinnis–whom MacDonald allowed to participate as part of his defense team– initially thought the latter was innocent, he later came to believe that he had actually killed his family. MacDonald was convicted in 2009 after two trials and years out on bail during which he bought a luxury boat and a pricy condo and dated enthusiastically. Much later, in 2012, documentarian Errol Morris published another book, A Wilderness of Error: The Trials of Jeffrey MacDonald, in which he argued that MacDonald never got a fair trial and was probably innocent. MacDonald denies committing the crimes. Unless new evidence is produced, he has exhausted his appeals and is now awaiting execution which, in California, may be a very long time in coming.
Three years after the Brannon homicides, on Christmas Eve 2002, Laci Peterson went missing from her Modesto California home. She was pregnant with her first child, a boy she and her husband Scott planned to name Connor. A vigorous investigation turned up no direct evidence that a crime had been committed and while Scott cooperated with the search, he gradually became accustomed to a new life, one that included Amber Frey, the woman who had become his lover before Laci’s disappearance. She did not live in the same town as the Petersons and did not initially know about Laci’s disappearance. Scott had told Amber when they first met that he was a widower.
The morning of the murder, Scott told detectives, he left his wife who was cooking in preparation for Christmas and went fishing alone in his motor boat in San Francisco Bay. Four months later, the decomposed bodies of Laci and Connor washed up on the shore of the bay near the area where Scott claimed to have been fishing. In April 2003 despite his protestations of innocence, Peterson was convicted of two counts of murder and sentenced to death. As is automatic in California in death sentence cases, Peterson’s case is being appealed. He awaits the results in San Quentin prison. His affair with Amber Frey did not survive the ordeal.
By November 2018, sixteen years after the Peterson murders, Chris and Shanann Watts were the parents of two girls, 3-year old Celeste, nicknamed CeCe, and 4-year-old Bella, and Shanann was 15 weeks pregnant for their third child, a boy whom Chris anticipated eagerly. Shanann had a lively social media presence, blogging and sending messages to her friends and general readers on a daily basis. She was usually upbeat and believed she had the perfect husband: affectionate, involved with his daughters’ care, considerate of her, generous, and a great lover. She spoke openly of her feelings about Chris to him and to her large circle of friends and family.
To spend time with the girls, she worked from home for Le Vel, the proprietors of a health and lifestyle program called “Thrive,” a multilevel sales enterprise to which Shanann was totally devoted and from which she earned about $80,000 a year. Chris worked for an oil company as a technician near their home in Frederick Colorado.
In the summer of 2018, the Watts’s agreed that Shanann would take the girls to North Carolina for an extended visit with both sets of grandparents and her brother, Frankie, who had not yet met his nieces. She left in June and during the five weeks of her absence, Shanann observed a marked cooling of Chris’s affections. Unusual for him, he frequently did not pick up his cell phone when she called and when he returned her calls he was brief. She emailed and called him repeatedly, asking what was wrong and how she might adjust her behavior to regain their intimacy. She could not understand what could have changed between them so quickly. Chris was evasive or placated her with vague promises that he was just overworked and would “fix things.”
In August, on the sixth week of the trip, Chris flew to North Carolina to join his family; they all flew back together to Colorado at the end of the week. During their North Carolina visit he had agreed to Shanann’s request that they spend a solitary weekend together at an Aspen resort to begin repairing their relationship. She made plans for them to do so two weeks later.
While Chris had repeatedly denied his wife’s accusations that he was seeing another woman, that was not true. For the past two months, most intensely during the period his family visited North Carolina, he had been involved in a passionate affair with Nicol Kessenger, his pretty, dark-haired, sexy co-worker. They took day trips to the desert and race track, shared a romantic dinner at a local restaurant, made love in her apartment, and exchanged nude and semi-nude photos through a hidden program on their cell phones. Nicole later told detectives that she believed Chris and Shanann had an unhappy marriage and were in the final stages of divorce. She searched the internet for wedding gowns and researched the public’s reaction to Amber Frey, Scott Peterson’s one-time mistress. She checked Shanann’s Facebook page where she saw pictures of the Watts family and Shanann’s very obvious pregnancy.
The weekend before Chris and Shanann were scheduled to take their brief trip to Aspen, Shanann attended a weekend business conference in Las Vegas with her fellow Thrive sales and marketing peers. Her returning flight on Sunday arrived late, and she was driven home about 1:45 a.m. on Monday August 13th by her friend and business travel companion, Nickole Atkinson. It was the last time Nickole saw her friend alive.
