DEATH SENTENCE, written by Joe Sharkey, is one of the best true crime books I ever read. I have read hundreds. He began his writing career as a journalist with the Wall Street Journal and was a columnist for 19 years at the New York Times. He does not consider himself a true crime writer despite having written three nonfiction books about crime. In the three cases he has written about, his interest has been in justice and how law enforcement succeeds or fails to carry it to the courts. I believe he is an investigative journalist in his soul, and sometimes a righteously angry one.
In addition to three nonfiction crime books (see also DEADLY GREED and ABOVE SUSPICION), he has written BEDLAM (St. Martin’s Press,1994), about changes in the mental health delivery system made in the 1990s with tragic results, and is currently finishing WRECKAGE, which examines–through the perspective of one case– the Catholic Church’s coverup of priests’ child molestations. Sharkey co-authored the detective novel LADY GOLD (St. Martin’s Press, 1999) with Angela Amato. He is also in the final stages of writing a screen play about the John List family murder case. Retired now and living in Arizona, Sharkey taught journalism there for several years. He graciously allowed me to interview him in June.
SK: Hi Joe! Thanks so much for speaking with me today. DEATH SENTENCE (Penguin, 1990) is one of my favorite true crime books; my son gave it to me for my birthday a few years ago and I’ve read it several times. When and why did you first become interested in writing about crime?
JS: I don’t really think of myself as a true crime writer. I haven’t read much of it, and the three cases when I wrote about it each appealed to me for different reasons. At the time John List [DEATH SENTENCE] murdered his whole family in 1971 in New Jersey, I lived in New Jersey not far from Westfield where the crimes took place.
List was supposedly quite religious and perceived as a “buttoned down” type until–without warning– he murdered his wife, his three teenaged children, and his mother in one brutal spree. Then he high tailed it out of town and created a new life for himself. He lived and remarried in relative obscurity for 18 years until he was finally caught. The case just fascinated me: How did he get away with it for so long? He had left the bodies in the ballroom of his home, and they were not discovered for nearly a month. This was probably one of the last moments in America when you could get away with something like that.
SK: How DID he manage it?
JS: He was smart enough to do all the basic things you need to do to start a new life. He fled cross country to Denver immediately after committing the crime. He changed his name to Robert P. Clark and got a new social security number. Then he very carefully kept his head down, avoided attracting attention, and constructed a new life based on the true but misleading narrative that he was a widower.
SK: Were there other things about the case that drew you in?
JS: Absolutely. I was horrified by the very act and felt that the only way to tell the story was to plunge in and travel his path to see how this guy built his life and eventually got caught. Other reporters focused on the murders without offering much in the way of context.
John List had a 16-year-old daughter, Patty, whom he considered a rebel. You and I wouldn’t have thought of her that way. She was a typical 1971 kid, maybe a little mouthy sometimes but her main “flaw” was that she didn’t fit List’s idea of what a proper young religious girl ought to be. She probably smoked a little pot and she had friends who were in amateur theater with her. She was the one I think who drove him to this horrible act, although there were other circumstances that accounted for it. Whenever this kid came in the door, she brought the ‘60s with her, a national period of social change and rebellion that he just could not tolerate.
SK: His wife was not actively involved with her family toward the end, was she?
JS: No, she was ambulatory but sickly and spent much of her time in bed, and Patty picked up the slack with running the household. Helen List had been formerly married to a Korean War veteran who died. Unknowingly he had given her syphilis, and she was in the final stages of that disease. When List found out, he was enraged but refused to leave Helen.
SK: Who were you able to interview while you were researching the book?
JS: I interviewed most of the people involved who were still alive, including Helen’s sister and brother-in-law and many of the friends he made in Denver who had no idea of what he had done at the time. I interviewed the kids in Westfield who knew Patty through the drama club, and her mentor, Ed Illiano, who directed the group. He said Patty had told him her father said he was going to kill her. Illiano told her, “Yeah but all parents say that at some point. They don’t really mean it.” It turned out that List had been quite serious.
Those people—the kids, Illiano, and another teacher Barbara Sheridan, were key to discovering the bodies in that decrepit mansion, almost a month after the murders.
SK: Did you interview his second wife, Delores Miller Clark?
JS: As a reporter you have to knock on doors and talk to people as sensitively as possible. I went to Delores’s house. List—now Robert P. Clark– had met this woman at church, and she was totally innocent and knew nothing about John’s life before he arrived in the west. Her world collapsed when he was arrested. She wouldn’t talk to me. I had a sense of a very stricken woman. She was one of the victims in this awful case.
SK: I read that you are working on a screenplay about the case. True?
