Writing Truth In True Crime: Joe Sharkey


DEATH SENTENCE, written by Joe Sharkey, is one of the best true crime books I ever read. I have read hundreds. He began his writing career as a journalist with the Wall Street Journal and was a columnist for 19 years at the New York Times. He does not consider himself a true crime writer despite having written three nonfiction books about crime. In the three cases he has written about, his interest has been in justice and how law enforcement succeeds or fails to carry it to the courts. I believe he is an investigative journalist in his soul, and sometimes a righteously angry one.

In addition to three nonfiction crime books (see also DEADLY GREED and ABOVE SUSPICION), he has written BEDLAM (St. Martin’s Press,1994), about changes in the mental health delivery system made in the 1990s with tragic results, and is currently finishing WRECKAGE, which examines–through the perspective of one case– the Catholic Church’s coverup of priests’ child molestations. Sharkey co-authored the detective novel LADY GOLD (St. Martin’s Press, 1999) with Angela Amato. He is also in the final stages of writing a screen play about the John List family murder case. Retired now and living in Arizona, Sharkey taught journalism there for several years. He graciously allowed me to interview him in June.

SK:    Hi Joe! Thanks so much for speaking with me today. DEATH SENTENCE (Penguin, 1990) is one of my favorite true crime books; my son gave it to me for my birthday a few years ago and I’ve read it several times. When and why did you first become interested in writing about crime?

JS:     I don’t really think of myself as a true crime writer. I haven’t read much of it, and the three cases when I wrote about it each appealed to me for different reasons. At the time John List [DEATH SENTENCE] murdered his whole family in 1971 in New Jersey, I lived in New Jersey not far from Westfield where the crimes took place.

List was supposedly quite religious and perceived as a “buttoned down” type until–without warning– he murdered his wife, his three teenaged children, and his mother in one brutal spree. Then he high tailed it out of town and created a new life for himself. He lived and remarried in relative obscurity for 18 years until he was finally caught. The case just fascinated me: How did he get away with it for so long? He had left the bodies in the ballroom of his home, and they were not discovered for nearly a month. This was probably one of the last moments in America when you could get away with something like that.

SK:    How DID he manage it?

JS:     He was smart enough to do all the basic things you need to do to start a new life. He fled cross country to Denver immediately after committing the crime. He changed his name to Robert P. Clark and got a new social security number. Then he very carefully kept his head down, avoided attracting attention, and constructed a new life based on the true but misleading narrative that he was a widower.

SK:    Were there other things about the case that drew you in?

JS:     Absolutely. I was horrified by the very act and felt that the only way to tell the story was to plunge in and travel his path to see how this guy built his life and eventually got caught. Other reporters focused on the murders without offering much in the way of context.

John List had a 16-year-old daughter, Patty, whom he considered a rebel. You and I wouldn’t have thought of her that way. She was a typical 1971 kid, maybe a little mouthy sometimes but her main “flaw” was that she didn’t fit List’s idea of what a proper young religious girl ought to be. She probably smoked a little pot and she had friends who were in amateur theater with her. She was the one I think who drove him to this horrible act, although there were other circumstances that accounted for it. Whenever this kid came in the door, she brought the ‘60s with her, a national period of social change and rebellion that he just could not tolerate.

SK:    His wife was not actively involved with her family toward the end, was she?

JS:     No, she was ambulatory but sickly and spent much of her time in bed, and Patty picked up the slack with running the household. Helen List had been formerly married to a Korean War veteran who died. Unknowingly he had given her syphilis, and she was in the final stages of that disease. When List found out, he was enraged but refused to leave Helen.

SK:    Who were you able to interview while you were researching the book?

JS:     I interviewed most of the people involved who were still alive, including Helen’s sister and brother-in-law and many of the friends he made in Denver who had no idea of what he had done at the time. I interviewed the kids in Westfield who knew Patty through the drama club, and her mentor, Ed Illiano, who directed the group. He said Patty had told him her father said he was going to kill her. Illiano told her, “Yeah but all parents say that at some point. They don’t really mean it.” It turned out that List had been quite serious.

Those people—the kids, Illiano, and another teacher Barbara Sheridan, were key to discovering the bodies in that decrepit mansion, almost a month after the murders.

SK:    Did you interview his second wife, Delores Miller Clark?

