“To convict the guilty, clear the innocent, and find the truth in a nutshell. ” … a detective expression
Phillip Daniel Stephen Ross Anastacia Lynn Smith Piper Ann Ross River Gayle Ross [Photos reposted from Tulsa World (link below)]
Last Friday night 31-year-old Phillip Ross of Sand Springs, Okla. hacked to death his 2-year-old daughter Piper and her 4-year-old sister River. He slaughtered their mother, his girlfriend and the mother of his children, Stacey Smith. Then he killed himself. “This is the worse thing that’s happened in my 28 years of law enforcement,” Fox 23 News reported that Sand Springs Chief of Police Mike Carter said at a news conference yesterday.
Here is the link to the KJRH-TV news report on the case. https://youtu.be/phky8uez7Zk
Here is the link to the newspaper Tulsa World article about it.
What do we do with the sorrow and rage and thirst for justice that are all inevitable in such a tragedy? There will be no trial, no one to convict. Left to mourn their deaths are Stacey’s two teenage children who were not home at the time of the attack, and Phillip’s mother who has lost her son and will have few who will mourn with her without reservation. Details have not yet been released, but Stacey may have left parents and siblings who have lost their daughter, sister, granddaughters, nieces. They will surely find support in their grief, but no justice, at least not on this earth. The investigators and forensics experts will sit with those horrific images of innocence destroyed all of their lives. They will not find the satisfaction of having protected the innocent or helped to punish the guilty, results that most law enforcement professionals can take some satisfaction in having achieved. They were not able to save us from ourselves this time, just left to clean up the mess.
This is a new investigation with many unanswered questions. Phillip Ross had a history of domestic violence but no convictions and none documented with Stacey. We do not know whether he had a military history or ever had a mental health evaluation. The coroner’s office is conducting toxicology lab work to determine if drugs or alcohol were involved. So much we do not know.
Here is what we do know. The neighbors heard sounds of violence that night but did not respond. Phillip’s mother came to the house Saturday afternoon and discovered the bodies. The front door was open. She had planned to babysit for her grandchildren that night so Phillip and Tracey could go out to celebrate her birthday but had tried unsuccessfully to reach them by phone to confirm. She had been worried.
In coming weeks we will find more answers, but none of them will tell us what to do with our feelings. None of them will answer the question of what we can and should do to protect ourselves and our neighbors, especially during these out-of-control pandemic days when political insurrection reigns and 28 murders, many involving children, have been committed in Oklahoma since Covid 19 began its deadly creep.
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!
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.
John List when he was arrested in 1989, the List home in Westfield New Jersey, circa 1970, bodies of Helen, Patty, John, and Fred List in home ballroom November 1971, The List family portrait 1971, John’s mother Alma List circa 1970, Helen List and her children, circa 1968. Photos originally appeared in Murderpedia.
This is the first of two articles about John List who murdered his wife, his mother, and three of his four children, then disappeared for nearly 18 years until he was finally identified after his case was featured on the television series “America’s Most Wanted.” The second article will be based on a self-serving book, Collateral Damage: The John List Story which was ghost-written by Austin Goodrich and published in 2006 by John List.
In 1971 John List looked exactly like what he was: A conservative religious certified public accountant who wore heavy-framed eyeglasses and lived with his wife and three children not far from Manhattan in Westfield, New Jersey. Many of those who knew him agreed that he had his peculiarities: He mowed his lawn regardless of the season in a suit and tie and when he encountered neighbors, he avoided eye contact and pretended he did not see them. Despite a Master’s degree in business administration and certification as a public accountant and outstanding work habits, he could not hold a job. Even when he was employed briefly as a bank vice president, List never earned more than about $25,000 a year and was able to support his family only with the assistance of his widowed mother Alma.
He was an only child raised in Bay City Michigan in a second-generation strict German household, and was known throughout his life as his mother’s pride and joy, a “Mama’s boy.” Family members and acquaintances reported that his father had focused on operating his general store and left child-rearing to his wife. John’s classmates and neighbors described him as an eager-to-please child whose personality did not stand out, but rather blended into the background.
After serving undistinguished stints in the army during War II and Korea, he attended the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor where he earned bachelor’s and master’s degrees in business administration subsidized by the GI bill and became certified as a public accountant. He dated a few women for brief periods but no one seriously.
In October 1951 John and a few of his army buddies stationed in southern Virginia went bowling. At the bowling alley he met Jean Syfert and her 26-year-old sister Helen Taylor who had, the previous day, buried her husband Marvin. He had been a soldier killed in action in Korea six months before but transporting his remains back to the U.S. had been delayed. Jean hoped that a night out would distract Helen from her terrible grief. A pretty woman with an attractive figure, Helen was not only widowed, but also the mother of a 9-year-old daughter Brenda. She and Marvin had married young; her life so far had consisted of living at home with her parents, then as an army wife and mother. She did not know how she would live the rest of her life.
Jean’s first impression of her future brother-in-law was positive. He was courteous, well-groomed, carefully dressed, and was a man with a profession. She could see he was immediately attracted to Helen and she warned him that her sister was recently widowed and had a young child. Secretly she was also concerned that John did not seem to be a “take charge” man; Helen was careless with money and Jean feared he would not be able to control his wife’s reckless ways. He was not dissuaded by Jean’s caution and by the time they parted company that night he had asked Helen for a date.
Soon he was completely enchanted with her and despite his conservative religious beliefs, they began a sexual relationship. Helen told him with some trepidation shortly thereafter that she was pregnant. While John had not wanted to begin married life that way, he was deeply in love and they married immediately in a small Lutheran church in Baltimore with her sister Jean and her husband Gene as witnesses. After the wedding Helen reported that she had been mistaken and was not pregnant. For the rest of his life John suspected he had been duped and Helen had manipulated him into marriage with a false pregnancy story. Although he knew the truth, he went forward with their wedding plans despite serious reservations about whether their marriage could last. After their honeymoon, John and Helen returned to her mother’s home in Virginia where they picked upBrenda and began their married life as a cozy family of three. All of his life everything John List did followed a rigid path from which he did not–or could not–deviate.
John’s father had died years earlier at the end of John’s service in World War II and Alma was so attached to her only son that while he was in college she took the bus once a month to Ann Arbor to spend the weekend with him. When John brought his new wife to Bay City to meet Alma, things did not go well. Alma told friends she believed that Helen was a desperate widow with a child and had “trapped” her son into marriage. She said her son “Chonny” could have done much better and did not try to hide her feelings. It was not long before Helen and Alma exchanged only conversation that was absolutely necessary. Even when they were together alone in the same house they maintained as much physical distance as possible.
By 1955, the Lists had moved to Inkster, a suburb of Detroit and in January their first child, Patricia Marie was born. She was the light of her parents’ life and adored by Helen’s mother and even Alma whose chilly persona melted at the sight of her first grandchild. She even kissed Helen, something she had never done before. Their second child, John Frederick, was born in October 1956 and that year John accepted a management position at Sutherland Paper Company in Kalamazoo Michigan. Helen liked the city and was a member of three book clubs there. Her sister Jean noted that Helen loved to read, sometimes as many as two books a day. John was less impressed with the way his wife spent her time; when he came home from work she was frequently reading on the sofa sipping scotch with child care, housework, and food preparation left for her husband to manage. He met what he saw as his responsibilities but was not a happy married man. Their last son, Frederick Michael, was born in August of 1958.
When the family moved to Kalamazoo, John immediately enrolled them at a Lutheran church affiliated with the conservative Missouri Synod, the church in which he had been raised. After Frederick was born Helen decided that the Sunday struggle of preparing her family, three small children and teenaged Brenda, was too much for her each week and she began to send John with the children to church alone while she slept late and fixed them a bountiful breakfast upon their return. She was a talented and eager gourmet cook. She had suffered from postpartum depression and, as was par for the day, took several prescription medications, saw a psychiatrist weekly, and added insult to injury by drinking heavily. When Brenda finished high school, she moved out of the house and began her own life, but the household was still a large one to manage. John’s solution to his deteriorating marriage was to buy Helen expensive gifts and jewelry. They did not improve the situation and placed a further strain on their precarious financial situation.