When Shanann did not respond to Atkinson’s texts and calls the next morning, she phoned Chris Watts to express her concern. She had driven to the Watts house and no one answered her knocks and doorbell rings. Chris drove home to meet Nickole immediately and opened the door to an empty house. Shanann’s trip bag and the flip-flops she had been wearing on the flight were abandoned in the front hall. Chris commented that she had been home in bed when he left for work that morning.
Responding to a 911 call, investigators met Chris and Nickole at the Watts front door. Chris gave them permission to search the premises. From his front porch, he subsequently told reporters that he did not know what had happened to his wife and daughters, but he hoped they were safe somewhere and he wanted them to come home. He looked and sounded composed and he smiled slightly as he spoke to the cameras.
In the course of several investigative interviews, Chris continued to deny knowledge of his family’s whereabouts. Investigators were suspicious from the outset that he was involved in their disappearance. He agreed to take a polygraph exam, which he failed. Detectives told him they knew he was withholding something, and finally suggested that he tell the truth to his father, Ronnie Watts.
On August 15th Watts flew to Colorado from his home in North Carolina. He joined Chris in a police interview room where detectives left them alone together, advising Ronnie that their conversation would be recorded. Ronnie held his white-haired head in both hands as he listened to his son’s account. Shanann, Chris said, had choked her daughters until they turned blue while he was downstairs. He heard a disturbance and when he went upstairs, “They were gone,” he said.”They are my kids. I did the same f***ing thing to her.” Answering his father’s question about what he did next, he said he “got rid of” their bodies. Detectives videotaped and recorded the confession.
Investigators were convinced they still did not know the truth of what happened during the night and early morning hours of August 12th and 13th. They held a second interview with Chris and his father to review the details of the confession. Chris finally admitted that Shanann had not hurt the girls, that he had killed all of them. The details he provided were so chilling that one of the primary detectives subsequently developed Post Traumatic Stress Disorder and left the department on permanent medical disability.
Chris confessed that Shanann initiated a satisfying sexual encounter when she came to bed the early morning she returned from Las Vegas. They slept and he woke her at 5 a.m., wanting to talk about their relationship before he left for work. He no longer loved her, he told his wife, and he wanted a divorce. He recalled that they both cried and Shanann became very distraught. In a peculiar disconnect, he explained that then he put his hands around her neck and strangled her until she was dead, a process that he estimated took between two and four minutes. He clinically reported that her eyes became bloodshot and she lost control of her sphincter muscles.
The nightmare was far from over. He heard a noise near the doorway as he was wrapping his wife’s body in the top bedsheet. His daughters had been awakened by the disturbance. Bella asked what was wrong with her mommy. “She is sick and we have to take her to the hospital,” Chris said. Then, unable to lift her dead weight, he dragged and pushed her down the stairs and outside into the waiting truck he had backed into the entrance of the attached garage. He laid her body on the floor behind the front seat, then lifted each little girl and placed her in her carseat, feet dangling just above their mother’s corpse. He drove to a remote work site, the location of two huge vertical oil storage tanks. He thought the girls dozed in their carseats during the trip and once complained of a bad smell that emanated from Shanann’s body.
Upon arrival he retrieved Shanann’s body from the floor and placed it on the ground next to the truck. Next, he opened the rear door on Cece’s side and pulled her blanket tightly over her head. Despite her muffled cries, he held it there until she was still. Then he lifted her body from the carseat and carried her up the exterior ladder to the top of one tank, removed the 8″ lid, and dropped her into the tank, waiting until he heard a splash.
Then he returned to the truck where Bella sat, having observed the entire sequence of events. As he picked up her blanket and moved toward her, she said “Please Daddy. Don’t do to me what you just did to Cece.” He continued with his plan, holding the blanket over his oldest daughter’s head until she too was dead. He carried her body to the top of the other oil tank, removed the top, and because Bella was slightly larger than her sister, forced her body through the small opening. He told detectives that this splash sounded different, he assumed because there was more oil in one tank than in the other.
Before he left, he moved Shanann’s body a distance from the tanks, dug a shallow grave with a shovel he had brought, and dumped her body in, face down. Detectives subsequently followed the map Chris had drawn of the site and located the three bodies. His unborn son lay under his mother’s body. The baby had either been forcibly removed or post mortem strain on Shanann’s abdomen had torn her open and the premature infant’s body had been expelled. No one will ever know which.