JS:     As a reporter you have to knock on doors and talk to people as sensitively as possible. I went to Delores’s house. List—now Robert P. Clark– had met this woman at church, and she was totally innocent and knew nothing about John’s life before he arrived in the west. Her world collapsed when he was arrested. She wouldn’t talk to me. I had a sense of a very stricken woman. She was one of the victims in this awful case.

SK:    I read that you are working on a screenplay about the case. True?

JS:     Yeah. True crime has become a really difficult subject to write about thoughtfully today because there is so much quickly written, inadequately researched stuff out there. I find it almost impossible to work in that genre these days. The List case fascinated me because of the kids and the connection with the ‘60s and ‘70s era. The conflict is between two eras: John was a politically and socially conservative World War II veteran. His children, on the other hand, were products of the looser social mores of the ‘60s and ‘70s, the music of the Beatles, the Vietnam War, and so on. I want to get the conflict exactly right in this screenplay.

SK:    List himself wrote a pathetic attempt to exonerate himself, an unedited self-serving book COLLATERAL DAMAGE, with another peculiar man, Austin Goodrich.  List self-published the book. Have you read it?

JS:     No. Austin Goodrich had his own interesting story. He was a C.I.A. spy posing as a journalist during World War II. You know, of course, that murderers develop “fans.” It is not uncommon for people to become pals with murderers. Goodrich visited List in prison. They developed a relationship based on commonalities. They both grew up in Michigan, served in the army at the same time, and went to the same college. Goodrich convinced List that the murders were the result of PTSD. I looked into his military record and his service was a kind of mop-up operation at the end of the world. His claim of PTSD was utterly ridiculous.

The police chief in Westfield said when he got to the scene, he was completely baffled about why John List felt he had to kill his family. He could have just left. They wouldn’t have starved. Things might have been hard, but they’d still be alive.

SK:    I feel as if there are more of these whole-family murder cases in recent decades. There are so many that sadly, there’s a name for them now, “Family Annihilation.” Green Beret surgeon Jeff MacDonald killed his pregnant wife and two daughters in North Carolina in 1970. In 2002 Scott Peterson killed his pregnant wife in California. Chris Watts killed his wife and two daughters in Colorado in 2018, and the next year, 2019, Tony Todt killed his wife, three children, and the family dog in Celebration Florida, a Disney-designed community. If any of the perpetrators had given their victims a choice—I’ll leave or you die—I can’t imagine that any would have chosen death.

JR:    How absurd is that? There is no way you can understand that kind of insanity. It makes me furious. In a new epilogue I wrote for DEATH SENTENCE, I ended with a quote from the famous African American comedian Moms Mabley: “They say you shouldn’t say nothin’ about the dead unless it’s good. He’s dead. Good.” And I meant it.

SK:    Readers will have to buy DEATH SENTENCE to get the rest of the story, because now we are moving on to DEADLY GREED: THE RIVETING STORY OF THE STUART MURDER CASE (Prentice, 1991), your book about the murder of Carol Stuart and her unborn child. What grabbed you about that case?

JS:     That case was a perfect example of how media can affect crime outcomes.

In 1989 Charles Stuart was a successful manager of a fur shop on toney Newbury Street in Boston, and his wife Carol was a tax attorney. They were young, not yet 30, living in an upscale suburban home. He was interested in opening a restaurant, but Carol wanted to start a family. She got pregnant and insisted she wanted to have the baby. Chuck was upset at first, but gradually seemed to warm to the idea. On the night of October 23rd, the couple had just begun to drive home from a childbirth preparation class at Brigham-Women’s Hospital in the Roxbury neighborhood of Boston when, Chuck later told police, a young black man forced his way into their car at a light, robbed them, shot his wife, and tried to kill him. Carol died almost immediately, and baby Christopher survived only 17 days in intensive care. Chuck required two surgeries and was hospitalized for many weeks.

The Roxbury neighborhood had been in the news recently and characterized as a crime-ridden black neighborhood. Chuck had cynically seized on that fact to blame the murder on a local black assailant and the police investigated the case accordingly. I hate to pound on the media, but my take was that the press and Boston cops set up an environment of racial hysteria. There was a theme: Boston was a dangerous place because of black crime. Media immediately framed the situation as “Young white suburban couple ambushed in dangerous city.” I got clobbered by the Boston media for saying that, but so be it.