If he couldn’t control expenses, John tried to increase his income. He accepted a position with the new Xerox Company in Rochester New York in 1961. He worked hard, produced well, and earned a substantial salary for the time, but by 1965 his constant requests for advancement were wearing on his boss. He was advised to seek employment elsewhere and given outstanding references; Xerox wanted to make John somebody else’s problem. He applied for positions all over the country and was rewarded by an offer comparable to his Xerox salary, but with the added sheen of an impressive title, Vice President and Comptroller, First National Bank of Jersey City, New Jersey. His office was located in Westfield New Jersey.
The Lists began their new life in Westfield with great enthusiasm. John’s job went well at first, their daughter Patty was thrilled to be a member of her school’s theater group, and Helen was thrilled with the house of her dreams, a 19-room mansion on the highest hill in town that sported a ballroom with a Tiffany stained glass skylight and a billiards room (minus the table) where John stored his books and the many military strategy games he enjoyed playing. Neighbors and coworkers who initially enjoyed playing these challenging games with John soon came to regret it. They were not games to John, but battles of wit and cunning and he played to win, always on the German Nazi side of the World War II versions. John had not really been able to afford the house, but with a contribution from his mother and a corresponding obligation to make a home for her with his family, they were able to manage. Helen told her husband that the presence of her mother-in-law had destroyed her pleasure in living there. Regardless of what he did, John could not seem to please his wife.
Before long, it became clear to John that his position, not reflected by the title, was essentially a marketing job. The bank wanted him to expand their business customer base and that was not the sort of task that John performed easily. He was most comfortable with data, and visibly uncomfortable around people. He made excuses to turn down his colleagues’ invitations to join them for lunch. Instead, among his other eccentricities, he carried a brown- bagged sandwich to work daily and ate it alone in his car with the windows rolled up with classical music playing loudly on the radio to entertain him.
By the end of his first year the bank ended John’s employment for the same reasons his other employers had. His work habits were old-fashioned and inflexible and he was unsociable. He could not bear to tell his family. Growing more desperate by the day, he unsuccessfully applied for job after job. He was mortally ashamed to have failed at the only task he grew up believing was important for a man to accomplish, supporting his family. Surreptitiously he borrowed money from his mother to pay his bills. Every day he dressed in his suit, packed his lunch, and drove to the train station where he sat all day reading until it was time to go home.
Finally, after six months of job charade, John was offered a vice-president/comptroller position for American Photographic Company in New York City. It paid only half of the salary he had earned at the bank and within a year the company relocated, but John wanted to stay in the house in Westfield so he was out of work again. Next he accepted a position selling mutual funds from his office at home and while he was not able to equal his salary at the bank, his income stabilized.
Helen, however, did not adjust her lifestyle in the least. She continued to buy expensive clothing and to demand that he buy expensive items for the children. John never argued. Helen’s days in bed increased. She was hospitalized and her health declined rapidly. She was diagnosed with a fatal neurological condition that resulted from syphilis she had unknowingly contracted from her first husband. Helen’s sister Jean told John she thought he should consider having her institutionalized but he adamantly refused.
In the bigger picture of the world outside of the List household, the 1960s was a decade where John List never belonged. He hated the politics and loose social mores of the era, particularly with regard to his children. None of them got into any real trouble, but Patty was subtly defiant and her emerging teenaged figure and devil-may-care attitude made him perpetually angry. Patty’s last act of defiance occurred on a summer night when she sneaked out of the house and met her girlfriend after 2 a.m. They decided to take a stroll downtown with no clear objective in mind. In the small community of 33,000 residents, it did not take long for a patrol car to notice the two girls out alone with no excuse to be there. He picked them up, drove them to the police station, and called their parents. Patty’s friend’s father was angry and annoyed at their immature but harmless behavior. John, however, was furious. He did not speak to her on the car ride home. Once there, he banged around until the entire family was awake and shouted at his daughter “You are out of control!” He raged on: She was going to hell and there was nothing he could do to prevent it. “Slut! You leave me no choice,” he ended mysteriously.
Beginning in late October 1971 he had concluded that it was impossible for him to save his daughter’s soul from succumbing to–in his mind– her evil ways. He could not afford to make mortgage payments or otherwise support his family in the way they had learned to live, and going on welfare would have been an unbearable embarrassment for them. John frequently slept on a cot he had installed in the Billiards Room, removed from his family.
By November he had brooded and thought and prayed and finally decided how to solve his problems. He concluded that the only viable solution was to kill his family. He felt sure they could not get along without him if he left them. Suicide would have risked his immoral soul, his religious upbringing had taught him. He was God’s child and would ultimately be forgiven, and his family would someday be joyfully reunited in heaven. He was not sure whether his wife and children would remember that he had killed them, but if they did, he knew they would understand and forgive him.
John had tried unsuccessfully to purchase a revolver in Westfield, so he located two aged revolvers in his home, one inherited from his father and the second purchased as a souvenir of his participation in World War II. He bought the necessary ammunition and set the execution date for November 9th.
That morning John fixed his children breakfast, then saw them off to school. Shortly after, his wife Helen descended from her room and poured a cup of coffee which she drank at the kitchen table while she read the newspaper and munched on toast. He retrieved his guns from the garage where he had stashed them in a military jacket pocket, then returned to the kitchen and shot his wife in the back of the head, killing her instantly. Next he mounted the stairs to his mother’s third floor apartment where he kissed her good morning and, in response to her question about a loud noise she had heard, asked her to look out one window while he checked a second one. As she walked to the window, he shot her in the head, also killing her immediately. At Alma’s age, he reasoned, the shock of knowing her daughter-in-law and grandchildren were dead would have been too stressful for her.
Never a man to leave a job half done, he retrieved two sleeping bags from the basement and lying one on the kitchen floor, used it to drag Helen’s body into the ballroom. His mother’s body had been too heavy for him to lift and so, he later told police, he left it upstairs in the third floor hallway. Then he mopped the floors to clean up the blood and brain matter at each murder site. By this time he was hungry, so he fixed himself a sandwich and ate it at the table where his wife had sat when he shot her.
By early afternoon he got to work preparing for the next stage of his plan, escape. He stopped the mail and milk delivery by explaining his wife’s mother was gravely ill and he had put his wife and children on a plane to North Carolina where he would drive to meet them. He called the children’s schools and Pat’s drama class to report that they would be absent for some weeks. Finally he drove to the bank where he withdrew his mother’s cash reserves and cashed in some bonds she had. He netted two thousand dollars in traveling money.
Patty had an after-school job, but felt ill and called him that day to pick her up immediately after school. John and Patty entered the house through the laundry room; he killed her there as they walked toward the kitchen. Fred also worked after school and after driving him home, John disposed of his son as he had his daughter. He drove to his middle son John’s soccer game and brought him home to the same fate to which his brother and sister had succumbed. While his other victims had died quickly, he told detectives that John’s body continued to move and twitch so John shot him several more times, requiring him to switch guns and probably reload. He did not regret or feel guilty for murdering his family. John said once his set his plan in motion, he felt as if everything was an “automatic pilot.”
During the late afternoon and evening he cleaned up as much blood as he could, moved his children’s bodies to the ballroom beside their mother, scissored out his face in all the family photos he found around the house, and tuned the house-wide stereo system to a classical music station. Downstairs in the billiards room he composed a 10-page confession and addressed it to his minister whom he thought would be best able to understand what he had done. He turned the heat down to 50 degrees to retard corpse decomposition and turned on lights throughout the house to suggest that the family was home. He fixed and ate dinner, washed his dishes, and retired for the evening.
Once the deed was done, he put all thoughts of it out of his mind and looked toward the future. By dawn he was awake, refreshed, and pulled out of the driveway toward Kennedy airport where he parked in a long-term lot. From there he took public transportation to Grand Central Station where he began his journey west, headed for the part of America known for new beginnings and abandoned pasts.