Because he provided an in-depth confession, prosecutors agreed not to seek the death penalty. Scott Peterson is incarcerated for life with no possibility of parole, convicted of three counts of first-degree murder and three accounts of interferring with deceased bodies. He says he has found God and believes his life purpose is to carry that message to others in prison. He seems to think he may have some possibility of eventual reduction in the terms of his sentence.
The MacDonald, Peterson, and Watts murders were clearly horrific. What though, you might wonder, do they have to do with the Brannon homicides? I think they illustrate why skilled detectives always begin their investigations with the people closest to the victims, such as a spouse or lover. No one can responsibly assume that a murderer “looks” or “acts” like one. If that were the case, such murders would be exceedingly rare. Second, detectives cannot assume that men who appear to be loving fathers are not capable of killing their children. Finally, passion can sometimes cause temporary insanity. In at least two of the three cases just described, the perpetrators were involved in passionate extra marital affairs of which their wives were not aware. Divorce seems a safer more civil solution, but some men may value their reputations and their bank accounts more than the lives of their wives and young children.
I am not suggesting that Dewey Brannon played any role in the brutal murder of his wife and two daughters. I am saying, however, that no one can assume that an unlikely candidate is always an innocent one. That’s the position the Manatee County Sheriff’s Office took, and as we retrospectively examine these earlier and later cases, it is entirely understandable why they did.
By late October 1999, the public knew of one suspect and one “person of interest” in the Brannon murder investigation. The sheriff’s office defined a person of interest as someone who could not be excluded as a suspect, but for whom there was not sufficient evidence to make an arrest. Dewey Brannon, the estranged father and husband of the victims, fell into that classification. First, all professional murder investigators begin by looking at the people closest to the victims. Second, Dewey had behaved in ways that were viewed by some people as peculiar when he discovered the victims. He carried his injured 4-year-old daughter Cassidy with him while he checked the master bath linen closet to see whether his gun was still there before he called 911. In his 911 call he reported that his wife Sherry had committed suicide after harming their two children, although she had never threatened suicide and was by all accounts a loving mother. He knew that the only neighbors in the remote location where he built their house would not be home on the days the murders were committed and the bodies reported. Dewey consulted an attorney the day after the crimes were committed and refused to further discuss the case with detectives after that. He did not call the sheriff’s office to inquire about the progress of the investigation.
A few weeks into the investigation, Dewey had had enough of what he felt was undue attention on him. On a weekday when the weather topped 100 degrees, he walked eight miles to the Manatee County Sheriff’s Office where he burst into the lobby, shouting and gesturing. “Either arrest me or clear my name.”
Sheriff Charlie Wells’ staff quickly notified him of Brannon’s presence and he went down to the lobby immediately. He told Dewey that he was not going to let him come into the sheriff’s office and raise hell. “If you want to come upstairs and talk to me like a gentleman,” he said, “we can do that.” After a brief pause, Dewey said he wanted to talk and followed Wells to his office.
The sheriff explained that he and his investigative staff wanted to talk to Dewey alone, without the presence of attorneys. He assured him that they were not trying to trap him, but to invite an honest dialogue between the murder victims’ husband and father and the investigative staff. After conversations between Brannon’s attorneys and the sheriff, then Dewey and the attorneys, Dewey decided to talk to investigators without his attorney. A lengthy and difficult dialog ensued in which Brannon detailed his frustrations with the focus on him, and Sheriff Wells explained what facts led to their unwillingness to clear Dewey’s name yet. Wells promised to do all he could to reach that stage expeditiously. Both agreed not to discuss the contents of their meeting with the press.
Larry Parks becomes a suspect.
Note: the names that appear below, Alicia Ruiz, Lisa Bennett, and Mac McEvoy, are pseudonyms which I used to protect the privacy of the individuals involved. The information contained here is accurate to the best of my knowledge. It was obtainedfrom the official transcripts of interviews between Manatee County Sheriff’s Office (MCSO) detectives and those individuals, and interviews I conducted with the investigators and other MCSO officials. Most dialogue is taken verbatim from the transcripts, although I have occasionally filled in details that were consistent with the factswhen no one was present to hear the actual exchange.
Previously, on September 3, 2019, I posted “A Piece of Yellow Twine” which described a sexual assault that occurred on October 22 1999, just weeks after the Brannon murders.
