True Crime and Justice: Joe Sharkey

 

DEATH SENTENCE, written by Joe Sharkey, is one of the best true crime books I have ever read, and 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, 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.

.


Why Murder Fascinates Women: Rachel Monroe

Rachel Monroe is a freelance writer and volunteer firefighter who lives in Marfa, Texas. In 2019 Simon and Schuster published her first book, Savage Appetites: True Stories of Women, Crime, and Obsession. It was named Best Book of 2019 by Esquire and received Honorable Mention for the Chicago Tribune’s Best Books of 2019. An NPR review described the book as “Necessary and brilliant.”

Monroe writes about diverse topics; her articles have appeared in The Best American Travel Writing 2018, the New Yorker, the Atlantic, the New York Times, and the New York Times Magazine.

She generously agreed to be interviewed on June 15, 2021:

SK:  Thank you so much for your time, Rachel. I love your book Savage Appetites. It is the analytical book about true crime readers that I have long hoped someone would write. What precipitated your writing it?

RM:  It began with my own interest. As an adolescent I used to sneak my mother’s copies of People– not to read about celebrities, but about murders. It was the language of love between my mother and me, a subject that deserves its own kind of analysis.

As I got older, I saw that this interest was not mine alone. Many women shared it. I wanted to know why.

SK:   You centered your book around four women who were obsessed with crime, each representing a category of enthusiast: Detective, Victim, Crusader/Defender, and Killer. Did you choose the categories first, or begin with the women?

RM:  Actually, it was a little of both. For 10 years I’ve been collecting stories about women who followed crimes they had no direct connection with. I began to realize through my research that women had different motives for their obsessions. They weren’t all attracted by the same thing.

 My perspective in reading true crime also shifted depending on what was going on in my own life. Sometimes I wanted to solve the crime, other times I identified with the victim. Some cases just demanded advocacy. Less often I focused on the killer. I wanted to know what motivated him (it was always “him”).

SK:   In the book, talking about Frances Glessner Lee’s collection of miniature crime scenes, the Nutshell Cases of Unexplained Death, you said “I like things that are small and things that are macabre; those interests don’t usually overlap.” That statement stunned me briefly. This spring I posted a piece on my blog site about the Nutshell Cases, and I said at the time that they combined two of my favorite things: miniatures and murder. So, you see, you are not alone in that! Maybe there is some unconscious connection between the two?

RM: That’s interesting. I saw the Nutshells in person and something in me relaxed there in the room with them. There is an accuracy and precision in most miniatures that is deeply satisfying. Glessner-Lee’s tiny scenes, however, destabilize that sense of comfort. Among the perfect little tables and lamps and carpets and bedsteads are murder victims, blood, disorder. Domesticity is undergirded with malice.  Regardless, I felt that those mysteries were on a scale that I could handle. –Maybe if I examined them closely enough, I could figure out what happened and why.

SK:   You make me think of your whimsical comparison between your own true crime obsession and Harriet the Spy, the children’s book character, who has a passion to know “everything in the world, everything, everything.”

RM:  That may be the wish, but in reality, we have to consider our blind spots and biases and the facts we will never have access to. We may never find the answer to “why.” There is another aspect to women’s obsession with these crimes. CrimeCon is a national weekend conference sponsored by the television network Oxygen. Not surprisingly, most attendees are women like me. As we listen to presentations by detectives and forensics experts and psychologists, watch the video clips, and participate in the “victim” exercises, we are not there—as many experts hypothesize– to learn how not to become victims while maintaining a safe distance from real danger. We find pleasure in these dark accounts of kidnappings and torture chambers. You can tell by the way we describe the experience in the language of appetite, bingeing, and obsession.

SK:   I remember that part in the book. Let me find it… You end the paragraph with “A different, more alarming hypothesis was the one I tended to prefer: perhaps we liked creepy stories because something creepy was in us.” I don’t like to face it, but I think you are probably right about that.

 RM: Another fact about the conference: None of the cases were about the people who are proportionately more at risk of homicide, like sex workers, young men of color, trans women. Most stories were about white women, most of them middle class mothers.