Although neighbors and acquaintances wondered where the List family had gone and thought it odd that they left their home for many days blazing with lights, there was no reason to suspect foul play. Ed Illiano had been Pat List’s drama coach and she had confided in him recently that she was afraid of her father. While kids in town dared one another to walk up on the porch and often did, Ed was the only adult who was sufficiently concerned to watch the List house regularly. Several times he parked his car on the street near the house to see if there was any activity there. Finally, On December 7th he and his colleague Barbara Sheridan told their drama group that they were going to the house to find out what was going on. When they arrived at 431 Hillside Avenue and began to look around, they attracted the attention of the List’s next door neighbors, William and Shirley Cunnick who called 911 to report an intruder. Just as Ed was preparing to enter the house, police arrived. He and Barbara introduced themselves and explained the situation. Patrolman George Zhelisnik and Ed agreed to enter the house through an unlocked dining room window. Classical music was playing loudly and they immediately detected a musty odor that seemed to be coming from the ballroom located off the center hallway. Zhelisnik shone his flashlight into the dark room, revealing the bodies of John List’s wife and three children. Ed flipped the light switch to the hallway chandelier, then opened the front door to Patrolman Charles Haller, Barbara, and William Cunnick who was a physician. He bent to examine the bodies. The children were dressed in their coats and school clothes. All of the bodies were bloated and swarming with maggots, clearly having been there for a long time. By this time the chief of police and several other officers had arrived. When Ed realized that John’s mother was unaccounted for, officers ran upstairs to the third floor and found Alma’s body, her son’s fifth and final victim.
The city and county police forces began an exhaustive investigation. On December 9th they were joined by the FBI; John List had been charged with interstate flight. Media coverage was national and the FBI prepared “Wanted” posters which were distributed throughout their country-wide network. List’s confession letter was reviewed carefully for clues to his whereabouts. Everyone who knew or recognized John from Westfield and the other places he had lived or worked was interviewed. Every tip was run down. John List seemed to have disappeared from the face of the earth. It would be eighteen years before he would resurface.
Meanwhile, John List had been a very careful man. He planned and followed his mental map cautiously, aiming to move to Colorado. He secured a social security card in the name of Robert P. “Bob” Clark, a man whom John List became, immediately casting off the man he had been. Initially he lived from his modest bank roll and looked for entry level jobs. While he had excellent credentials as an accountant, initially he did not attempt to get a position in his field. When he reached Denver, he found a place in an inexpensive rooming house, then bought a cheap trailer and accepted a night cook’s position at a Holiday Inn across the street. While he had no formal training in culinary arts, he had cooked at home and was creative, observant, and sufficiently dependable to rise through the ranks. Beginning as the night cook, he eventually was offered a sous chef position–the second in command–at that restaurant and subsequently at a country club, a job move he made with his boss Gary Morrison. By 1977, however, Bob Clark began to talk increasingly to Gary about his interest in returning to his original career as an accountant. Gary was disappointed but not surprised. Culinary hours were long, difficult, and inconvenient, and turnover was frequent. He worked briefly
His livelihood was not the only change in “Bob’s” life. That same year at a Lutheran social gathering he met Delores H. Miller, an attractive recently divorced woman with whom he soon fell in love. She was not interested in getting married again right away, but they dated seriously. Bob had formed his own lackluster tax consulting business, then invested in a direct mail operation where he lost money. His previous spotty job history continued even after he had become Bob Clark. Eventually he accepted an accounting position for a small firm, All Packaging, where he was later promoted to controller.
In 1981 the couple bought a two-bedroom condominium together in the Montebello neighborhood of Denver. Delores initially moved in alone. Bob had proposed marriage repeatedly to Delores but she demurred until the summer of 1985. They married in Maryland near her mother’s home the following November.
At first, their marriage was a happy one. Bob was satisfied with his accounting position and Delores was working too. Delores became friends with her next door neighbor, Wanda Flanery. The latter was a lively woman who paid perhaps too close attention to her neighbors and was fond of reading sensational tabloids. In 1987 Wanda bought a copy of The Weekly World News in the supermarket that contained an article about the 1971 murder of the List family and a photo of John List, whom she immediately thought resembled her next door neighbor, Bob Clark. She brought the article to Delores when Bob was not at home and suggested that she show it to her husband. Delores thought the idea ludicrous and discarded the paper.
Five months after their marriage, however, Bob again lost his job. He tried diligently but not successfully to locate another. Delores was increasingly disappointed in Bob’s failure to play his part in supporting them and was not tactful about her feelings. If Bob didn’t find a new job soon, she told Wanda, she would leave him. Fortunately, in November Bob received a job offer from an accounting firm located in Richmond Virginia and needed to report to work right after the first of the year. Bob and Delores decided he would go ahead to Virginia and she would follow when their condo had been sold. Her family lived in Maryland and Delores looked forward to being close to them again. They bought a small condominium in the Richmond suburban subdivision of Brandermill.
The series America’s Most Wanted launched on television in 1988 and was an instant success. Hosted by John Walsh whose 6-year-old son Adam was kidnapped and murdered in July 1981, the program dramatized unsolved crimes and invited the public to offer information they might have that would help to bring criminals to justice. On Sunday evening May 21, 1989 the program featured the List murders. There were no recent photos of John, but the program’s executive director had arranged for a Philadelphia sculptor, Frank Bender, to produce a clay bust of John as he might now appear. Using a psychological profile, a photo of List, and his intuition, Bender produced an amazing likeness of the man who was now known as Bob Clark. Twenty two million viewers saw the program and they included Westfield investigators, Helen’s sister Jean, John himself, and Wanda Flanery, who was already convinced that Bob was actually John List. She had kept in touch with her friend Delores Clark and convinced her son-in-law to call the America’s Most Wanted and report that List was now living in Richmond as Bob Clark. He provided the return address from a letter Delores had sent to Wanda.
The show forwarded that tip along with others they had received to the FBI who routed it to their Richmond Virginia office. Agent Kevin August, assigned to fugitive cases, followed up by interviewing Delores at her home. She had not seen the t.v. episode, but reacted immediately when August showed her a photo of John List. “Could this be your husband?” he had asked. She recognized the resemblance right away but denied that it could be her husband. “He’s the nicest man in the world,” she said. Nonetheless, evidence was mounting against him with every question Delores answered. Yes, he grew up in Michigan. He was an accountant. He had a scar behind his right ear that matching the mastoidectomy scar John List had.
August felt he had enough evidence to make an arrest and after obtaining Bob’s work address from his wife, he drove there where he was met by two FBI colleagues. They took the man into custody who repeatedly insisted–even after investigators matched his fingerprints to those of John List– that he was Bob Clark. He was eventually extradited to New Jersey where he was tried and convicted of five counts of first degree murder. Since there was no death sentence in New Jersey in 1971, the maximum jail term was imposed: Five consecutive life terms, guaranteeing that he would never be eligible for parole.
John List was content in prison. He prayed many times each day, read, wrote letters, and used the mail to play the war games he so relished with friends. In 2006 he self-published a book about his life and the murders, ironically entitled Collateral Damage. The book was ghost-written by Austin Goodrich, a journalist who befriended John in prison. My next post will be a supplement to this one, looking at John’s view of himself and his crimes as he represented them in his book.
He died of a heart attack in 2008. In a book about the case (Death Sentence: The Inside Story of the John List Murders) written by Joe Sharkey, the author quoted the stand-up comedian Moms Mabley who said about someone she despised, “They say you shouldn’t say nothin’ about the dead unless it’s good. He’s dead. Good!” Sharkey ends his book this way: “John List died in prison on March 21, 2008. Nobody came forward to claim the body. Good.”
In preparing this article I read Death Sentence by Joe Sharkey and Collateral Damage by John List with Austin Goodrich and articles about the case that appeared in Wikipedia, Murderpedia, and The New York Times.
L-R victim Karen Hill, Shawcross with his “adopted” daughter Margaret Deming and granddaughter, Arthur Shawcross, and victim Jack Blake
WARNING: THIS BLOG CONTAINS GRAPHIC VIOLENCE AND SEXUAL MATERIAL THAT IS NOT APPROPRIATE FOR ALL READERS.
It is time to make up for lost time. I’ve promised to post 4 articles every month and I’m determined to post this article and one more before the first of September. Watch me!
Today I am writing about a killer close to my my original home, Rochester, New York. Only the people who lived in the Monroe County New York region or the Thousand Island/St. Lawrence River area, or who are obsessed with true crime probably recognize the name Arthur Shawcross. In 2008 he died in prison of heart failure at age 63 while serving a life sentence for killing 12 women in Rochester.