You didn’t have to be a genius to figure out something was fishy. The neighborhood people, the police, and the hospital staff all knew that most street crime was black-on-black, and there were not a lot of white suburban couples wandering around Roxbury late at night.

It is common knowledge that when a wife is killed, the husband is nearly always investigated first. In this case Charles Stuart was lionized, made to sound like a hero. That really stuck in my craw. Charles’s brother Matthew had become unwittingly involved in getting rid of the murder weapon and other evidence, and he eventually turned his brother in to the police. Chuck jumped off a bridge and committed suicide to avoid being convicted of murder and sent to prison.

SK:    Your identification of a racial component in that story was prescient. Now in a world of Black Lives Murder and the aftermath of George Floyd’s murder, do you think the press would have handled the reporting differently?

JS:     Oh yeah. No question. Boston was an anomaly at the time Carol Stuart was killed. The Boston Globe, the established newspaper, and the Boston Herald, a scrappy tabloid, were fierce competitors. Everyone was scrambling to pound on that same racist narrative. The guy the cops initially arrested certainly wasn’t an angel, but he did not do that murder. Today’s Boston media is much different. They would have covered the case more carefully and in greater depth.

SK:    The setting for ABOVE SUSPICION (Open Road Integrated Media, 2017) was entirely different, set in eastern Kentucky. Did you spend much time there while you were writing the book?

JS:     I spent a lot of time there then, and again later during the filming of the Phillip Noyce movie based on the book.

To expand on your question, I spent enough time there to get a real feel for the atmosphere and to begin to know the people. The folks who live in these rural townships have had their natural resources exploited by outsiders for a hundred-plus years. As a result, they have become independent and fiercely individualistic, and they are delightful people when you get to know them. Their land is the site of the Hatfield-McCoy feud which set up that kind of violence-prone hillbilly stereotype. “If you need shootin’ they’ll shoot you.” I’m just kidding, but they would have said it that way.

SK:   So along comes Mark Putnam, a shiny new FBI agent, with his first assignment to take charge of the Pikeville, Kentucky coal town FBI office. How did that work out?

JS:     He was gung-ho, right out of the academy, a tightly wound boy scout, but unsupervised there and raw. The local police loved him. They saw he was willing to get his hands dirty and thought he was a great cop. His wife was Kathy Ponticelli Putnam who was an utterly honest, remarkable woman. She supported Mark every way she knew how.

His new assignment was to organize and manage this small-town rural office that primarily investigated bank robbery and fraud cases, or in collaboration with the Drug Enforcement Agency, big multistate drug operations. His job-specific training was all on the job.  He soon met Susan Smith, a local drug addict with an unsuccessful history with men and a willingness to serve as Mark’s paid informant, and she quickly became dependent on him. Not only was he her handler in the FBI, but he also became her lover. Kathy Putnam, unaware that Susan was her husband’s mistress, got to know her and they became quite close friends too.

One day Susan asked Mark to go for a drive. When they parked, she announced that she was pregnant with his child and would not agree to an abortion. Mark offered to raise the child with his wife. Susan refused and wanted Mark to leave his wife and marry her. She threatened to reveal their relationship to his wife and the FBI, destroying his career. The situation rapidly spun out of control, and he strangled her in the car. He had been the only man who ever treated her with respect—until he killed her.

SK:    Did he cover his tracks to avoid detection?

JS:     Not well. After he killed her, things got really weird. He stripped the body and put her in the trunk of his car. The next day he had meetings in Lexington, 120 miles away, and he kept her in the trunk until afterwards when he got back to Pikeville. He dumped her body into a remote ravine about 9 miles out of town. Coincidently, soon after, a strip mine bulldozer dumped a load of dirt over the spot where he had covered Susan. He thought  that the body would be found immediately, and his world would end. At first, nothing happened.

Pikeville is one of those places where somebody’s always around to watch the kids. Susan had two at the time, and a friend was taking care of them, and it wasn’t unheard of for her to leave town for a week or so. At first nobody thought much about her disappearance. In the meantime, Mark’s conscience was bothering him: Do you confess or keep your mouth shut and live with your horrible actions, not only saving your life but protecting your family?

He finally told Kathy. She became a woman whose life had just been blown up. “Look,” she said. “Right now, it’s just a missing person report. Without the body, they don’t have a case. We can live with this. You don’t have to confess.” But his conscience would not rest, and he did–to his FBI superiors and the police, and was tried and convicted of first degree murder and sentenced to 16 years in prison.