SK:   Race seems to matter in murder as it does in everything else in America. I used to wonder why there were no black serial killers, but now I realize that they are perhaps just not covered the way white victims and perpetrators are. It seems to me, though, that I just read somewhere that the most prolific serial killer in the U.S. was a black man.

RM:  You are right. His name was Samuel Little. He confessed to killing 90 victims, although, like some other serial killers, he may be inflating that number. His victims were not so visible because he chose people whose absence was less likely to be noticed or reported, like sex workers.

The definition of “victim” is socially determined, and it changes over time. Black and brown people and the violence done to them is considered political and so undercounted statistically in homicide cases, at least those with no obvious motive.

SK:   Are black and brown victims featured more openly and with more sensitivity since the murder of George Floyd and the prominence of Black Lives Matter?

RM:  I think they will be, and similarly I think the #MeToo movement has increased awareness of women who have been treated less sensitively in the past as well.

SK:   I could interview you all day, but I think our time is up. Just one final question: Is there another book in your future?

RM:  Yes, there is, but I am not ready to talk about the details yet.

SK:   I’ve enjoyed your journalism on many subjects besides true crime, so whatever you write next, I’ll be eager to read!

Nancy Monaghan: Fascinated with Crime and the Law

Journalist and editor Nancy Monaghan

Background

Journalist and editor Nancy Monaghan discusses her career in journalism and how and why she began writing the story of the 1982 Cathleen Krauseneck ax murder.

Nancy and her colleague Laurie Bennett were once reporters who wrote about crime for two competing newspapers in Rochester, New York. They covered Krauseneck’s shocking murder, a case that gripped the Rochester area and made national headlines.

In the early evening of February 19, 1982 in the Rochester, New York suburb of Brighton, 29-year-old Cathy Krauseneck was discovered at home dead with an ax in her head. Her 3 ½-year-old daughter Sara had been alone all day with her mother’s corpse. Cathy’s husband Jim, an economist for Eastman Kodak Company headquartered in Rochester, reported discovering his wife’s body when he came home from work just before 5 p.m. He told police his wife and daughter had been asleep when he left for work that morning about 6:30. While he spoke with investigators at police headquarters immediately after his wife was discovered, he did not appear as  promised at the Brighton Town Hall the following morning to continue their conversation. His parents had driven from their home in Mt. Clemens MI the night before. They took their son and granddaughter back with them to Michigan. Jim hired a Rochester criminal lawyer to represent him, and neither he nor his daughter spoke again to investigators for many years. Without enough evidence to charge anyone, no arrest was made.

The case grew cold for 37 years. Then in 2019 a Monroe County NY Grand Jury indicted Jim Krauseneck for the murder of his wife. Monaghan and Bennett have resurrected their research and are currently writing a book about the case. Krauseneck is currently out on bail and awaiting trial at his home in Arizona.

An Interview with Nancy Monaghan

SK: Hi, Nancy! Thank you so much for taking the time to talk about the Krauseneck murder case. I understand that Jim Krauseneck’s Covid-postponed pre-trial hearings are under way and that his trial date may soon be set. You and your fellow journalist Laurie Bennett are collaborating on a book about the case and have done a lot of work coming up to the trial, is that right?

NM: Yes, we have. Laurie has done most of the case reporting and has reams of information, and I’ve done a variety of interviews and background research. Between us, we’ve interviewed many of the original players in the case and have extensive details about the investigation, but we can’t finish the book until the trial is over. The next court hearing is scheduled for June, but I don’t hold out much hope that the trial will be scheduled any time soon. So many cases have been postponed due to Covid.

SK: How did you first become interested in writing about murder?

NM: Besides the fact this story has so many fascinating aspects, my initial interest began well before the Krauseneck case. In the 1970s I worked as a legal secretary for the U.S. Attorney’s Office. I was really interested in law more than crime, and writing had always been a passion. I worked my way into journalism starting at a weekly newspaper helping out as a volunteer covering night meetings.After more than a year writing stories and features for the paper, then known as City East, I was hired as the paper’s first staff reporter.

