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!