Arthur, called “Artie” by his mother, was the oldest of four children born at a Naval hospital in Kittery Maine. He grew up in northern central New York State in the small city of Watertown, near the 1000 Islands area of the St. Lawrence River that borders the U.S. and Canada. He was known as a peculiar child who spoke baby talk until he was 14 and hid under radiators and the teacher’s desk although he was a bully at school. Although he earned As and Bs in kindergarten, his reported IQ was 86 a below average score and he repeated at least three elementary grades and dropped out of school in 9th grade. He was a suspect in several burglary and arson cases and in 1963 was arrested and placed on probation for breaking a shop window. While family members dispute his accusations, he claimed he was sexually molested by his mother and aunt and had sex with his sisters. He mauled small animals, wet his bed, and was a suspect in several arson and burglary cases, characteristics known as the MacDonald Triad, common childhood traits of serial killers.
Despite his rough ways, Shawcross seemed to be popular with the ladies. In 1964 when he was 20, he married Sarah Chatterton and they had a son together. He continued to get involved in illegal activities and Sarah divorced him in 1966; Arthur readily gave up his parental rights. In September 1967 he married his second wife, Linda Neary. It may have been her good fortune that Shawcross was drafted into the military the following month, where he served for more than a year in Vietnam. Years later he claimed to have killed more than 40 Vietnamese, describing abuse and torture he inflicted in graphic detail. His army records indicated that he was a supply clerk and did not kill anyone during his service. He was discharged in 1969, then convicted of arson for burning down Crowley’s Cheese factory and Knowlton Brothers Paper Mill and sentenced to five years in Attica prison. Neary divorced him.
His killing did not begin in 1988 when he murdered and mutilated the first of a 10 prostitutes and a mentally impaired neighbor. He had been a dangerous man since 1972 when at age 27 he was convicted of sexually abusing and killing 11-year-old Jack Black and 8-year-old Karen Hill in Watertown where his mother Bessie had settled with her children while their father completed his military service.
Jack Blake was a neighborhood child whom Artie often took fishing in a meandering local stream. Witnesses saw them together at their regular spot on April 7, 1972. That was the last time anyone saw Jack alive. Later Artie was observed eating ice cream on the bridge where they regularly fished. Blake’s body was not found until five months later. The small boy had been sexually molested and asphyxiated. On April 22nd, Shawcross married his third wife Penny Sherbino, a girl he had known in high school. She was pregnant with his child at the time but miscarried four months later.
About a month after the discovery of Blake’s body, on September 2nd, 8-year-old Karen Hill was reported missing. Her mother questioned Shawcross repeatedly because she knew her daughter talked to him and was seen in his company frequently. His answers were vague but when she told police they seemed disinterested. Her body was discovered later that month under a bridge that crossed the Black River, a place Shawcross was frequently seen. She had been sexually molested and her mouth and clothing stuffed with mud and leaves.
Shawcross was soon picked up for questioning. At first he denied knowledge of either case but quickly confessed to both killings. Fearing he would not be convicted of the Jack Blake murder due to lack of corroborating evidence, the district attorney offered him a plea: If he accepted a sentence of 25 years for the murder of Karen Hill and agreed to show police where he had buried Jack Blake’s body, he would not be prosecuted for the Blake case. He accepted the plea and served 14 1/2 years of his sentence. He had been a model prisoner during his incarceration, earning his GED and passing a horticulture class, and was given excellent references by prison staff. He was paroled in April 1987. Well-publicized attempts to resettle in Watertown and then in Binghamton NY were not successful and the parole board finally decided to seal his criminal records and relocate him with his girlfriend, Rose Whalley, a few hundred miles south and east in Rochester New York. Apparently their relationship did not meet his needs and he soon acquired a girlfriend, Clara Neal. Nonetheless he married Rose, who became his fourth wife, in 1989. [He later married Clara, wife number five, during his final incarceration.]
Shawcross worked a number of short-lived menial jobs, the last as a salad maker for a produce company. In spite of having a wife, a girlfriend, and a job, he was able to make time to cruise Rochester’s “red light district” on run-down Lyell Avenue. Pretty 27-year-old Dorothy Blackburn was one of them. She disappeared on March 24, 1988 and was discovered dumped in the Genesee River after she had been viciously attacked, bitten in the groin, and strangled. On September 11th the body of prostitute Anna Steffen was discovered near the Blackburn dump site, and on October 21st, the asphyxiated body of a homeless woman 59-year-old Dorothy Keeler was discovered. The body of Patty Ives, sexually abused and strangled, was found 6 days later, on October 27th. While prostitutes were often involved with drugs and found themselves in dangerous situations, Rochester police were now convinced they were looking for a serial killer. They warned the women who cruised the Lake-Lyell avenues to be cautious of strangers and travel in pairs. Arthur Shawcross, though, was a well-known figure to the girls who worked the streets and they did not consider him dangerous.
June Stotts, age 30, was Arthur’s friend. She was neither a prostitute nor a drug-user. He picked her up on the street on October 23rd and they drove to a nearby beach where they had sex, then argued. Stotts was strangled, anally abused postmortem, then her body split open from neck to crotch, and partially eviscerated; her body was discovered on Thanksgiving Day. After June’s slaying, Shawcross strangled and mutilated Frances Brown, Maria Welch, Elizabeth Gibson, Darlene Trippi, Felicia Stevens, and June Cicero.
On January 3, 1990, a police helicopter covering route 31 near Northampton Park where a wallet and boots belonging to Felicia Stevens had been discovered, saw a car stopped on a bridge over Salmon Creek. The occupant was outside the passenger side of the vehicle and below him, frozen in the creek ice, was the nude body of a woman later identified as June Cicero. This was not the first time Shawcross had visited her body, he told police. Two days after the murder he had returned to the scene with a hand saw, cut out her vagina, and ate it. While the vagina had been cut, the cannibalism allegation was never proven Arthur Shawcross had been her last trick on the night of December 18th. She had bragged to police earlier that day that the killer didn’t worry her. She could take care of herself. He should be afraid of her, she had claimed.
Arthur Shawcross justified every murder he committed except the murders of the children, Those he repeatedly refused to discuss. In one videotaped interview, however, he told the questioner that he did not want to talk about the children because he regretted those crimes and felt shame. For the other victims, he always found an excuse. The prostitutes made fun of his inability to perform sexually, he claimed. Several tried to steal his wallet. One bit his penis during oral sex. His written confession was 80 pages long.
He never expressed remorse for any of his crimes and in fact said he was unable to feel any emotion about them. In November 1990 he was tried for 10 cases of second degree murder (one occurred in an adjacent county and was tried separately) and sentenced to 250 years in New York State’s Sullivan Correctional Facility. On November 8, 2008 he complained of leg pains and was transferred to an Albany hospital where he died the same day.
WARNING: THIS POST CONTAINS MANY INSTANCES OF GRAPHIC AND DISTURBING VIOLENCE AND IS NOT SUITABLE FOR ALL AUDIENCES.
What do true crime writers do on their days off? I cook, sew, write children’s books with my grandchildren, socialize with friends and family, travel,…and read–among many subjects– about true crime! I don’t think it is possible to write well about murder without attempting to understand what makes random murderers (those who kill without an obvious motive) “tick.” I read about killers both famous and unknown, trying to identify psychological and social patterns that might unite them. I read books about murder investigation, psychopathology, forensics and the judicial system. I read about other authors of true crime and fans of true crime, trying to find out how they are the same or different from me. After all that reading, I am only marginally closer to understanding the phenomenon and why I am fascinated by it.
Ed Kemp was a serial killer with genius-level intelligence. I have watched a simulated interview with him featured on Mindhunter. While what he says is horrifying, his ability to speak about his crimes articulately allows us to understanding how his mind works. That may lead law enforcement and psychologists to be able to better predict violence in some personality types and, it is hoped, prevent some similar crimes from being committed.