SK:    Do you think he was motivated to kill Susan by fear of discovery, or anger, or both?

JS:     In his confession he said he was horrified and terrified about Susan’s threat to expose him. He killed her in a fight. Susan was a fighter. He put his hands around her neck, he said just to control her, and somehow, she ended up dead. All I have is his story and that’s as good a story as we’re gonna get.

SK:    Did you stay in touch with Kathy after the trial?

JS:     Yes, I did. I spent a lot of time with her in person and on the phone where we had hours-long conversations. She loved the book. Mark liked it too. He thought it was fair.

SK:    I read somewhere that she had a serious drinking problem. Did you see signs of that?

JS:     It wasn’t clear to me at the time that she was drinking as heavily as she was. Her family notified me when she died at age 38, and I was stunned. If I have any regret, it is that we lost track of each other, and I was not there to be a better friend when she needed one.

SK:    I saw the movie recently and thought it was good. The scenery was so beautiful and the acting terrific. If I had one criticism, it would be that there was a lot of emphasis on the poor, rural, druggy character of the town. Would you have changed anything?

JS:     First I want to say how pleased I am with the film. I was fortunate to be invited to be a consultant on the movie. Director Phillip Noyce is well known for being meticulous about conveying a sense of place, and he spent a lot of time in Kentucky before and while the movie was being made. He got it exactly right. Chris Gerolmo wrote the screenplay, and that’s a tough job. You have 120 pages, triple-spaced, with wide margins to tell a complicated story. If everything I thought should have been in the film was in, the movie would have been nine hours long! You have two hours. Chris got all the important stuff said. Finally, the actors were amazing. Emilia Clark brought Susan Smith from the page to life. I only wish there had been more time to fill out the story of the friendship between Kathy Putnam, a middle-class girl from Connecticut, and Susan Smith, a poor coal miner’s daughter. COVID messed up our schedule, but the movie was finally out in limited released in May. It has basically become an Amazon Prime movie.

SK:    If you had another chance to work on a film, would you do it?

JS:     Definitely. I wish I had gotten involved in filmmaking when I was 35. On a movie shoot, you are surround by filmmaking masters who participate in a collaborative process. Not just directors and writers, but grips, photographers, boom operators, production assistants and a hundred more experts in their fields. The drawback to my doing much screenwriting is that there is a strong screenwriter’s guild, the union for screenwriters, and it’s hard to get in. In an old Steve Martin movie he says about Hollywood, “Out here they can smell 50.” I’m well past 50 and I know what he meant!

SK:    Let’s move backward a little to your book BEDLEM: GREED, PROFITEERING, AND FRAUD IN A MENTAL HEALTH SYSTEM GONE CRAZY (St. Martin’s Press, 1994). Why did you write it?

JS:     I had a personal interest because my father-in-law was a psychiatrist, a really good one. It was an investigative work. Nobody read it. In the 1980s asylums were closing. The idea was to transition to a community-based care system. Instead, personal community-oriented care was melted into hospital-based care. A for-profit, rapacious form of psychiatric care took over. Their marketing strategy roped in women and children to 30-day in-patient treatment that insurance plans paid for. Then the patients were dumped without follow-up support.

SK:    That sounds too much like the current system. Let me change directions here and ask you about the only novel you have written. You collaborated with Angela Amato to write LADY GOLD (St. Martin’s Press, 1999). How did that happen, and how did it go?

JS:     My friend Angela was a New York City detective, a real go-getter, a fireplug. In the late 1990s there was a move to bring the mafia down. For a year Angela was assigned to play the girlfriend to a player in the Gambino family. She did her part, but it went haywire. The witness protection status they were counting on didn’t come through. After that she quit the force. There were too many complications to write the case as a true crime. It was largely true but had to be fictionalized to make it publishable.

SK:    Would you collaborate again?

JS:     No. Angela was a gem, but I know enough about collaborations to know how often they go wrong. I was lucky with her and wouldn’t risk a less satisfying relationship with another writer.

SK:    Are you finishing WRECKAGE now? It looks like you are centered on one particular victim.

