Evil at Lake Seminole: An Interview with True Crime Author Steven B. Epstein

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!

Wilder Intentions: An Interview with True Crime Author C.J. Wynn

Cover to bestselling true crime book Convicted murderer Richie Wilder Author C. J. Wynn

She was 10 when true crime author C.J. Wynn and her mom watched “The Burning Bed,” the Lifetime fictionalized account of housewife Francine Hughes’s murder of her abusive husband. Her interest in true crime blossomed from there. Wynn, like her mother, became fascinated with the subject. The married mother of two published her first true crime book, WILDER INTENTIONS: LOVE, LIES AND MURDER IN NORTH DAKOTA, in 2020. We recently Zoomed about her career and why she thinks readers and authors are intrigued by the subject.

SK: I just finished reading your debut book and I loved it! The narrative is full of suspense and you are very talented at setting the scene and conveying the personalities of the people involved—the victim, the perpetrator, the lawyers, and the investigators. 

What drew you to this particular case?

CJW: I first found out about the Angila Wilder murder case on Dateline. It happened in the small town of Minot, North Dakota, where I grew up so I was familiar with the area.

By the time I decided to write the book, I had developed a relationship with a great true crime writer—Shanna Hogan—who was very supportive of the project. Shanna died tragically late last year in a freak accident at her pool. She was a wonderful mentor to me, and I miss her friendship and advice more than I can say.

SK: You were a psychology major in college. Has that background influenced your writing?

CJW: I think it has. My interest in crime is based on a fascination about why people do the things they do, specifically related to the murder of someone they once supposedly loved. Certainly we have all had experiences in ‘love gone wrong’, but very few people choose murder as a means of resolving animosity and broken hearts. I think both authors and readers are interested in the difference between these starkly different behaviors. 

SK: Besides understanding the killer’s motivation, what else do you want to accomplish with your writing?

CJW: I have a passion to tell the whole story in the most effective possible way. So often in true crime the emphasis is on the murder itself and how the crime was solved. Readers only know the victims for that small amount of time that surrounded their deaths. Their lives were so much bigger than that. I want to give the victims a voice.

My friend Shanna Hogan said it best in her Foreword to my book: 

“Every murder is worthy of documentation. When someone’s life ends suddenly and violently through homicide, the victim is robbed of their opportunity to write the end of their own life story. These crimes, while heinous and horrific, need to be told, and every victim deserves to be remembered.”

SK: In these recent months with a lot of public criticism of policing, do you find that investigators are more reluctant to talk to you?

CJW: Not at all. In fact, they are eager for me to tell their stories. The people who investigate these cases are entirely dedicated to getting justice for the victims. They are present at terrible crime scenes and they carry those pictures in their souls forever. They move on and continue to do their jobs, but when they slow down, close their eyes at night, those images come back.

SK: Are you generally able to get background information about the victim from the family?

CJW: That’s tricky. Many family members think we are trying to “get rich” from their family’s tragedy. I try to explain that most of us are not Stephen King or James Patterson: we won’t get rich from publishing these books. Our motive is to tell the story as fully and accurately as possible, so I try to reach family members or friends who are willing to share their memories with me. For example, I could not have written well about Angila Wilder without her sister’s Crystal Morton’s help.

SK: You have interviewed convicted murderers Richie Wilder and his wife Cynthia, haven’t you?

CJW: Yes. I’ve exchanged emails with Richie and visited Cynthia in prison. 

SK: Were those useful in your research?

CJW: Not so much by providing details I couldn’t find other ways, but they gave me insight into their characters. I learned that as an author, as much as possible I had to set aside my personal feelings to try to understand the perpetrators’ motivation. I just let them tell their stories. 

Neither of them showed any remorse whatsoever. In my opinion Richie Wilder is a narcissistic monster. Cynthia continues to maintain that Angila’s children are better off without her. If either of them had shown any remorse or any indication of regret for what they chose to do, I would have gladly written about that in the book. 

With technology being what it is today, I’m amazed that people believe that they can get away with murder without any consequences. For the most part they cannot.

SK: With two young children at home, how do you make time to write?

CJW: Well writing is my fulltime job now. My husband David is home on Mondays, and I find that nights are my most creative time. During the day I spend time with my family and do errands and work around the house. At night I write. Sometimes I wake up in the middle of the night with an idea, and I record it on my phone so I’ll remember it in the morning.

SK: I heard that you researched and wrote the book in 18 months. Is that so, and did that include the time it took you to get a publisher?

