A Review of Killing Season – The Unsolved Case of New England’s Deadliest Serial Killer by Carlton Smith

Killing Season

As most of you know, I am an author of cold case true crime books so this one caught my attention. With cold cases there are two things that get the reader engaged. First is the crimes. Second, is, “Why did this case end up not getting solved?” It is in this second topic area that this book soars.
Starting in 1988 a serial killer struck in the town of New Bedford MA, killing wantonly and dumping bodies along a highway. The town itself is a character in this book, you get a feel for the grit and the drug culture that makes you feel like you want to take a shower after you read some sections.
This is not about the serial killer as much as a story of a prosecutor gone wild. It is about individuals that may have been (likely) wrongly targeted and a search for facts to back that up, rather than the pursuit of the murderer. If you ever wanted to read a book to learn why most cold cases don’t get resolved – this is the book for you! The author takes a very complicated story of grand juries, bumbled investigations, and outright wrongful prosecution and weaves it into a dark tapestry of lies, deceit, and hollow justice.
Carlton Smith has done a masterful job of guiding the reader to form their own opinions; though we will all end up at the same place…it is just a matter of when and how we get there. It is not a riveting book, but one that infuriates you that the justice system has failed these victims so completely and utterly.  Any book that can make you furious is one worth reading.
I highly recommend this true crime tale that has me marking off New Bedford as a city I never wish to visit. I need to look at what other true crime books this author has to offer.

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Retro Review – Helter Skelter (TV Show and DVD) 1976

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Holds up to the test of time strangely enough

This is a bit of a retro-review.  Back in 1976, CBS ran a mini-series (I seem to remember two episodes) of Helter Skelter, based on the book by Vincent Bugliosi, the prosecutor on the Tate-LaBianca murders in 1969.  When it ran, it was the 16th most watched TV film.  Subsequently it was released in movie theaters as well.  I remember watching this on TV when it came out and, at the age of 12, I remember it scared the hell out of me.  Steve Railsback played Manson and, while a little tall for the role, was incredibly compelling and gave me nightmares.  Nancy Wolfe’s version of Susan Atkins was creepy as all hell.  Because of this, the book came into our house and I read it.  For me, it was one of my first steps on the journey to being a true crime author.  (Another being the Lindbergh Kidnapping Case starring Anthony Hopkins – which is also available now on DVD.)  

 

I recently found Helter Skelter on DVD on Amazon.  A part of me wondered if I would find it cheesy after all of these years.  After all, it was a TV made for movie.  My expectations were pretty low. 

 

Is it true to the book?  Mostly – ish .  Clearly there is more in the book than can ever make it to the screen. It is clear that the screenwriters did what they could to stick to the facts.  

Well, for the most part, the series has stood the test of time.  I was still impressed with Railsback’s version of Manson, he hit the nail on the head from what I’ve seen of interviews with Charlie before his death.  From a story-perspective, it is hard to tell the entire story of the Manson family and the horrible murders they committed, but this does a good job. 

 

There are a few minor nits I have.  The spots for the commercial breaks are many and can disrupt the flow.  There’s no way around that.  The production quality is 1970’s television, so things you will see that are not up to the special effects we have today.  I am not a big fan of Vince’s character breaking the 4th wall and talking to the viewers, but it does help fill in some narrative on a complex case. 

 

Some of the acting of the minor characters is marginal, but I have to admit, it was still pretty gripping to watch.  Quinten Tarantio is coming out with a Manson-related film next year, Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, but that doesn’t seem to fit the bill for me. 

In an age of TV networks dedicated to true crime, the original 1976 Helter Skelter series is worth picking up and re-watching.  It didn’t give me the nightmares it did the first time, but it was entertaining enough.  

Review of The Case Files of the East Area Rapist / Golden State Killer by Kat Winters and Keith Komos

East Area

 

When I was at CrimeCon 18 I saw this book and purchased the Kindle edition when I got home.  I notice today it is not up on Amazon, but that could be either a bug with Amazon.com or the authors working on a new edition.  I would hope they would keep this one in print because it is useful.

As a true crime author, I wanted some details on this case and this book is all about the details.  It covers every single crime related to the Golden State Killer.  Some of this was clearly compiled from police reports, while other incidents seem a little lighter, perhaps from media sources.

This is not a casual read…there is a LOT of material here.  My hates off to Kat Winters and Keith Komos for the staggering amount of research they did for this.  I wanted this level of detail in a book.  As a true crime author my level of curosity is at the nuts and bolts level and here, this book doesn’t disappoint.  If you want an overview level of the cases, there are some great books out there.  This one takes you through every single crime.

