As a true crime author, I visit crime scenes. I feel obligated to do so. The only way you can really appreciate or even describe a place is to stand there and look at it yourself. I’m not looking for clues, but for the kind of subtle nuances that you cannot pick up when you pull up a place on Google Earth.
I primarily write about cold cases. I’m not looking for any evidence or something that will change the case. I just try and get a feel for the locations. You wish the trees or the road could talk though. They bore witness to horrific acts and stood mute as the crimes unfolded. If only…
I was talking with my publisher, Steve Jackson, and we both relayed stories of how we have found there are true crime readers that make pilgrimages to these locations. Steve actually was driving by one such locale in Colorado and spotted a woman walking in the snow, carrying a copy of his book. Both he and the fan were a little surprised when he approached her in the frigid snow.
Ron Franscell, an outstanding true crime author, goes so far in his Outlaw series (the latest being Outlaw Los Angeles which you should go purchase) to include GPS coordinates for the key locations. Ron clearly is ahead of the curve on this topic and gives his fans what they want – a physical connection to his written words.
I encountered this with every true crime book I’ve written. Readers go to these spots to see them for themselves. I remember after writing about the murder of Daisy Zick (Murder in Battle Creek) the owners of her house told me that they had been unaware of the murder that took place in their home. They noticed right after the book came out that there was a steady stream of cars on their little dead-end road, all slowing as they drove by. People went to Jono Drive to see the home where Mrs. Zick died.
Similarly I get people asking me online where the Tasty Café was in Marshall Michigan, the subject of my book, Secret Witness. I understand the curiosity. For me as a writer, the location is important. It is a stage where heinous acts took place. It is a setting, a tangible link to a crime.
On one instance, for the book, The Murder of Maggie Hume, my daughter (and co-author) went with me to compare the confession of Michael Ronning with the physical placement of the apartments. It proved important. From where Ronning said he saw Maggie in the window, it was physically impossible to have done so because of the angle of the building. We retraced her steps as best we could that night, even grabbing a bite at the Ritzee in Battle Creek, where she had been before her murder. Distances and travel time become important for us to try and replicate.
As an author, I don’t advocate or recommend that people go to the sites I write about. In some cases, they are downright creepy, if not dangerous. I don’t recommend it – but I know people do it anyway.
For our upcoming book, A Special Kind of Evil, The Colonial Parkway Serial Killings, I will be doing a number of blog posts in the coming weeks talking about the crime scenes we visited and our observations and some photos we were unable to include in the book.
Victoria Hester and I spent time at all of the spots, so that we could get it right in the book. There are problems we faced with the visits, as well as some weird stories along the way. In the case of one of the murders, David Knobling and Robin Edwards, the exact spot where the bodies were found has long since eroded away, the victim of storms over the decades. In the case of Keith Call and Cassandra Hailey we can only visit where Keith’s car was abandoned. There has not been any physical evidence they were actually on the parkway. With Cathy Thomas and Rebecca Dowski; we visited where their bodies were found, but again, there is no evidence they were killed in that spot. Only in the case of Annamaria Phelps and Daniel Lauer can we be relatively sure they were killed at or very near where they were found.
For those of you that visit the sites, I offer this advice – be careful. Some locales attract bad people. #TrueCrime #ASpecialKindofEvil