CJW: Yes. It included the time I spent editing and also preparing a 70-page book proposal which I sent to several publishers who were not interested in the book. For months after that I did nothing but feel discouraged. I queried Black Lyon Publishing in late 2019. They said they were interested , but not to send anything until I finished the manuscript. In February, I sent it off, and just a few days later, they offered me a contract. They have been extremely supportive and encouraging, and I am very grateful to them for taking a chance on me. 

SK: What’s next?

CJW: I am currently working on two different projects, and just a few days ago, came upon a third I might consider. While I had originally intended to stay within the realm of North Dakota crimes, there is one outside of that that I have been tracking down and making great progress with. I’ve also begun communicating with an inmate convicted in two grisly North Dakota murders in a case that is way bigger than I originally thought. I am excited to be focusing on new stories and researching once again! 

SK: C.J., thank you so much for spending this time with me. The best of luck on your next books. After publication, I hope we can talk about them too!

Collateral Damage: John List Part 2

Part 2 of a 2-part series about John Emil List who murdered his family in Westfield, New Jersey in 1971.

WARNING: THIS ARTICLE CONTAINS SEXUAL MATERIAL AND VIOLENCE THAT MAY NOT BE SUITABLE FOR ALL READERS.

While others have written the story of John List’s murders, he wanted the world to hear the story from his own point of view. Journalist Austin “Red” Goodrich, himself quite a character (During the Cold War he spied for for the CIA posing as a journalist), first met List when he visited him in the New Jersey State Prison in 1990. Like John List, he had grown up in Michigan, attended the University of Michigan, and served in the same platoon as John during World War II. With so much in common, they quickly became friends and decided to collaborate on a self-published book about John’s crimes from which he hoped the proceeds could financially help his struggling second wife. They apparently failed to vet the project legally, as it is against federal law for a convicted criminal or his family to benefit from any enterprise that involves the crime. Red Goodrich became the sole beneficiary of the proceeds.

I have read the 115-page account and will save you the trouble: It is an awful book, deplorable literature, and rife with uncorrected proofreading errors. In the introduction List explains his reasons for writing the book: “It may be helpful to psychiatrists and moralists (Christians and others) and I hope will ease the pain caused by my actions to the friends and relatives of my victims.” In light of what he says after that, it is hard to believe it could ease anyone’s pain. Helen’s mother and sister Jean were alive at the time, as were Patty’s coach Ed Illiano, and Alma List’s relatives.

He describes an idyllic childhood, although he admits his mother was overly protective and a close relationship with his father, although neighbors and relatives describe the elderly John Frederick List as a cold, distant man who concentrated on his small business and paid scant attention to his family. His family’s history is summarized in considerable detail, and he seems to be proud to claim a distant relative, German Army General Wilhelm List who reportedly had a regiment named for him and was promoted to Field Marshall, serving in World War II under Adolf Hitler.

John quotes a military associate who hypothesized that John’s desire to move up the ranks of the U.S. army had a genetic basis. In point of fact, List never rose beyond the level of an enlisted man in the infantry, served only five months in Europe, and saw very little combat. Perhaps his lifelong love of complex military games where he always controlled Hitler’s army was also genetic! He devotes nearly a quarter of the book to discussing a somewhat exciting military career of which he was much more impressed than his commanding officers or fellow soldiers. While he wrote detailed letters to his mother during his deployment and named many soldier friends and colleagues, few of them noticed him at all.

He goes to considerable lengths to fairly portray his first wife Helen and to describe a relatively happy marriage. As seemed to be his habit, he could not keep up a narrative for long that did not center on him and his needs. In a few sentences he casually manages to destroy his wife’s reputation. He implies that as the proverbial hot-blooded widow she seduced him, then faked a pregnancy to get him to marry her. Years later she wanted a divorce, an event that would have been a first in the List family (and in Helen’s too, he adds as an afterthought). She spent lavishly, had contracted syphilis from her first husband and hid the fact from John for some time, was an alcoholic, and they had an unsatisfactory sex life. Then he started in on Helen’s daughter from her first marriage, Brenda. Apropos of nothing, he says that Brenda became pregnant when she was 16 and married the baby’s father from whom she was frequently separated. John visited her to “keep her spirits up” but without Helen, who he claims was too upset to see her daughter. The piece de resistance was a remark he attributed to his daughter Patty when she was three or four years old:

Our Patty commented that Brenda had certainly messed up her life. I wonder [said John] if Patty would have acted the same way at that age. Sadly, she died before she reached Brenda’s age. Patty was 16 years and 10 months old at the time of her death. (Italics added for emphasis.)