JS:     Yeah. I’m still working on it. The book centers on the Catholic Church’s child molestation scandal. I have a friend here in Arizona who works on death penalty investigations and worked on this one kid’s case. He was a battered 11-year-old boy in Boston whose aunt connected him as an alter boy with a priest there, Father Gagin, later known to have abused that child and many other boys. Immediately after those encounters the nephew sprang into a life of crime, including attempted murder. Sentenced to prison, he told the warden “You can put me with anybody in a cell, but if you put me with a child molester, I’ll kill him.” They did and he did. Two years later, the pattern repeated itself. My friend eventually got his client’s sentence reduced from death row to life in prison without a parole option.

The problem is how do you build a book about a character like that? I’m an old Catholic school boy from Philadelphia. “Wreckage” is an appropriate description of what is still happening. Nothing has been settled. Jimmy Breslin said, “Nobody leaves the Catholic Church.” You don’t ever get out.

SK:    I went to Catholic schools from first grade through twelfth, then I entered the convent and stayed for a week. I know what you mean! Now, changing subjects again, I know you taught journalism for some years in Arizona. How was that?

JS:     I enjoyed teaching journalism a lot. In recent years, though, I’ve begun to wonder if I was teaching 1986 skills that were no longer useful. Some of my friends here in Arizona worked for the New York Times and Boston Globe and the Washington Post. We often talk about those days, and it was great fun. We had a good run and rode the wave from the late ‘60s through the 1990s.

The kids now are bright, but they don’t read the newspaper.

SK:    I don’t like to hear that. Thank you so much for spending this time with me, Joe. I look forward to reading WRECKAGE [he laughs and murmurs ‘So do I’] and watching DEATH SENTENCE on the big screen.

LA Crime Queen, Joan Renner

Joan Renner, LA Writer and Historian

If Joan Renner had an official city title, it would be Queen of Noir and L.A. Crime History. She maintains a website, Deranged LA Crimes (derangedlacrimes.com) which is a treasure-trove of information contained in her wildly entertaining blog posts; an essay about Aggie Underwood, a nationally-recognized LA journalist who wrote about crime from 1931 until the late 1960s; and in a series of affordable Webinars about specific cases.

After retiring from a long administrative career at UCLA in 2008, she launched a second career that followed her heart’s desire, writing and lecturing about LA crime through a variety of media. In addition to her website, she has been a volunteer archivist for the LA Police Museum, is currently an archivist/historian for the LA County Sheriff’s Museum. During her time at the LA Police Museum, she was an assistant curator on an exhibit about the investigation of the unsolved 1947 “Black Dahlia” murder of Elizabeth Smart.

Renner has been featured as a crime expert on numerous television true crime series.

She is the author of THE FIRST WITH THE LATEST: AGGIE UNDERWOOD, THE L.A. HERALD, AND THE SORDID CRIMES OF A CITY, and provided editorial support for a book of LA crime photos, LAPD ’53, co-authored by well-known crime novelist James Ellroy and Glynn Martin, retired LAPD sergeant and previously the director of the LA Police Museum. Martin is currently executive director of the Los Angeles Police Memorial Foundation.

I interviewed her in June.

SK:    Hi Joan! Thanks for giving us this time. I’ll start at the beginning: How did you first become interested in true crime?

JR:    Actually, I’ve always been interested in crime. When I was a kid in Chicago—My brother and I were born there but our family later moved to LA—I read the newspapers. I didn’t always understand what was going on, but I read them anyway.

          When I was eight or nine a boy about my age went missing. He was found murdered shortly after. Then, about a month later, I read that his father had died. The story said he died from a broken heart. My kid brain just wasn’t capable of understanding how someone’s heart could break or how anyone could kill a little kid.

          Years later I did some research to see whether my memory of that event had been accurate. I was right that there had been an unsolved child murder, but it was three little boys, not one. They had been to a movie and were picked up by this guy, molested, and murdered. From then on in the back of my mind I knew that bad things could happen to you, and I always wanted to know why.

SK:    So then did you go on to study forensics or law enforcement?

JR:    No, my career took a whole different path. I’ve been lucky to have had a pretty long career as an administrative staff member at the University of California. I retired from UCLA in 2008.

          After that I had a few things I wanted to try doing and see where they led, and they sort of brought me to where I am now.  My lifelong interest in crime and mystery stories turned out to be a viable second career for me. That still surprises me!

          I’m definitely a frustrated detective. I would have loved to do that work but I don’t have the stomach. I think I could look at the sites, but I couldn’t stand the smells. I’d be the first one in the bushes losing her lunch and that’s where I’d stay. Newswoman Aggie Underwood’s daughter told me that once, returning from a crime scene, her mom burned up the clothes she had been wearing because she knew she’d never get the smell of death out of them.