At that time Rochester had two daily newspapers owned by the Gannett Company, the morning Democrat and Chronicle and the afternoon Times-Union. After four years at City East I applied to the D&C and was hired, then after three months was assigned to the court beat, which I covered for more than four years. Both Laurie and I have covered all sorts of criminal court cases, including murders. In 1981 I was promoted to Day Metro Editor, and then  I became the first female Metro Editor. Those were interesting days for local journalists: A Mafia war was raging, which I covered as a reporter, and then in early 1982 the Krauseneck case happened and was big news for months. Laurie was the court reporter for our competitor, the Times-Union, so of course we knew each other well. She did some of that early reporting on the Krauseneck case and much much more in the years that followed. I was Metro Editor when Cathy Krauseneck was killed, and I’m sorry to say Laurie’s paper was beating us pretty badly on developments. In July 1982 I left the D&C to join the start-up team for USA Today

Laurie moved from Rochester and took a job in Michigan with The Detroit News and later, the Detroit Free Press. While she was in Detroit, near the Krauseneck family home in Mt. Clemens, she did substantial reporting on the case and got to know Cathy’s family members. Along the way, she knew the details of the case would make a rich foundation for a book. 

By 2015 we had both retired from the newspaper business. Laurie called me out of the blue and asked whether I would be interested in collaborating on a book about the Krauseneck case. I didn’t hesitate for an instant before saying yes. The connections between us from so long ago and between us and many of the people involved in the case at the time on a story like this are impossible to pass up.

SK: What prompted her interest then?

The case had gnawed at the Brighton Police Department for more than 30 years, starting with Eugene Shaw who was the police chief when it happened in 1982. He told Laurie shortly before his death in 1993 that he had suspected Jim Krauseneck early in the investigation, but there was not enough evidence to present to a grand jury. Homicide cases never close until they are solved, and he hoped for a future confession or more evidence. Shaw was tortured by the case for the rest of his career.

In 2015 Police Chief Mark Henderson requested the assistance of the FBI Cold Case Unit to re-evaluate the case history, to look at it with fresh eyes and current forensic tools. The Cold Case Team did an extensive review of every aspect of the considerable file, and a decision was made to take the case to the grand jury. 

SK: I have read that Michael Baden, former medical examiner for New York City, will testify for the defense. Tell me about that.

NM: I am currently researching a chapter about Dr. Baden for the book. Baden is a nationally known pathologist who was chief medical examiner in New York City and later was medical examiner for the New York State Police. But he has also been at the center of some controversial cases. He testified for the defense in the O.J. Simpson case and disagreed with the Los Angeles medical examiner on some key issues – namely the timing of the deaths.  He was also a consultant in the murder investigations of Martin Luther King Jr. and Medgar Evers. More recently he was engaged by Jeffrey Epstein’s brother and gave evidence suggesting that Epstein may have been strangled while he was in prison in Manhattan, despite an official finding that he committed suicide.

SK: Is there enough substance in the Krauseneck case for a book? Can you write it if Jim Krauseneck is found not guilty?

NM: The book will be important whether Jim is convicted or not. The verdict will determine the theme of the story. Laurie is following the specifics of the case while I am writing about the broader issues: How do expert witnesses like Dr. Baden affect the trial outcome? Do ax murderers have common characteristics? There are different legal standards in states that can also affect outcomes? This has always been what is called a circumstantial case, with no “smoking gun” so to speak pointing directly at Jim Krauseneck. In New York State, for example, there are certain legal requirements the prosecutor must meet to overcome the possibility someone other than the defendant on trial committed the crime.  For people like Laurie and me, who love trials as intricacies and surprises of a case unfold in a courtroom, this is going to be one interesting trial.

SK You make me very excited to read your book! How can readers keep up with your progress investigating the case?

NM: We have a website with a lot of background information about the Krauseneck murder. It will be updated as the case progresses. It is online at www.krauseneck.com.

SK: I will follow the website and look forward to seeing your progress with the case; Maybe 2021 will be a year of resolution and will finally bring some peace to Cathy’s family. The best of luck, Nancy!

Steven B. Epstein Talks About Seminole Lake

The Author

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.

Available on Amazon, Barnes & Noble, directly through the publisher, Black Lyon Publishing, or through your local bookseller.

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!