What was strange was that after I read it (nightly for four weeks – it’s that big) I started to blur the cases together in my head.  Perfect.  That meant there was a very distinct pattern that you see emerge with these crimes.  It is incredible how the murderer (suspect Joseph DeAngelo) followed a pattern of how to approach the target homes, entry, things he said to the victims, his methods of immobilizing them, etc.  I knew this going into the book, but not on the incredible volume of cases.  What you are led through, chronologically, is the evolution of madness this rapist/killer went through.  You can read clearly how he honed his horrific skills.  The amount of work that went into this book is something I respect as a researcher and author.

We knew that the Golden State Killer called his victims, but I was surprised at how much he tracked and called them.  He used the phone to stake out when the houses were empty and when certain people were at home.  This kind of stuff is golden (no pun intended) for a true crime fan like me.

The book has a conversational tone in some areas where the authors ask the readers questions about what they see.  I’m not a huge fan of that, but it didn’t ruin the book for me.  It is a style of writing and you don’t have to be a fan of every style.  There were some editing mistakes, but I’m in no position to cast stones on that front.  Sidebar:  That stuff happens and the people that make a big deal about it are often would-be writers themselves who believe the English language is composed of hard and fast rules that cannot be pushed or broken.  There hasn’t been a book I’ve read in the last decade that hasn’t had some minor hiccup when it comes to grammar.  Let it go people.  End Sidebar

There is remarkably little about the investigation.  This is, per the title, the “case files.”  For some true crime fans that is going to be something they will struggle over.  There is no narrative that weaves all of this together.  It reminds me of Dragnet’s infamous line, “Just the facts ma’am.”

With DeAngelo’s case front and center with the media, this is a great go-to book in the coming years.  Everytime something has come up on TV about the case, I’ve done a search on my Kindle copy to check references.

I give this 4 out of 5 stars for the casual true crime reader.  For someone wanting to know each and every case, it is 5 out of 5 stars.

 

 

Washington DC Has A New Serial Killer On the Loose

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My daughter and I are working on a new book on a serial killing cold case.  Imagine my surprise this week to learn that DC has another serial murderer.  You would think this would have made more headlines than it did.  A part of the reason you may not have heard about it is that the Washington DC police are downplaying it as much as possible.

In April of this year, the skeletal remains of three women were found in the Congress Heights neighborhood when construction workers enlarging a crawl space at an apartment building uncovered the first body.  A search of the wooded area adjoining the house uncovered the remains of two other women buried in the same shallow grave.

The three victims, Jewel Marquita King, 48; Verdell Jefferson, 41; and Dorothy Jean Butts, 43 all showed signs of foul play.  Ms. King and Ms. Butts had been shot, where Ms. Jefferson showd signs of being bludgeoned.  All three disappeared from the same neighborhood where they were found at different times.  Police did not disclose if bullets had been recovered, but it is a safe bet given the advanced stage of decomposition of the remains.

According to the Washington Post, Police Chief Newsham was open to the thought of a serial killer being responsible.  “We would always consider that to be a potential in this case.”  Really?  While I commend the effort that the Metropolitan Police are putting into this case at this point in time, I think it s more than safe to say that we have a serial killer on the loose.  These women all disappeared in 2006, not at once but over time.  According to the FBI, a serial killer is someone who commits at least three murders over more than a month with an emotional cooling off period in between.  Clearly these crimes are connected.

The Washington DC police have done a great job in using DNA to identify the victims.  What has been glossed over is the fact that three women disappeared in the same neighborhood and no one connected the dots to see that they might be connected.  This automatically puts the Metropolitian Police playing catch up with a killer that struck years ago.  It does make on wonder, did the killer operate in other nearby neighborhoods and his other victims haven’t been found yet?  What other murders are tied to these cases?  What evidence has been gathered?  How did the ball get dropped up to this point?  What other community law enforcement agencies have been engaged in these cases?

DC and surrounding communities have a long history of unsolved murder sprees that qualify as serial killings.  Look at the Suitland Slayings in the 1980’s where a number of victims were found in Suitland Maryland and their cases never resolved.  There’s the Freeway Phantom case – and others.

These victims and these cases cannot be treated lightly or glossed over.

 

Review of The Staircase on Netflix

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This documentary covers the legal ordeal of Michael Peterson in the murder of his wife, Kathleen.  The case is portrayed as murky, highly questionable, with devious prosecutors that were out to get Peterson (why, we are never told.)  Peterson’s trial, and eventual guilty plea for manslaughter, is one of the most publicized trials in North Carolina in the last few decades.  It is presented as a rollercoaster of conspiracy, deception, and incompetence.

One must remember, this documentary comes in with a distinct agenda.  It is a selective narrative aimed at glorifying a suspected killer at the expense of the true victim.  Funding for this documentary was initially done by Michael Peterson.  As such, it glosses over some key elements of Peterson, only offering a one-sided perspective of the trial.  In some instances, it omits evidence presented in trial that further implicates Peterson in his wife’s death.