SK:    What part of the crime-writing process is your favorite?

JR:    I love the research. I like creating the context. These things happen in a particular time and place that is unique to that moment. I go down that rabbit hole and sometimes can be gone for days.

SK:    Do you feel as if you are any closer now than when you were at age nine to understanding why people commit these heinous crimes?

JR:    No, I wish I could say I did. Well sometimes I do: The easy ones are the crimes of passion.  Everyone has thought at some time “I wish that person were dead,” but you don’t mean that you could actually kill them. I understand the impulse, I just don’t understand the act. The ones I find difficult or impossible to wrap my head around are the ones where people just kill for their own pleasure. I don’t understand that now and I don’t think I will ever get any closer.

SK:    I first encountered your writing when I read in your website archives about William Edward Hickman’s murder of 12-year-old Marion Parker in 1925. I had read about and researched hundreds of true crime cases and seen crime scene photos where the victims were small children, but I was the most horrified about Hickman’s vile treatment of that little girl’s body and how blasé he was about committing the crime.

JR:    I think with Hickman he was probably schizophrenic. He was about 19 years old, a typical age for the onset of that condition. Something was missing in him right from the start, but he was somehow able to conceal it.

          At that time– in the ‘20s and ‘30s– all over the country but especially around LA, there were a number of abominable child murders. In LA we have a history of people behaving badly. There are lots of stories to tell. For example, the rape/torture/murders Canadian-born Gordon Stewart Northcott committed in Wineville, CA—3 confirmed and 9 he confessed to– were so horrifying that the town changed its name to Mira Loma after the trial. The case was the subject of the movie Changeling, directed by Clint Eastwood.  

[Blogger Notes: Northcott tricked his cousin, 13-year-old Sanford Clark, into moving from northern Canada to the farm where the former raped and imprisoned Clark and forced him to participate in the murder of two little boys and to help Northcott destroy the bodies. Clark was eventually able to escape and convince the police of the crimes his cousin had committed. Northcott was convicted and sentenced to hang. Sanford subsequently joined the army, married, and had a family, and was uniformly well-regarded by all who knew him.

After his death, his son Jerry Clark, with author Anthony Flacco, wrote a book about the case and Sanford Clark’s life. The Road Out of Hell: Sanford Clark and the True Story of the Wineville Murders, published in 2009 by Diversion Publishing Inc.It is a book well worth reading.]

SK:    Backing up a little to William Hickman: He was executed at San Quentin when he was just 20 years old. Had he lived longer, do you think he would have killed again?

JR:    Absolutely. Remember that he had killed once before while he was pulling off a pharmacy robbery. He would never have stopped voluntarily. He had that sort of disconnect from other people’s suffering.

SK:    I noticed from your website that you have done a lot of t.v. work as a crime expert. You are sort of the LA “go to” lady when it comes to murder. How did that happen?

JR:    It was a happy accident. After I retired, I worked some for a couple who operated a series of LA tours. I did the crime bus tours. It used to be that a lot of people just went to Disneyland for entertainment. Today there is more “boutique tourism.” Oddly enough, most of the tourists on my buses are from southern California. On a bus they feel safe and can go places they wouldn’t otherwise feel safe going. One day the tour operators got a call from a T.V. producer who asked if they knew someone familiar with the Barbara Graham case. “Yes, Joan is,” they told him.

The producer of Deadly Women called me the next day. That was 10-12 years ago. We made a deal that I thought was a one-off thing. Then they called again about another case and soon other producers called too. After having a lifelong fear of public speaking, doing these shows really broke the spell.

          There have been opportunities for a lot of variety. I’ve done 40+ episodes of various network series including ID Discovery Channel Evil Twins, Evil Kin, Hell House, and Deadly Affairs. I appeared in a segment of Turner Classic Movies’ Film Fanatics about the noir genre. During the lockdown I did another episode of Deadly Women and some work with the National Geographic Channel about a gambling ship, the Monfalcone, that sunk off the Southern California coast in 1929.

You just never know what will come up next. I do them because they’re interesting and fun and I enjoy doing them. But if I never get another call, I’m okay with that too.

SK:   I have watched some of your Webinars too and enjoyed them very much. Do you manage the technology as well as the content for those?