He accomplished two goals by repeating–or more likely inventing–this scene. First, he raises the question of whether Patty’s life would have been ruined by immorality had she lived longer and second, he totally abdicates responsibility for her death. “Sadly she died,” he says, not “I killed her.” Finally, no four-year-old ponders whether her stepsister has “messed up her life.”

His unsuccessful accounting career is attributed obliquely to his wife’s excessive social drinking, or to company politics or changes in business venue. List is silent on the subject of his inability to earn more than $25,000 a year, even when his position was briefly Vice President and Comptroller of the First National Bank of Jersey City, New Jersey. His lack of job success resulted from his inadequate social skills, his rigidity on the job and failure to keep up with the times as accounting began to rely more on computers, and his insistence that he deserved promotion. John List rarely saw himself as others saw him. While some people described him as kind, generous, and mannerly, others saw him as peculiar, cold, and self-centered.

His self-serving narrative goes on to describe teenage children whose behavior was out of control. The evidence? — He discovered Patty playing with a Ouija Board with her friends, and all the children were in the kitchen with him when he discovered a small snake on the drainboard. They knew he was afraid of snakes and Patty was the ringleader behind this prank, he charged.

Now as to the murders. He says he wishes he had not killed his family and prays daily for forgiveness. He explains his long decision-making process, the perceived infutility of leaving his family helpless without him, and his fear that committing suicide would severe his connection with God and prevent him from being reconciled with his family in heaven. His ability to weigh the moral equivalence of suicide compared with the murder of five people is astonishing. Reverend Alfred Scheips was John’s college Lutheran chaplain and he was called as a witness at the List trial. He was asked to compare his church’s relative views on suicide compared with murder. Finally, he was asked whether he believed there was a greatest sin, one for which there could be no forgiveness. He thought for an instant, then replied with a quote from Christian apologist and author C.S. Lewis: “Pride is the greatest sin.” Bingo.

Regarding the acts themselves, he recalls them in horrifying detail and explains that he killed all of his victims from behind so as not to cause them undue fear, and that his bullets killed each of them painlessly and quickly. All, that is, except for possibly John:

“…After I shot my namesake, his body twitched with convulsions. Seeing this, which had not occurred with any of my other victims, I must have panicked because I emptied the Styre and some of the .22 bullets into John. …I am sure that John was killed by the first shot and that his body movements were only muscular reflexes operating in some automatic manner. In any case, the tragedy was finished.”

He reproduces his five-page confession letter he left for his minister, Pastor Rehwinkel. It ends with this: “p.s. Mother is in the hallway in the attic–3rd floor. She was too heavy to move.” John List was a cold, cold man. Among his final chapters, one is titled “Fast Forward Into a New Life,” an apt description for what John did after he cleaned up the blood, ate his dinner, got a good night’s sleep, and headed off for Colorado. Unfazed by what he had done, John recorded his activities every day between November 9, 1971, which he describes as “the killings,” through November 20th when he arrived in Denver, in his Perpetual Calendar.

There he was “born again” (his words) as Robert P. Clark, a man who found work, a new church, and a loving wife “out West where it’s best.”[my words]. In his narrative he slips in a few paragraphs about the handwriting analysis ordered by his friend and co-author, Red Goodrich. Mark Hopper of the Handwriting Research Corp., apparently concluded that List’s handwriting revealed a writer who was “very intelligent, analytical, disciplined, curious, careful, conscientious and cautious.” On the other hand, Hopper also found a person who could not sustain employment, had poor social skills and “a low capacity for social tolerance along with high levels of anger, aggression, and instability.” He concluded that this was the handwriting of a person who needed psychiatric intervention. Hmmm.

His final chapters describe his arrest and conviction and life in prison which, for the most part, sounds pretty compatible with John List’s love of routine, order, solitude, and lots of rules. He divides one chapter into sections for “Bad Stuff” and “Good Stuff.” While you would not be surprised to hear what he considers “bad,” you would perhaps be caught off guard to hear what he considers “good.” It is, he says, human kindness. I wonder if he ever thinks about human kindness in the context of his actions. Is everything finally forgivable? John List died of heart disease complicated by pneumonia in 2008. Now I believe he knows the answer to that question.