When Manatee County Sheriff’s officers questioned neighbor Alicia Ruiz the morning of the Lisa Bennett assault, Ruiz was able to name the suspect, a heavy equipment operator by the name of Larry Parks, the same man Lisa Bennett and Mac McEvoy identified for MCSO investigators. Alicia had dated Parks in 1997 and ’98 and knew him well. They were no longer a couple because his extensive drug use had become a major issue between them, but they remained friends. Larry called Alicia once when rainy weather had interrupted his job and borrowed money temporarily. She loaned him $200 which he repaid when he returned to work. He called her again to share his grief when his estranged wife, Deborah Sharp Parks, died in New York State in a weather-related auto accident in March of 1999, just months before the Brannon homicides.
Despite his positive relationship with Ruiz, detectives discovered that years before–between 1983 and 1985–Larry had been married to Deborah Sharp Parks for only two rocky years, and they had been estranged for 14 years at the time of the Brannon murders. When she left him, a pregnant Debbie took her then 2-year-old daughter Calley to New York State where they lived with her mother Virginia Ucci. She told her divorce attorney that Parks had been abusive to her and ignored their daughter.
Deborah Parks and Lisa Bennett had not been the only people to report Larry Parks’ violence toward women. Of the several women whom investigators interviewed about their relationships with Larry, only Alice Ruiz did not report violent incidents. In 1990, Tina L. Rowell filed a police report alleging that Larry had come to her home and started an argument, slapping her in the face and then retrieving a .357 handgun which he pointed at her, threatening to kill her. Ronald Hochstetler and Scott Richards, whom Parks also menaced, witnessed the attack.
Two years later Brenda G. Canaday said Larry physically and verbally abused her in a motel in October 1992; in July 1993 he called and threatened her and her boyfriend, then slit two of his tires; and in September 1993 slapped her face, pushed her and dragged her on the floor. Another time he came to her Carlton Arms apartment, carved “whore” on her front door, cut up her doormat, and pounded on the sliding glass doors of her deck. She got a restraining order which she later cancelled because they got back together.
They were apparently estranged again by December 1993 when Susan L. Moore reported that during an argument Larry had pulled a knife on her and said “If you mess with me, I will be back.” She nonetheless moved into his trailer where she lived until May 1995. When she tried to leave and retrieve her belongings, he made her pay $50 and threatened her with a gun. “He’s like a walking time bomb,” she told detectives. Two years later he began to date Alicia Ruiz and during that time, sounded like a totally different man. The bomb had temporarily stopped ticking.
Immediately following the incident involving Lisa Bennett and Mac McEvoy, Manatee County Sheriff’s Office investigators moved quickly to locate Larry Parks, which they did at the address Alicia Ruiz had provided. He unsuccessfully tried to outrun a pursuing Sheriff’s squad car and was arrested on sexual assault charges. Detectives prepared requests for search warrants of the Bennett and Parks residences. Nothing, Sheriff Wells had cautioned, was more important than preserving the freshness of the crime scene. Forensics technicians Beverly Copeland and Diane Williams each spent hours at the residences collecting and processing potential evidence. 117 items and swabs were collected from the Bennett home and an additional 114 items and swabs were collected at Larry Parks’ home. Among the evidence were yellow twine that resembled the twine found under Sherry Brannon’s body and a pair of Reebok shoes that looked like the bloody tread pattern left at the Brannon crime scene. A court order was secured to collect samples of Larry Parks’ blood and hair. A connection was beginning to emerge, and Captain Connie Shingledecker begged the Florida State crime scene laboratory to give the highest priority to processing and comparing DNA from Parks and from flesh found under Sherry Brannon’s fingernail.
Shingledecker says she is not a person easily brought to tears. She recalls that she cried at her wedding. She was conferring with investigators at the suspect’s home when she received a phone call from the lab. Larry Parks’ DNA was a match, and now for a very different reason, she cried again.
This is Captain Rick Gerken, the Manatee County Sheriff’s Office “boots-on-the-ground” lead detective on the Brannon triple homicide investigation in 1999. He was a deputy in the photo and I haven’t seen him for many years now. He may have aged a tad, but this is the way he looked when I first met him in 2008.