The material that follows is re-posted from Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia
|Mug shot of Kemper in 1973|
|Born||Edmund Emil Kemper III|
December 18, 1948 (age 71)
Burbank, California, U.S.
|Other names||Co-ed Killer|
Ogre of Aptos
|Height||6 ft 9 in (2.06 m)|
|Criminal penalty||Eight life sentences (concurrent)|
|Span of crimes||1964–1973|
|Date apprehended||April 24, 1973|
|Imprisoned at||California Medical Facility|
Edmund Emil Kemper III (born December 18, 1948) is an American serial killer and necrophile who murdered ten people, including his paternal grandparents and mother. He is noted for his large size, at 6 feet 9 inches (2.06 m), and for his high intellect, possessing an IQ of 145. Kemper was nicknamed the “Co-ed Killer” as most of his victims were female students at co-educational institutions.
Born in California, Kemper had a disturbed upbringing. His parents divorced and he moved to Montana with his abusive mother as a child before returning to California, where he murdered his paternal grandparents when he was 15. He was diagnosed as a paranoid schizophrenic by court psychiatrists and sentenced to the Atascadero State Hospital as a criminally insane juvenile.
Released at the age of 21 after convincing psychiatrists he was rehabilitated, Kemper was regarded as non-threatening by his future victims. He targeted young female hitchhikers during his killing spree, luring them into his vehicle and driving them to secluded areas where he would murder them before taking their corpses back to his home to be decapitated, dismembered, and violated. Kemper then murdered his mother and one of her friends before turning himself in to the authorities.
Found sane and guilty at his trial in 1973, Kemper requested the death penalty for his crimes. Capital punishment was suspended in California at the time, and he instead received eight concurrent life sentences. Since then, he has been incarcerated in the California Medical Facility. Kemper has waived his right to a parole hearing several times and has said he is happy in prison.
Edmund Kemper – Wikipedia
Edmund Emil Kemper III was born in Burbank, California, on December 18, 1948. He was the middle child and only son born to Clarnell Elizabeth Kemper (née Stage, 1921–1973) and Edmund Emil Kemper II (1919–1985). Edmund II was a World War II veteran who, after the war, tested nuclear weapons in the Pacific Proving Grounds before returning to California, where he worked as an electrician. Clarnell often complained about Edmund II’s “menial” electrician job, and he later said “suicide missions in wartime and the atomic bomb testings were nothing compared to living with her” and that Clarnell affected him “more than three hundred and ninety-six days and nights of fighting on the front did.”
Weighing 13 pounds (5.9 kg) as a newborn, Kemper was a head taller than his peers by the age of four. Early on, he exhibited antisocial behavior such as cruelty to animals: at the age of 10, he buried a pet cat alive; once it died, he dug it up, decapitated it, and mounted its head on a spike. Kemper later stated that he derived pleasure from successfully lying to his family about killing the cat. At the age of 13, he killed another family cat when he perceived it to be favoring his younger sister, Allyn Lee Kemper (born 1951), over him, and kept pieces of it in his closet until his mother found them.
Kemper had a dark fantasy life: he performed rituals with his younger sister’s dolls that culminated in him removing their heads and hands, and, on one occasion, when his elder sister, Susan Hughey Kemper (1943–2014), teased him and asked why he did not try to kiss his teacher, he replied: “If I kiss her, I’d have to kill her first.” He also recalled that as a young boy he would sneak out of his house and, armed with his father’s bayonet, go to his second-grade teacher’s house to watch her through the windows. He stated in later interviews that some of his favorite games to play as a child were “Gas Chamber” and “Electric Chair”, in which he asked his younger sister to tie him up and flip an imaginary switch, and then he would tumble over and writhe on the floor, pretending that he was being executed by gas inhalation or electric shock. He also had near-death experiences as a child: once, when his elder sister tried to push him in front of a train, and another when she successfully pushed him into the deep end of a swimming pool, where he almost drowned.
Kemper had a close relationship with his father and was devastated when his parents separated in 1957, causing him to be raised by Clarnell in Helena, Montana. He had a severely dysfunctional relationship with his mother, a neurotic, domineering, alcoholic who would frequently belittle, humiliate, and abuse him. Clarnell often made her son sleep in a locked basement, because she feared that he would harm his sisters, regularly mocked him for his large size—he stood 6 feet 4 inches (1.93 m) by the age of 15—and derided him as “a real weirdo.” She also refused to show him affection out of fear that she would “turn him gay”, and told the young Kemper that he reminded her of his father and that no woman would ever love him. Kemper later described her as a “sick angry woman,” and it has been postulated that she suffered from borderline personality disorder.
At the age of 14, Kemper ran away from home in an attempt to reconcile with his father in Van Nuys, California. Once there, he learned that his father had remarried and had a stepson. Kemper stayed with his father for a short while until the elder Kemper sent him to live with his paternal grandparents, who lived on a ranch in the mountains of North Fork. Kemper hated living in North Fork; he described his grandfather as “senile,” and said that his grandmother “was constantly emasculating me and my grandfather.”
On August 27, 1964, Kemper was sitting at the kitchen table with his grandmother Maude Matilda Hughey Kemper (b. 1897), when they had an argument. Enraged, Kemper stormed off and retrieved a rifle that his grandfather had given him for hunting. He then re-entered the kitchen and fatally shot his grandmother in the head before firing twice more into her back. Some accounts mention that she also suffered multiple post-mortem stab wounds with a kitchen knife.
When Kemper’s grandfather, Edmund Emil Kemper (b. 1892), returned from grocery shopping, Kemper went outside and fatally shot him in the driveway. He was unsure of what to do next, so he phoned his mother, who told him to contact the local police. Kemper called the police and waited to be taken into custody.
After his arrest, Kemper said that he “just wanted to see what it felt like to kill Grandma” and testified that he killed his grandfather so he would not have to find out that his wife was dead. Psychiatrist Donald Lunde, who interviewed Kemper at length during adulthood, wrote that, with these murders, “In his way, he had avenged the rejection of both his father and his mother.” Kemper’s crimes were deemed incomprehensible for a 15-year-old to commit, and court psychiatrists diagnosed him as a paranoid schizophrenic before sending him to Atascadero State Hospital: a maximum-security facility that houses mentally ill convicts.
At Atascadero, California Youth Authority psychiatrists and social workers disagreed with the court psychiatrists’ diagnoses. Their reports stated that Kemper showed “no flight of ideas, no interference with thought, no expression of delusions or hallucinations, and no evidence of bizarre thinking.” They also observed him to be intelligent and introspective. Initial testing measured his IQ at 136, over two standard deviations above average. He was re-diagnosed with a less severe condition, a “personality trait disturbance, passive-aggressive type.” Later on in his time at Atascadero, Kemper was given another IQ test, which gave a higher result of 145.
Kemper endeared himself to his psychiatrists by being a model prisoner, and was trained to administer psychiatric tests to other inmates. One of his psychiatrists later said: “He was a very good worker and this is not typical of a sociopath. He really took pride in his work.” Kemper also became a member of the Jaycees while in Atascadero and said he developed “some new tests and some new scales on the Minnesota Multiphasic Personality Inventory,” specifically an “Overt Hostility Scale,” during his work with Atascadero psychiatrists. After his second arrest, Kemper said that being able to understand how these tests functioned allowed him to manipulate his psychiatrists and admitted that he learned a lot from the sex offenders to whom he administered tests; for example, they told him it was best to kill a woman after raping her to avoid leaving witnesses.
Release and time between murders
On December 18, 1969, his 21st birthday, Kemper was released on parole from Atascadero. Against the recommendations of psychiatrists at the hospital, he was released into the care of his mother Clarnell—who had remarried, taken the surname Strandberg, and then divorced again—at 609 A Ord Street, Aptos, California, a short drive from where she worked as an administrative assistant at the University of California, Santa Cruz. Kemper later demonstrated further to his psychiatrists that he was rehabilitated, and on November 29, 1972, his juvenile records were permanently expunged. The last report from his probation psychiatrists read:
If I were to see this patient without having any history available or getting any history from him, I would think that we’re dealing with a very well adjusted young man who had initiative, intelligence and who was free of any psychiatric illnesses … It is my opinion that he has made a very excellent response to the years of treatment and rehabilitation and I would see no psychiatric reason to consider him to be of any danger to himself or to any member of society … [and] since it may allow him more freedom as an adult to develop his potential, I would consider it reasonable to have a permanent expunction of his juvenile records.