JS: Yeah. True crime has become a really difficult subject to write about thoughtfully today because there is so much quickly written, inadequately researched stuff out there. I find it almost impossible to work in that genre these days. The List case fascinated me because of the kids and the connection with the ‘60s and ‘70s era. The conflict is between two eras: John was a politically and socially conservative World War II veteran. His children, on the other hand, were products of the looser social mores of the ‘60s and ‘70s, the music of the Beatles, the Vietnam War, and so on. I want to get the conflict exactly right in this screenplay.
SK: List himself wrote a pathetic attempt to exonerate himself, an unedited self-serving book COLLATERAL DAMAGE, with another peculiar man, Austin Goodrich. List self-published the book. Have you read it?
JS: No. Austin Goodrich had his own interesting story. He was a C.I.A. spy posing as a journalist during World War II. You know, of course, that murderers develop “fans.” It is not uncommon for people to become pals with murderers. Goodrich visited List in prison. They developed a relationship based on commonalities. They both grew up in Michigan, served in the army at the same time, and went to the same college. Goodrich convinced List that the murders were the result of PTSD. I looked into his military record and his service was a kind of mop-up operation at the end of the world. His claim of PTSD was utterly ridiculous.
The police chief in Westfield said when he got to the scene, he was completely baffled about why John List felt he had to kill his family. He could have just left. They wouldn’t have starved. Things might have been hard, but they’d still be alive.
SK: I feel as if there are more of these whole-family murder cases in recent decades. There are so many that sadly, there’s a name for them now, “Family Annihilation.” Green Beret surgeon Jeff MacDonald killed his pregnant wife and two daughters in North Carolina in 1970. In 2002 Scott Peterson killed his pregnant wife in California. Chris Watts killed his wife and two daughters in Colorado in 2018, and the next year, 2019, Tony Todt killed his wife, three children, and the family dog in Celebration Florida, a Disney-designed community. If any of the perpetrators had given their victims a choice—I’ll leave or you die—I can’t imagine that any would have chosen death.
JR: How absurd is that? There is no way you can understand that kind of insanity. It makes me furious. In a new epilogue I wrote for DEATH SENTENCE, I ended with a quote from the famous African American comedian Moms Mabley: “They say you shouldn’t say nothin’ about the dead unless it’s good. He’s dead. Good.” And I meant it.
SK: Readers will have to buy DEATH SENTENCE to get the rest of the story, because now we are moving on to DEADLY GREED: THE RIVETING STORY OF THE STUART MURDER CASE (Prentice, 1991), your book about the murder of Carol Stuart and her unborn child. What grabbed you about that case?
JS: That case was a perfect example of how media can affect crime outcomes.
In 1989 Charles Stuart was a successful manager of a fur shop on toney Newbury Street in Boston, and his wife Carol was a tax attorney. They were young, not yet 30, living in an upscale suburban home. He was interested in opening a restaurant, but Carol wanted to start a family. She got pregnant and insisted she wanted to have the baby. Chuck was upset at first, but gradually seemed to warm to the idea. On the night of October 23rd, the couple had just begun to drive home from a childbirth preparation class at Brigham-Women’s Hospital in the Roxbury neighborhood of Boston when, Chuck later told police, a young black man forced his way into their car at a light, robbed them, shot his wife, and tried to kill him. Carol died almost immediately, and baby Christopher survived only 17 days in intensive care. Chuck required two surgeries and was hospitalized for many weeks.
The Roxbury neighborhood had been in the news recently and characterized as a crime-ridden black neighborhood. Chuck had cynically seized on that fact to blame the murder on a local black assailant and the police investigated the case accordingly. I hate to pound on the media, but my take was that the press and Boston cops set up an environment of racial hysteria. There was a theme: Boston was a dangerous place because of black crime. Media immediately framed the situation as “Young white suburban couple ambushed in dangerous city.” I got clobbered by the Boston media for saying that, but so be it.
You didn’t have to be a genius to figure out something was fishy. The neighborhood people, the police, and the hospital staff all knew that most street crime was black-on-black, and there were not a lot of white suburban couples wandering around Roxbury late at night.
It is common knowledge that when a wife is killed, the husband is nearly always investigated first. In this case Charles Stuart was lionized, made to sound like a hero. That really stuck in my craw. Charles’s brother Matthew had become unwittingly involved in getting rid of the murder weapon and other evidence, and he eventually turned his brother in to the police. Chuck jumped off a bridge and committed suicide to avoid being convicted of murder and sent to prison.
SK: Your identification of a racial component in that story was prescient. Now in a world of Black Lives Murder and the aftermath of George Floyd’s murder, do you think the press would have handled the reporting differently?