I had been taking a class about famous murders in Manatee County Florida taught by then just-retired Sheriff Charlie Wells. He introduced me to Rick, who is still with the Manatee County Sheriff’s Office. Now I’m remembering back to the morning I rode in Rick’s squad car, and one Sunday afternoon when I sat with him for hours in a sheriff’s office conference room while he patiently answered my questions about the Brannon case. He told me that criminal profiler Dayle Hinman had briefly consulted on the case and initially given the sheriff’s office some bum steers that took the investigation down the wrong path for a bit. He shared the details of what she had said from the notes he took at the time. He spoke of his feelings and the general atmosphere at the crime scene on September 16, 1999, the day the murders were discovered, and during the days and weeks that followed while his office investigated the case and found and prosecuted the killer, landscape heavy equipment operator Larry Parks. He said the case caused him to decide to switch out of the homicide division.
He and his wife invited me to their house for dinner on several occasions. Rick was the father of two young boys at the time, and had an older daughter and son from a previous marriage. He was keenly interested in computer technology and how it could be used to aid law enforcement and target crime prevention. He told me he enjoyed woodworking as a hobby but didn’t have much time to do it anymore. His wife Patty was a nurse who grew up in Wisconsin and I once met her parents while they were visiting their daughter,son-in-law and grandchildren in Florida.
Why am I telling you all this? I’m doing it to give you a glimpse into how one writer researches a story for a book. Retired Sheriff Charlie Wells and I are co-authoring one about the Brannon case, Yellow Twine. Knowing the people involved gives the book texture and context. It “sets the scene” for the reader. I have had dozens of lengthy conversations with Charlie about the case and Rick was only one of many people I interviewed. I’ve met several times with Major Connie Shingledecker whose division oversaw violent crimes and crimes against children. Dianna Taylor, now CEO of Ignis Forensics in Colorado, was the head of the Manatee County Sheriff’s Office forensics unit during the Brannon investigation. In many phone calls and face-to-face meetings, she has shared her thoughts and the files she has kept about the case, and taught me more than I ever could otherwise have learned about the science of forensics and the complex process of crime scene investigation. I had coffee with Lieutenant Bill Evers who not only participated in the Brannon case, but also worked a sexual assault case that led to Larry Parks’ arrest. I interviewed Jay Millard, the first Emergency Medical Technician (EMT) on the scene who, with his partner Yvonne Parker, treated 4-year-old Cassidy Brannon. She had been alive when her father discovered the carnage in their rural Panther Ridge house, but died in a helicopter in transit to the hospital. I have spoken with Dewey Brannon, the estranged husband/father of the victims. I have written and received letters from Larry Parks.
Interviews are only one part of my research, and painful memories have prevented many people from agreeing to them. I’ve read numerous newspaper accounts that reported the case. Thanks to Florida’s generous laws about access to public records, the Sheriff’s Office gave me wide access to their “murder books,” the official documentation of the investigation. Staff who pulled records, redacted sections as needed, and provided space for me to work included Sharon Chasteen, Pat Rupprecht, and Sidney Ettigui, who devoted countless hours to getting me online access to several books. I am so grateful for their assistance! I’ve read every page of the dozens of those books, containing crime scene photos; letters written by family members and friends to Larry Parks while he was in jail for an alleged sexual assault; logs of various locations involved with the cases; search warrants; detectives’ reports; lengthy lists of items collected as possible evidence; and dozens of transcribed interviews with family members, neighbors, friends, and coworkers.
Reading and looking at these documents has given me some insight into the personalities and events that led up to the crime and followed it into the present. My hope is that the book will be richer for these perspectives and offer readers evidence of the peerless dedication of those whose job it is to solve crimes and put murderers away where they can do no more public harm.
We’ll talk about the photos in a little bit, but meanwhile…
My husband Bob and I are stuck at home these days, taking short walks for exercise and distraction. As I was writing yesterday, it occurred to me that my book has been coming so slowly this past fall and winter in part because I lacked more visuals of the places I’m writing about. I had some addresses, but they were 40 miles away. Because we are experiencing Covid19 all around us here where we live in Florida, I now thought it was the perfect distance for a road trip.
We filled the car with gas, packed snacks and a water bottle, and headed east on Fruitville Road toward Myakka City. The sky was blue, the air was balmy, the temperature was in the mid-80s. We drove through pastoral farmland, cattle and dairy farms with many cows placidly munching in the fields. Houses were scattered, and commercial areas were nearly non-existent that far out on Fruitville. We turned onto “Historic Florida 780,” sometimes called Verna Road, other places Singletary Road. From route 70 we drove into the center of Myakka City, a bump in the road more than a city. It was small and poor. Further on, Altman and Clay Gully and Parks Roads were gravel in some places and plain dirt in others.