While staying with his mother, Kemper attended community college in accordance with his parole requirements and had hoped he would become a police officer, but was rejected because of his size—at the time of his release from Atascadero, Kemper stood 6 feet 9 inches (2.06 m) tall—which led to his nickname, “Big Ed”. Kemper maintained relationships with Santa Cruz police officers despite his rejection to join the force and became a self-described “friendly nuisance” at a bar called the Jury Room, which was a popular hangout for local law enforcement officers.
Kemper worked a series of menial jobs before securing employment with the State of California Highway Department (now known as the California Department of Transportation). During this time, his relationship with Clarnell remained toxic and hostile, with them having frequent arguments that their neighbors often overheard. Kemper later described the arguments he had with his mother around this time, stating:
My mother and I started right in on horrendous battles, just horrible battles, violent and vicious. I’ve never been in such a vicious verbal battle with anyone. It would go to fists with a man, but this was my mother, and I couldn’t stand the thought of my mother and I doing these things. She insisted on it and just over stupid things. I remember one roof-raiser was over whether I should have my teeth cleaned.
When he had saved enough money, Kemper moved out to live with a friend in Alameda. There, he still complained of being unable to get away from his mother, as she regularly phoned him and paid him surprise visits. He often had financial difficulties, which resulted in him frequently returning to his mother’s apartment in Aptos. At a Santa Cruz beach, Kemper met a student from Turlock High School to whom he became engaged in March 1973. The engagement was broken off after Kemper’s second arrest, and his fiancée’s parents requested that her name would not be revealed to the public.
The same year he began working for the Highway Department, Kemper was hit by a car while he was riding a motorcycle that he had recently purchased. His arm was badly injured in the crash, and he received a $15,000 (approximately $90,000 in 2019 when adjusted for inflation) settlement in the civil suit he filed against the car’s driver. As he was driving around in the 1969 Ford Galaxie he bought with part of his settlement money, he noticed a large number of young women hitchhiking and began storing plastic bags, knives, blankets, and handcuffs in his car. He then began picking up young women and peacefully letting them go. According to Kemper, he picked up around 150 such hitchhikers before he felt homicidal sexual urges, which he called his “little zapples,” and began acting on them.
Between May 1972 and April 1973, Kemper killed eight people. He would pick up female students who were hitchhiking and take them to isolated areas where he would shoot, stab, smother or strangle them. He would then take their bodies back to his home where he would decapitate them, perform irrumatio on their severed heads, have sexual intercourse with their corpses, and then dismember them.
During this 11-month murder spree, he killed five college students, one high school student, his mother and his mother’s best friend. Kemper has stated in interviews that he would often go out in search of victims after having arguments with his mother, and that she refused to introduce him to women attending the university where she worked. He recalled: “She would say, ‘You’re just like your father. You don’t deserve to get to know them’.” Psychiatrists, and Kemper himself, have espoused the belief that the young women were surrogates for his ultimate target: his mother.
Mary Ann Pesce and Anita Luchessa
On May 7, 1972, Kemper was driving in Berkeley when he picked up two 18-year-old hitchhiking Fresno State students, Mary Ann Pesce and Anita Mary Luchessa, on the pretext of taking them to Stanford University. After driving for an hour, he managed to reach a secluded wooded area near Alameda, with which he was familiar from his work at the Highway Department, without alerting his passengers that he had changed directions from where they wanted to go. Here he handcuffed Pesce and locked Luchessa in the trunk, then stabbed and strangled Pesce to death before killing Luchessa in a similar manner. Kemper later confessed that while handcuffing Pesce he “brushed the back of [his] hand against one of her breasts and it embarrassed [him]”, adding that he said “‘whoops, I’m sorry’ or something like that” after grazing her breast, despite murdering her minutes later.
Kemper put both of the women’s bodies in the trunk of his Ford Galaxie and returned to his apartment. He was stopped on the way by a police officer for having a broken taillight, but the officer did not detect the corpses in the car. Kemper’s roommate was not at home, so he took the bodies into his apartment, where he took photographs of, and had sexual intercourse with, the naked corpses before dismembering them. He then put the body parts into plastic bags, which he later abandoned near Loma Prieta Mountain. Before disposing of Pesce’s and Luchessa’s severed heads in a ravine, Kemper engaged in irrumatio with both of them. In August, Pesce’s skull was found on Loma Prieta Mountain. An extensive search failed to turn up the rest of Pesce’s remains or a trace of Luchessa.
On the evening of September 14, 1972, Kemper picked up a 15-year-old dance student named Aiko Koo, who had decided to hitchhike to a dance class after missing her bus. He again drove to a remote area, where he pulled a gun on Koo before accidentally locking himself out of his car. However, Koo let him back inside as he had previously gained the 15-year-old’s trust while holding her at gunpoint. Back inside the car, he proceeded to choke her unconscious, rape her, and kill her.
Kemper subsequently packed Koo’s body into the trunk of his car and went to a nearby bar to have a few drinks before returning to his apartment. He later confessed that after exiting the bar, he opened the trunk of his car, “admiring [his] catch like a fisherman.” Back at his apartment, he had sexual intercourse with the corpse before dismembering and disposing of the remains in a similar manner as his previous two victims. Koo’s mother called the police to report the disappearance of her daughter and put up hundreds of flyers asking for information, but did not receive any responses regarding her daughter’s location or status.
On January 7, 1973, Kemper, who had moved back in with his mother, was driving around the Cabrillo College campus when he picked up 18-year-old student Cynthia Ann “Cindy” Schall. He drove to a sequestered wooded area and fatally shot her with a .22 caliber pistol. He then placed her body in the trunk of his car and drove to his mother’s house, where he kept her body hidden in a closet in his room overnight. When his mother left for work the next morning, he had sexual intercourse with, and removed the bullet from Schall’s corpse before dismembering and decapitating her in his mother’s bathtub.
Kemper kept Schall’s severed head for several days, regularly engaging in irrumatio with it, before burying it in his mother’s garden facing upward toward her bedroom. After his arrest, he stated that he did this because his mother “always wanted people to look up to her.” He discarded the rest of Schall’s remains by throwing them off a cliff. Over the course of the following few weeks, all but her head and right hand were discovered and “pieced together like a macabre jigsaw puzzle.” A pathologist determined that Schall had been cut into pieces with a power saw.
Rosalind Thorpe and Allison Liu
On February 5, 1973, after a heated argument with his mother, Kemper left his house in search of possible victims. With heightened suspicion of a serial killer preying on hitchhikers in the Santa Cruz area, students were advised to only accept rides from cars with University stickers on them. Kemper had such a sticker as his mother worked at University of California, Santa Cruz. He encountered 23-year-old Rosalind Heather Thorpe and 20-year-old Alice Helen “Allison” Liu on the UCSC campus. According to Kemper, Thorpe entered his car first, who reassured Liu to also enter. He then fatally shot Thorpe and Liu with his .22 caliber pistol and wrapped their bodies in blankets.
Kemper again brought his victims back to his mother’s house; this time he beheaded them in his car and carried the headless corpses into his mother’s house to have sexual intercourse with them. He then dismembered the bodies, removed the bullets to prevent identification and, the next morning, discarded their remains. Some remains were found at Eden Canyon a week later, and more were found near Highway 1 in March.
When questioned in an interview as to why he decapitated his victims, he explained: “The head trip fantasies were a bit like a trophy. You know, the head is where everything is at, the brain, eyes, mouth. That’s the person. I remember being told as a kid, you cut off the head and the body dies. The body is nothing after the head is cut off … well, that’s not quite true, there’s a lot left in the girl’s body without the head.”
Clarnell Strandberg and Sally Hallett
On April 20, 1973, after coming home from a party, 52-year-old Clarnell Elizabeth Strandberg awakened her son with her arrival. While sitting in her bed reading a book, she noticed Kemper enter her room and said to him, “I suppose you’re going to want to sit up all night and talk now.” Kemper replied “No, good night.” He then waited for her to fall asleep before returning to bludgeon her with a claw hammer and slit her throat with a knife. He subsequently decapitated her and engaged in irrumatio with her severed head before using it as a dart board. Kemper stated that he “put [her head] on a shelf and screamed at it for an hour … threw darts at it,” and, ultimately, “smashed her face in.” He also cut out her tongue and larynx and put them in the garbage disposal. However, the garbage disposal could not break down the tough vocal cords and ejected the tissue back into the sink. “That seemed appropriate,” Kemper later said: “as much as she’d bitched and screamed and yelled at me over so many years.”