JS: Oh yeah. No question. Boston was an anomaly at the time Carol Stuart was killed. The Boston Globe, the established newspaper, and the Boston Herald, a scrappy tabloid, were fierce competitors. Everyone was scrambling to pound on that same racist narrative. The guy the cops initially arrested certainly wasn’t an angel, but he did not do that murder. Today’s Boston media is much different. They would have covered the case more carefully and in greater depth.
SK: The setting for ABOVE SUSPICION (Open Road Integrated Media, 2017) was entirely different, set in eastern Kentucky. Did you spend much time there while you were writing the book?
JS: I spent a lot of time there then, and again later during the filming of the Phillip Noyce movie based on the book.
To expand on your question, I spent enough time there to get a real feel for the atmosphere and to begin to know the people. The folks who live in these rural townships have had their natural resources exploited by outsiders for a hundred-plus years. As a result, they have become independent and fiercely individualistic, and they are delightful people when you get to know them. Their land is the site of the Hatfield-McCoy feud which set up that kind of violence-prone hillbilly stereotype. “If you need shootin’ they’ll shoot you.” I’m just kidding, but they would have said it that way.
SK: So along comes Mark Putnam, a shiny new FBI agent, with his first assignment to take charge of the Pikeville, Kentucky coal town FBI office. How did that work out?
JS: He was gung-ho, right out of the academy, a tightly wound boy scout, but unsupervised there and raw. The local police loved him. They saw he was willing to get his hands dirty and thought he was a great cop. His wife was Kathy Ponticelli Putnam who was an utterly honest, remarkable woman. She supported Mark every way she knew how.
His new assignment was to organize and manage this small-town rural office that primarily investigated bank robbery and fraud cases, or in collaboration with the Drug Enforcement Agency, big multistate drug operations. His job-specific training was all on the job. He soon met Susan Smith, a local drug addict with an unsuccessful history with men and a willingness to serve as Mark’s paid informant, and she quickly became dependent on him. Not only was he her handler in the FBI, but he also became her lover. Kathy Putnam, unaware that Susan was her husband’s mistress, got to know her and they became quite close friends too.
One day Susan asked Mark to go for a drive. When they parked, she announced that she was pregnant with his child and would not agree to an abortion. Mark offered to raise the child with his wife. Susan refused and wanted Mark to leave his wife and marry her. She threatened to reveal their relationship to his wife and the FBI, destroying his career. The situation rapidly spun out of control, and he strangled her in the car. He had been the only man who ever treated her with respect—until he killed her.
SK: Did he cover his tracks to avoid detection?
JS: Not well. After he killed her, things got really weird. He stripped the body and put her in the trunk of his car. The next day he had meetings in Lexington, 120 miles away, and he kept her in the trunk until afterwards when he got back to Pikeville. He dumped her body into a remote ravine about 9 miles out of town. Coincidently, soon after, a strip mine bulldozer dumped a load of dirt over the spot where he had covered Susan. He thought that the body would be found immediately, and his world would end. At first, nothing happened.
Pikeville is one of those places where somebody’s always around to watch the kids. Susan had two at the time, and a friend was taking care of them, and it wasn’t unheard of for her to leave town for a week or so. At first nobody thought much about her disappearance. In the meantime, Mark’s conscience was bothering him: Do you confess or keep your mouth shut and live with your horrible actions, not only saving your life but protecting your family?
He finally told Kathy. She became a woman whose life had just been blown up. “Look,” she said. “Right now, it’s just a missing person report. Without the body, they don’t have a case. We can live with this. You don’t have to confess.” But his conscience would not rest, and he did–to his FBI superiors and the police, and was tried and convicted of first degree murder and sentenced to 16 years in prison.
SK: Do you think he was motivated to kill Susan by fear of discovery, or anger, or both?
JS: In his confession he said he was horrified and terrified about Susan’s threat to expose him. He killed her in a fight. Susan was a fighter. He put his hands around her neck, he said just to control her, and somehow, she ended up dead. All I have is his story and that’s as good a story as we’re gonna get.
SK: Did you stay in touch with Kathy after the trial?
JS: Yes, I did. I spent a lot of time with her in person and on the phone where we had hours-long conversations. She loved the book. Mark liked it too. He thought it was fair.
SK: I read somewhere that she had a serious drinking problem. Did you see signs of that?
JS: It wasn’t clear to me at the time that she was drinking as heavily as she was. Her family notified me when she died at age 38, and I was stunned. If I have any regret, it is that we lost track of each other, and I was not there to be a better friend when she needed one.
SK: I saw the movie recently and thought it was good. The scenery was so beautiful and the acting terrific. If I had one criticism, it would be that there was a lot of emphasis on the poor, rural, druggy character of the town. Would you have changed anything?
