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!