Kemper then hid his mother’s corpse in a closet and went out to drink at a nearby bar. Upon his return, he invited his mother’s best friend, 59-year-old Sara Taylor “Sally” Hallett, over to the house to have dinner and watch a movie. When Hallett arrived, Kemper strangled her to death to create a cover story that his mother and Hallett had gone away together on vacation. He subsequently put Hallett’s corpse in a closet, obscured any outward signs of a disturbance, and left a note to the police. It read:
Appx. 5:15 A.M. Saturday. No need for her to suffer any more at the hands of this horrible “murderous Butcher”. It was quick—asleep—the way I wanted it. Not sloppy and incomplete, gents. Just a “lack of time”. I got things to do!!!
Afterwards, Kemper fled the scene. He drove non-stop to Pueblo, Colorado, taking caffeine pills to stay awake for the over 1,000-mile journey. He had three guns and hundreds of rounds of ammunition in his car, and believed he was the target of an active manhunt. After not hearing any news on the radio about the murders of his mother and Hallett when he arrived in Pueblo, he found a phone booth and called the police. He confessed to the murders of his mother and Hallett, but the police did not take his call seriously and told him to call back at a later time. Several hours later, Kemper called again, asking to speak to an officer he personally knew. He confessed to that officer of killing his mother and Hallett, and waited for the police to arrive and take him into custody, where he also confessed to the murders of the six students.
When asked in a later interview why he turned himself in, Kemper said: “The original purpose was gone … It wasn’t serving any physical or real or emotional purpose. It was just a pure waste of time … Emotionally, I couldn’t handle it much longer. Toward the end there, I started feeling the folly of the whole damn thing, and at the point of near exhaustion, near collapse, I just said to hell with it and called it all off.”
Kemper was indicted on eight counts of first-degree murder on May 7, 1973. He was assigned the Chief Public Defender of Santa Cruz County, attorney Jim Jackson. Due to Kemper’s explicit and detailed confession, his counsel’s only option was to plead not guilty by reason of insanity to the charges. Kemper twice tried to commit suicide in custody. His trial went ahead on October 23, 1973.
Three court-appointed psychiatrists found Kemper to be legally sane. One of the psychiatrists, Dr. Joel Fort, investigated his juvenile records and the diagnosis that he was once psychotic. Fort also interviewed Kemper, including under truth serum, and relayed to the court that Kemper had engaged in cannibalism, alleging that he sliced flesh from the legs of his victims, then cooked and consumed these strips of flesh in a casserole. Nevertheless, Fort determined that Kemper was fully cognizant in each case, and stated that Kemper enjoyed the prospect of the infamy associated with being labeled a murderer. Kemper later recanted the confession of cannibalism.
California used the M’Naghten standard, which held that for a defendant to “establish a defense on the ground of insanity, it must be clearly proved that, at the time of the committing of the act, the party accused was laboring under such a defect of reason, from disease of mind, and not to know the nature and quality of the act he was doing; or if he did know it, that he did not know he was doing what was wrong.” Kemper appeared to have known that the nature of his acts was wrong, and had shown signs of malice aforethought. On November 1, Kemper took the stand. He testified that he killed the victims because he wanted them “for myself, like possessions,” and attempted to convince the jury that he was insane based on the reasoning that his actions could only have been committed by someone with an aberrant mind. He said two beings inhabited his body and that when the killer personality took over it was “kind of like blacking out.”
On November 8, 1973, the six-man, six-woman jury deliberated for five hours before declaring Kemper sane and guilty on all counts. He asked for the death penalty, requesting “death by torture.” However, with a moratorium placed on capital punishment by the Supreme Court of California, he instead received seven years to life for each count, with these terms to be served concurrently, and was sentenced to the California Medical Facility.
In the California Medical Facility, Kemper was incarcerated in the same prison block as other notorious criminals such as Herbert Mullin and Charles Manson. Kemper showed particular disdain for Mullin, who committed his murders at the same time and in the same area as Kemper. He described Mullin as “just a cold-blooded killer … killing everybody he saw for no good reason.” Kemper manipulated and physically intimidated Mullin, who, at 5 feet 7 inches (1.70 m), was more than a foot shorter than he. Kemper stated that “[Mullin] had a habit of singing and bothering people when somebody tried to watch TV, so I threw water on him to shut him up. Then, when he was a good boy, I’d give him peanuts. Herbie liked peanuts. That was effective, because pretty soon he asked permission to sing. That’s called behavior modification treatment.”
Kemper remains among the general population in prison and is considered a model prisoner. He was in charge of scheduling other inmates’ appointments with psychiatrists and was an accomplished craftsman of ceramic cups. He was also a prolific reader of books on tape for the blind; a 1987 Los Angeles Times article stated that he was the coordinator of the prison’s program and had personally spent over 5,000 hours narrating books with several hundred completed recordings to his name. He was retired from these positions in 2015, after he experienced a stroke and was declared medically disabled. He received his first rules violation report in 2016, for failing to provide a urine sample. Kemper on November 17, 2011
While imprisoned, Kemper has participated in a number of interviews, including a segment in the 1982 documentary The Killing of America, as well as an appearance in the 1984 documentary Murder: No Apparent Motive. His interviews have contributed to the understanding of the mind of serial killers. FBI profiler John Douglas described Kemper as “among the brightest” prison inmates he ever interviewed and capable of “rare insight for a violent criminal.”
Kemper is forthcoming about the nature of his crimes and has stated that he participated in the interviews to save others like himself from killing. At the end of his Murder: No Apparent Motive interview, he said: “There’s somebody out there that is watching this and hasn’t done that – hasn’t killed people, and wants to, and rages inside and struggles with that feeling, or is so sure they have it under control. They need to talk to somebody about it. Trust somebody enough to sit down and talk about something that isn’t a crime; thinking that way isn’t a crime. Doing it isn’t just a crime, it’s a horrible thing. It doesn’t know when to quit and it can’t be stopped easily once it starts.” He also conducted an interview with French writer Stéphane Bourgoin in 1991.
Kemper was first eligible for parole in 1979. He was denied parole that year, as well as at parole hearings in 1980, 1981, and 1982. He subsequently waived his right to a hearing in 1985. He was denied parole at his 1988 hearing, where he said: “society is not ready in any shape or form for me. I can’t fault them for that.” He was denied parole again in 1991 and in 1994. He then waived his right to a hearing in 1997 and in 2002. He attended the next hearing, in 2007, where he was again denied parole. Prosecutor Ariadne Symons said: “We don’t care how much of a model prisoner he is because of the enormity of his crimes.” Kemper waived his right to a hearing again in 2012. He was denied parole in 2017 and is next eligible in 2024.
In popular culture
Kemper has influenced many works of film and literature. He was an inspiration for the character of “Buffalo Bill” in Thomas Harris‘ 1988 novel The Silence of the Lambs and its 1991 film adaptation. Like Kemper, Bill fatally shoots his grandparents as a teenager. Dean Koontz cited Kemper as an inspiration for character Edgler Vess in his 1996 novel Intensity. The character Patrick Bateman, in the 2000 film American Psycho, mistakenly attributes a quote by Kemper to Ed Gein, saying: “You know what Ed Gein said about women? … He said ‘When I see a pretty girl walking down the street, I think two things. One part of me wants to take her out, talk to her, be real nice and sweet and treat her right … [the other part wonders] what her head would look like on a stick’.”
A direct-to-video horror film loosely based on Kemper’s murders, titled Kemper: The CoEd Killer, was released in 2008. French author Marc Dugain published a novel, Avenue des géants (Avenue of the Giants), about Kemper in 2012. Kemper was portrayed by actor Cameron Britton in the 2017 Netflix television drama series Mindhunter. Britton received a nomination for the Primetime Emmy Award for Outstanding Guest Actor in a Drama Series because of this role.