JS: First I want to say how pleased I am with the film. I was fortunate to be invited to be a consultant on the movie. Director Phillip Noyce is well known for being meticulous about conveying a sense of place, and he spent a lot of time in Kentucky before and while the movie was being made. He got it exactly right. Chris Gerolmo wrote the screenplay, and that’s a tough job. You have 120 pages, triple-spaced, with wide margins to tell a complicated story. If everything I thought should have been in the film was in, the movie would have been nine hours long! You have two hours. Chris got all the important stuff said. Finally, the actors were amazing. Emilia Clark brought Susan Smith from the page to life. I only wish there had been more time to fill out the story of the friendship between Kathy Putnam, a middle-class girl from Connecticut, and Susan Smith, a poor coal miner’s daughter. COVID messed up our schedule, but the movie was finally out in limited released in May. It has basically become an Amazon Prime movie.
SK: If you had another chance to work on a film, would you do it?
JS: Definitely. I wish I had gotten involved in filmmaking when I was 35. On a movie shoot, you are surround by filmmaking masters who participate in a collaborative process. Not just directors and writers, but grips, photographers, boom operators, production assistants and a hundred more experts in their fields. The drawback to my doing much screenwriting is that there is a strong screenwriter’s guild, the union for screenwriters, and it’s hard to get in. In an old Steve Martin movie he says about Hollywood, “Out here they can smell 50.” I’m well past 50 and I know what he meant!
SK: Let’s move backward a little to your book BEDLEM: GREED, PROFITEERING, AND FRAUD IN A MENTAL HEALTH SYSTEM GONE CRAZY (St. Martin’s Press, 1994). Why did you write it?
JS: I had a personal interest because my father-in-law was a psychiatrist, a really good one. It was an investigative work. Nobody read it. In the 1980s asylums were closing. The idea was to transition to a community-based care system. Instead, personal community-oriented care was melted into hospital-based care. A for-profit, rapacious form of psychiatric care took over. Their marketing strategy roped in women and children to 30-day in-patient treatment that insurance plans paid for. Then the patients were dumped without follow-up support.
SK: That sounds too much like the current system. Let me change directions here and ask you about the only novel you have written. You collaborated with Angela Amato to write LADY GOLD (St. Martin’s Press, 1999). How did that happen, and how did it go?
JS: My friend Angela was a New York City detective, a real go-getter, a fireplug. In the late 1990s there was a move to bring the mafia down. For a year Angela was assigned to play the girlfriend to a player in the Gambino family. She did her part, but it went haywire. The witness protection status they were counting on didn’t come through. After that she quit the force. There were too many complications to write the case as a true crime. It was largely true but had to be fictionalized to make it publishable.
SK: Would you collaborate again?
JS: No. Angela was a gem, but I know enough about collaborations to know how often they go wrong. I was lucky with her and wouldn’t risk a less satisfying relationship with another writer.
SK: Are you finishing WRECKAGE now? It looks like you are centered on one particular victim.
JS: Yeah. I’m still working on it. The book centers on the Catholic Church’s child molestation scandal. I have a friend here in Arizona who works on death penalty investigations and worked on this one kid’s case. He was a battered 11-year-old boy in Boston whose aunt connected him as an alter boy with a priest there, Father Gagin, later known to have abused that child and many other boys. Immediately after those encounters the nephew sprang into a life of crime, including attempted murder. Sentenced to prison, he told the warden “You can put me with anybody in a cell, but if you put me with a child molester, I’ll kill him.” They did and he did. Two years later, the pattern repeated itself. My friend eventually got his client’s sentence reduced from death row to life in prison without a parole option.
The problem is how do you build a book about a character like that? I’m an old Catholic school boy from Philadelphia. “Wreckage” is an appropriate description of what is still happening. Nothing has been settled. Jimmy Breslin said, “Nobody leaves the Catholic Church.” You don’t ever get out.
SK: I went to Catholic schools from first grade through twelfth, then I entered the convent and stayed for a week. I know what you mean! Now, changing subjects again, I know you taught journalism for some years in Arizona. How was that?
JS: I enjoyed teaching journalism a lot. In recent years, though, I’ve begun to wonder if I was teaching 1986 skills that were no longer useful. Some of my friends here in Arizona worked for the New York Times and Boston Globe and the Washington Post. We often talk about those days, and it was great fun. We had a good run and rode the wave from the late ‘60s through the 1990s.
The kids now are bright, but they don’t read the newspaper.
SK: I don’t like to hear that. Thank you so much for spending this time with me, Joe. I look forward to reading WRECKAGE [he laughs and murmurs ‘So do I’] and watching DEATH SENTENCE on the big screen.