JR:    Yes, I do. I developed a comfort level with technology at UC, so can make them multidimensional by using film clips and PowerPoint to supplement the photos and narrative. Those skills give me new and sometimes more effective ways to communicate. Now that the lockdown is over, I’m going to try to get back to producing more of those.

SK:    Has social media affected how you connect with your readers?

JR:    Yes. The connections are easier, and you reach people you wouldn’t otherwise have access to. Research is so much easier. I love Newspapers.com and Ancestry.com to find people.

          While technology has changed a lot, a good story is still a good story. My long-time friend novelist James Ellroy still doesn’t use a computer, but he sure does know how to tell a crime story! He writes all his manuscripts in longhand on yellow legal pads. He has an amazing work ethic and his most recent novel, Widespread Panic, has recently been released. LA’s oldest independent bookstore, Chevalier’s Books, sponsored Ellroypalooza on June 22nd [now available on You Tube] where three panelists familiar with his work—myself included—and James talked about his writing life. His mom was a famous unsolved LA murder case and his father died a few years later, so James was forced to kind of raise himself. He got into a little trouble as a teenager but then straightened himself around and decided what he really wanted to do is write. So, he has.

SK:    Speaking of writers, are you working on a book?

JR:    Yes! I recently signed with Kentucky University Press to write a book of true crime tales set in LA during the Prohibition era.

SK:    Are you still writing about Aggie Underwood? From your website you seem fascinated with her. Much of the true crime reader demographic is women, and I think they would be interested in her story.

JR:    I am fascinated by her and still writing about her. My progress has been slow partly because I am still in contact with some of her family members and I want to be very respectful of their privacy and sensitivities.

Aggie hadn’t started out wanting to be a reporter, and when she went to work for a newspaper, she always considered herself a general assignment reporter. She had a special instinct, though, for crime journalism and in a lot of ways she paved the way for other female reporters in LA.

Hers was not exclusively a women’s story though. I think it would resonate with men too. She was totally fearless. I mean I think she felt afraid sometimes, but she went ahead anyway. As a result, she was liked and well-respected by law enforcement. More than once, the famous radio commentator Walter Winchell talked about her, and she got a couple mentions in Time Magazine.

          The crimes I write about attract all kinds of people, not just women. I get people interested in history or psychology or sociology. For decades true crime was a guilty pleasure. I think it was because a lot of it was badly written. Today it’s so much more than that. It is informative contemporary history that illuminates a time and place you might not know about otherwise.

SK:    I bet a lot of Aggie’s success as a journalist was helped by her close relationship with the police. I know you have worked at both the LA County Sheriff’s Museum and the LA Police Museum. What kind of relationship do you have with LA law enforcement?

JR:    I have a good relationship with the LA police and sheriff’s department. My friend Mike is the curator of the Sheriff’s Museum and was a custody assistant at the LA County jails. In LA the retirees go to lunch once a month at an old-style steakhouse. Mike invited me to go with him to one and I did. I’ve gone to pretty much every one since.

          The detectives were all really polite and nice. Most were men, although there were a few women too. I could tell they were all giving me the beady cop eye at first, and I knew it was going to be some time before I was really accepted. That’s just who they are.

          It went on like that for a while and then at one lunch I made a comment about something, and they just jumped all over me. They eviscerated me. I thought “Now I feel like I’m one of the guys.” On the way out Mike asked, “Are you okay?” I said “Are you kidding? That was just like having dinner at my parents’ house when I was a kid.” Not only was I okay, I felt humbled and honored.

I’ve since become good friends with some of the investigators. Frank Salerno and Gil Carrillo of the LA County Sheriff’s Department were the lead investigators in the Night Stalker/Richard Ramirez case. They were such good investigators and are such decent men. Salerno was experienced and well-regarded; he had also led the Hillside Strangler investigation. Carrillo was fairly new to the Homicide Bureau. At first, some detectives doubted his theories, but eventually he gained their trust and he and Frank solved the case. Netflix produced a docuseries “Night Stalker: The Hunt for a Serial Killer.” Ramirez actually took a back seat in the series, which was much more about the investigation. Gil’s wife Pearl appeared in the series and did a great job describing what it was like for her family during the investigation.

Cops are the best storytellers! I just sit back and soak it in. They don’t have to make up a thing. The truth is enough.

SK:    Now for the question I ask all the authors I interview: Why do you think women today are so obsessed with true crime?