Extracts from Kemper’s interviews have been used in numerous songs, including “Love // Hate” by Dystopia, “Abomination Unseen” by Devourment, “Forever” by The Berzerker, “Severed Head” by Suicide Commando and “Crave” by Optimum Wound Profile. He is also discussed in many songs, such as “Edmund Kemper Had a Horrible Temper” by Macabre, “Fortress” by System of a Down, “Temper Temper Mr. Kemper” by The Celibate Rifles, “Murder” by Seabound, and “Killfornia (Ed Kemper)” by Church of Misery.
Below I am re-posting photos, a video interview clip, and narrative that was originally posted February 21 2020 on buggedspace.com.
No one in Ed Kemper’s life had a hint of what he was like in real life. Ed Kemper had a genius IQ of 145 and was the kind of person you could imagine having a fascinating conversation with over a cup of coffee.
Ed Kemper was so likable, indeed that no one would have ever guessed that he could be capable of killing a total of 10 people and defiling their corpses. He covered his tracks so thoroughly, that he would have never been caught until he picked up a payphone and turned himself in.
The video clip below compares an actual interview with Ed Kemper with the dramatized interview portrayed on Mindhunter.
Ed Kemper Quotes
“Well, Cops like me because they can talk to me, more than they can talk to their own wives, some of them.”
“I look at the wreckage behind me, the dead people caused by my self-indulgence in fantasy life and then my self-indulgence in not doing something about it—getting help, or taking action against myself, even.”
“I was raging inside, there was just… incredible energies… positive and negative. Uh… depending on a mood, that would trigger one or the other. And outside, I looked troubled at times, other times, I looked moody. Uh, other times, perfectly serene. Not very sane. But again… people weren’t even aware of what was happening.”
“I stabbed her all over her back, she turned around and I stabbed her on the side and the stomach once. As she turned around I could have stabbed her through the heart, but her breasts were there. Her breasts actually deflected me. I couldn’t see myself stabbing a young woman in her breasts. That’s embarrassing.”
“I just wanted to see how it felt to shoot Grandma.”
“One side of me says, ‘Wow, what an attractive chick. I’d like to talk to her, date her.’ The other side of me says, ‘I wonder how her head would look on a stick?’”
“When I got out on the street it was like being on a strange planet. People my age were not talking the same language. I had been living with people older than I was for so long that I was an old fogey.”
“If I killed them, you know, they couldn’t reject me as a man. It was more or less making a doll out of a human being . . . and carrying out my fantasies with a doll, a living human doll.”
“Maybe they can study me and find out what makes people like me do the things they do.”
I may not be so much to look at myself, but I have always gone after pretty girls.
I remember it was very exciting.….there was actually a sexual thrill.… It was kind of an exalted triumphant type thing, like taking the head of a deer or an elk or something would be to a hunter…. I was the hunter and they were the victims.
“Alive, they were distant, not sharing with me. I was trying to establish a relationship and there was no relationship there…”
“The first good-looking girl I see tonight is going to die.”
“I killed my mother and her friend. And I killed those college girls. I killed six of them and I can show you where I hid the pieces of their bodies.”
“At first I picked up girls just to talk to them, just to try to get acquainted with people my own age and try to strike up a friendship.”
When they were being killed, there wasn’t anything going on in my mind except that they were going to be mine….That was the only way they could be mine.
“I couldn’t please her…. It was like being in jail….I became a walking time bomb and I finally blew …”
“My mother was there. She was there to beat me, she was there to humiliate me, she was there to use me as an example of how inferior men are.”
“She loved me in her way and despite all the violent screaming and yelling arguments we had, I loved her, too. But she had to manage your life…and interfere in your personal affairs.”
“Sometimes, afterward, I visited there…to be near her…because I loved her and wanted her.”
“I decided to mix the two and have a situation of rape and murder and no witnesses and no prosecution.
“I suppose as I was standing there looking, I was doing one of those triumphant things, too, admiring my work and admiring her beauty, and I might say admiring my catch like a fisherman.”
“They were like spirit wives….I still had their spirits. I still have them.”
“Appx. 5:15 A.M. Saturday. No need for her to suffer any more at the hands of this horrible ‘murderous Butcher’. It was quick—asleep—the way I wanted it. Not sloppy and incomplete, gents. Just a ‘lack of time’. I got things to do!!!”
“I didn’t hit her. I killed her, but I never hit her.”
“My mother and I had had a real tiff. I was pissed. I told her I was going to a movie and I jumped up and went straight to the campus because it was still early. I said, the first girl that’s halfway decent that I pick up, I’m gonna blow her brains out.”
“Oh, what is it like to have sex with a dead body?… What does it feel like to sit on your living room couch and look over and see two decapitated girls’ heads on the arm of the couch? The first time, it makes you sick to your stomach.”
“I came up behind her and crooked my arm around her neck, like this. I squeezed and just lifted her off the floor. She just hung there and, for a moment, I didn’t realize she was dead….I had broken her neck and her head was just wobbling around with the bones of her neck disconnected in the skin sack of her neck.”
“The head trip fantasies were a bit like a trophy. You know the head is where everything is at, the brain, eyes, mouth. That’s the person. I remember being told as a kid, you cut off the head and the body dies. The body is nothing after the head is cut off … well, that’s not quite true, there’s a lot left in the girl’s body without the head.”
“I just wanted the exaltation over the party. In other words, winning over death. They were dead and I was alive. That was the victory in my case.”
“I was really quite struck by her personality and her looks and there was just almost a reverence there….”
I’ve been writing seriously since 1966 and this is the first time I’ve ever experienced writer’s block. It’s a scary, unsettling feeling. I go days and weeks where I cannot write at all, and others when I write and hate everything I’ve written.
In the past, I have often felt more as if I were taking dictation from my subconscious than inventing something new. The sentences flowed, one after another, until I got to the end (of my energy or time). Then I stopped for sleep or supper or to spend some time engaged with my husband and friends. The next day I picked up where I had left off and simply continued.
Last night my husband and I watched a documentary about author Tim O’Brien, National Book Award Winner (Going after Cacciato), best known for his Vietnam antiwar books. He and his wife each discussed his periods of writer’s block. At the time of the filming, he had not published anything for 15 years (gasp!). He sat at his desk every day, his wife said. His goal was to produce two pages, but some days he produced nothing. He filled his waste paper basket, he said, with rejected pages. A year later, he finished writing the autobiography he wanted to create for his two young sons.
I was heartening to realize that writers I admire have had–and overcome–debilitating blocks in creativity. I will work through this and come out on the other side. I’ll write every day until my internal writer speaks to me once more and I begin to take dictation again.
Can all these things coexist in one life? The more I learn and the longer I live, the more I think so.
After thirty-five years and many false starts, I am (finally) writing full time, for myself and not for my business. In 1983 I joined a writer’s group and pretended to understand writers who claimed that their process was difficult, even unpleasant. I was 34 at the time and loved to write, and it never occurred to me that I couldn’t get published. Now I don’t know whether I can, and I’m afraid to reach out and try. I’m afraid to tell people that I’m writing true crime because it sounds cheesy. I’m afraid I’ll sell the book but then get cancer and die before I finish writing it. I’m afraid to interview the victims’ and perpetrator’s families because I don’t want to open old wounds or ask rude questions.
Writing true crime is hard work! I’ve read and re-read the investigative interviews conducted by the Manatee County Sheriff’s detectives, letters I’ve exchanged with the man who confessed to the murders, the articles written by Bradenton journalists. I’ve read the search warrants asking that the murder scene be searched for “fruits, instrumentalities, and evidence,” and learned what that means. I’ve researched the psychological profiles of killers, especially killers of children, and the subject of writing about murderers (See Janet Malcolm, The Journalist and the Murderer).
I’ve written some chapters, re-written them, and edited my re-writes; I’ve crafted a book proposal and a query letter to send to potential literary agents. I’ve researched agents who might be interested in representing true crime manuscripts. I’ve created lists of follow-up questions to ask everyone I’ve interviewed and lists of new questions to ask all the people I have yet to interview. It’s true that all those tasks need to be done. But first, I need to write as much of the book as I possibly can now.