The area was what I like to call “The Land of No Zoning.” At the beginning of the trip we saw newly constructed, sometimes enormous homes with professional landscaping in the million dollar range, ancient barns next to ’50s-style ranch houses, dozens of manufactured homes and what New Yorkers like me call double-wides; they are house trailers. Some of the latter had little flower gardens or potted plants on their front stoops. Many were surrounded by untended grasses and weeds, set back a distance from the road. The first house we were looking for was set back several hundred feet from the road and had a metal gate– like a cattle gate– at the beginning of a long dirt driveway leading to the house. The gate was posted with two signs. One showed the silhouette of a big dog and said “I can reach this gate in 3 seconds. How long would it take you?” Another more generally noted that this was private property and unexpected visits were discouraged.
This had been the site of a violent sexual assault in October 1999. I had read the detectives’ reports and witness interview transcripts, so I had some idea of the kind of place I’d find. I expected a double-wide, but from what we could see of the place, shrouded as it was in greenery, it looked more like a “manufactured home.” From the crime reports, I’d gleaned that there was a fireplace in the living room, three bedrooms, and two baths. The kitchen was small. Today the yard was crowded with cars, but there were no sounds from the house and the mean dog, if there was one, was silent. We tried to take a couple of hurried photos with our phones, but frankly this place was making us nervous and we didn’t tarry. If I had to guess, I’d say the place housed a meth lab.
Our next stop was Alice Cislo’s house, the place the victims ran through the rough field of palmetto behind their place to get to. Alice was a neighbor they knew and she had also dated Larry Parks, the man who had assaulted them. (I have not used the victims’ names to protect their privacy. The assault case is described in detail in my September 3, 2019 post “A Piece of Yellow Twine,” where I have used the pseudonyms Lisa Bennett and Jim “Mac” McEvoy.) If the house is still there, it’s now behind a chained cattle gate. It looks well-kept today. Here is a photo of it.
Our final stop was at the home of Larry Parks, who was accused and arrested for committing the sexual assault and later, the triple homicide of Sherry Brannon and her two daughters, 4-year-old Cassidy and 7-year-old Shelby. The series of photos under the title of this article were all taken by Manatee Sheriff’s Office detectives and crime scene investigators on October 22, 1999. Looking at them makes me want to hold my breath and I feel a little nauseous. Captain Connie Shingledecker– whose department investigated the assault case as well as the Brannon homicides– was at the scene. She said when they opened the door to the trailer, a rodent–she thought a rat–staggered dizzily out the door and dropped dead. At least that’s what I think she told me.
The residence was filthy and smelly and cluttered. And yet at some time in the past, Larry Parks had lived some semblance of a normal life. He owned many acres of prime farmland that had been passed down from his grandfather, Kelley Parks, who had been a wealthy landowner and early settler of Manatee County. As a heavy equipment operator, he was well known for his industry and for the artistry of the ponds he dug for the wealthy owners of the new houses in Panther Ridge. He served in the army. His three sisters wrote to him faithfully while he was in jail awaiting trial and they seemed mostly convinced that he was innocent of the charges against him. There is a photo taped to the wall of Larry’s house showing him and his wife on their wedding day. They had two children together. (She left him shortly after their son was born citing cruelty and neglect of their children, and moved back to New York State where her mother lived.) He took Alice Cislo and her daughters to the strawberry festival on their first date and took her mother and his own out to dinner one Mother’s Day. He went to church with Alice on Easter Sunday and Alice she told detectives that when she had dated him, he worked every day, always had money, and showered daily and wore clean clothes. His heavy drug use and the accidental death of his estranged wife Deborah caused him to change, she hypothesized. She broke things off with him after about a year, but they remained on friendly terms.
I told my youngest son the story of our road trip that day when we spoke on the phone last night. I included all the details, my guess about the meth lab and my description of the poverty included, and he said something that stopped me dead in my tracks. He said “You know, some people just want to be left alone. They aren’t necessarily drug dealers or criminals.”
I was instantly ashamed of my mean-spirited stereotypical analysis of things I didn’t understand. I thought of people I know and love, some relatives, who are strange or solitary or poor or addicted. Who are any of us to judge? I write to try to understand the intricacies and mysteries of life as we know it. Maybe, I’ve decided, I can do that and still be kind.