JR:    I think people in general have always been fascinated by crime and bad behavior. They want to compare themselves with the perpetrators, measure themselves against them. Am I capable of doing that? How are they different? How are they like me?

The interest is just more obvious now because there are so many venues for it. But there is an incredibly old oral tradition of folk songs about murder and crime dating back for centuries. [Blogger Note: See the Wikipedia entry for Murder Ballads.] And then the broadsheets—the original “serious” newspapers—covered those cases.

In terms of women’s particular interest, I think they want to figure out how to avoid becoming prey, but most of us are raised to be people-pleasers. A guy may be doing something that makes us uncomfortable, but at the same time we are afraid of saying something that might hurt his feelings. While we’re doing that, by following true crime we are reading about or watching a vulnerable woman do what we might do in the same situation. “Don’t go into that room,” we think.

SK:    Before you cry out for mercy, I think I ought to wrap this up! What are you doing now?

JR:    I just finished a piece, “The Wages of Sin,” for an anthology Partners in Crime edited by Mitzi Szereto. The story I wrote is about a case that happened in 1918. Looking back, it seems like we haven’t changed that much– which is sometimes discouraging, sometimes hopeful.

SK:    Thank you Joan. I have loved talking with you! I’m dying 😊 to see what you write next.


Krauseneck Ax Murder Update And More

Cathy and Jim Krauseneck with baby daughter Sara, circa 1979-80

Krauseneck Case Update

See the website http://www.krausneck.com for a more complete history of the case. That site is produced by journalists Nancy Monaghan and Laurie Bennett who are writing a book about the case. Also, I have written articles about the case and Nancy Monaghan’s involvement in writing about it which are available at the Archive here. The posts are dated June 22, 2020 and April 5, 2021.

James Krauseneck’s arrest–37 years after the crime was committed– for his wife’s 1982 ax murder continues to wind its way through the New York State court system. Krauseneck was indicted on one count of first degree murder by a county grand jury late in 2019 based on evidence gleaned from an FBI cold case review and the contents of 2018 interviews with Krauseneck and his daughter, Sara K. Young. He was released on bail following his arrest and returned to his home in Arizona. A trial date originally set for January 2021 was postponed due to Covid.

In June 2021, New York State Supreme Court 7th District Judge Charles Schiano Jr. heard four days of pre-trial motions made by James Krauseneck’s defense attorneys, Michael Wolford and William Easton, and expert witness testimony presented by the Monroe County District Attorney’s Office. Defense motions have argued that the Brighton Police department failed to investigate suspects other than Jim Krauseneck, presented their own expert testimony conflicting with a prosecution expert’s testimony about the time of death, and have argued that the prosecution cannot produce new evidence that was unavailable when the crime was committed, asking that the case therefore be dismissed. Prosecution witnesses rebutted defense claims. Presiding Judge Schiano is currently reviewing those motions and the additional witnesses’ testimony.

Before a trial date can be scheduled, the judge will hold one final proceeding, a Huntley Hearing, to consider the legal admissibility of some statements that were not made in a courtroom. The Hearing is expected to be held later this month.

In summary, here are some of my own unanswered questions: If Krauseneck returned from work at 5 p.m. as he testified, why did it take him an hour to carry his toddler daughter across the street at about 6 p.m., as his neighbor told detectives at the time, to ask her to call police? Why didn’t he or his family members maintain contact with Brighton police about the status of the investigation? Doesn’t it seem unusual that he closed the family dog (who was not heard by neighbors to bark during the crime) in the basement before he left for work? Why would anyone expect Sara Krauseneck Young to ever think her father– the parent who raised her from age 4 and selected all the information she ever heard about her mother’s murder– might be guilty of the crime? I’ll save the rest of my questions until the legal proceedings have concluded!

True Crime Mama Site Changes

If you are a long-time follower, the posts you may have seen in the last few days may seem familiars. If so, you are not losing your mind! –I am re-arranging the site by subject categories and have changed some titles to better reflect their content. Thanks so much for reading!

I want to increase my readship and encourage readers to stay on the site longer, so I will be adding some different types of content–like book reviews of true crime works and more digital video content– in coming weeks.

Stay tuned, and please encourage people you know who may be interested to check out the site and become a Follower. I am actively seeking a book publisher now and understand that a vibrant social media presence will help me with that. Stay well, get vaccinated, and keep reading everything, everywhere!