Conveniently left out of the series; Peterson’s wife had a 1.4 million dollar insurance policy – and that he had just told her that he had accumulated $145k in credit card debt.  Further, Kathleen was concerned about losing her job.  Peterson’s gravy train was over.  The film misrepresented the evidence about the blow-poke weapon – and that Peterson had ordered three of them just prior to the murder.  It skipped that the bloody footprint found on the victim was directly tied to Michael’s shoe.  The series never explained how, when he called 911 he claimed she was still alive, but when EMS arrived, the blood was long dried and that she had died much earlier.  The series neglected to mention that Michael deleted hundreds of files from his PC in an attempt to hide from investigators his financial motives for killing his wife (obstruction of justice.)  After allegedly consuming two bottles of wine, Kathleen’s alcohol level was low enough for her to drive legally, implying that Michael’s story of drinking and falling was staged.  Her fingerprints weren’t on the wine glass she allegedly used…but this too was omitted from the series.

As a true crime author I don’t accept what I see on TV as gospel.  Just from some cursory research on my part, I was left wondering what the film got right.  The show desperately tries to downplay the fact that Peterson was unfaithful and that he was bisexual and having affairs outside of his marriage – allowing Peterson to imply that his wife knew and was okay with his activities.  I will tell you, a much of how Peterson characterized his affairs with other men demonstrated he was being at least somewhat deceptive (thank you Stephan Lampley for your session on To Catch a Liar at Crimecon!) While I’m not an expert, I was shocked at how Peterson initially lied (on camera) about the affair, then when caught, tried to whitewash it.

Much like the Making of a Murderer, Netflix has put out a documentary that only tells one perspective, designed to slant viewers perceptions of a tragedy.  It is a show that starts with a premise and seeks to prove it, rather than tell the whole story.  Lost in this one is the victim, Kathleen.  Her sisters and one daughter seem concerned about learning the truth of what happened to her, but that is almost buried in 13 hours of slanted docudrama.  We are supposed to believe that Michael is the victim in this Shakespearean tragedy.

In looking at the whole of the documentary, it seems that Peterson’s defense team dropped the ball a few times.  Years later they argued that the evidence had not been stored right and couldn’t be tested for DNA.  They could have done that at the time of his original trial, before the evidence storage issue, and didn’t.  In fact, they personally mishandled that evidence during the trial.  They could have put up experts to refute the investigator Duane Deaver who was (post-trial) proven to have manipulated outcomes of tests in another case.  Note:  Deaver never was proven to have perjured himself during Peterson’s trial.  If his testimony was so damning, why not tear it apart during the trial?  Instead what we are given in the series is a shadowy group of investigators out to get an innocent man.

As a sidebar, I find it disturbing on the number of people that are willing to believe that investigators and prosecutors are deliberately manipulating data to wrongfully prosecute innocent people.  I have seen a lot of social media posts about other cases claiming vast conspiracies around various murders.  I’m not saying that it doesn’t happen, but it should not be our default setting that all investigators have some sort of mysterious agenda. While travesties of justice happen, they are the exception – not the rule.  It strikes me odd that we are so willing to believe these tales.

I am not an expert, but I have seen a lot of crime scene photos as a researcher and author of true crime.  I’ve seen more murder photos than a “normal” person. The number of injuries that she had and the blood splatters I saw in the images are worse than some stabbing victims I have seen.  I find it difficult, if not impossible, to be create that amount of blood splatter on the walls with a fall down a flight of stairs.  Add in multiple motives, and I think the prosecution was not persecuting Peterson, as portrayed in the show, but rather doing their job and pursuing justice.

Peterson shows little to no remorse over the fact that one of his daughters has been ostracized by the family for thinking that he was guilty.  In many portions, this is a “woe is me,” show attempting to paint a murderer as a victim of a witch hunt by the authorities.  In reality, Michael Peterson had a book deal all lined up on the presumption he would be found innocent.  He was looking to profit from his wife’s death.

I had to force myself to the end of this series. It was so one-sided, it forced me to do some digging on my own into the case and what I found was that this series was a slanted and distorted piece of work at best.  If you watch it, do some research on your own so you get the whole story – please.

As a sidebar, I found it interesting that the producers glossed over the son, Clayton Peterson’s “brush with the law,” where he planted a bomb on campus in an effort to steal equipment for making fake ID’s.  Yeah, this is not your typical American family.

I give this two (barely) out of five stars.

 

Some author humor: You know you are a writer when you…

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I write in a lot of different genres, from true crime to sci-fi to military history.  Over the years I have accumulated a lot of experience in being an author.  This list covers a pretty wide variety of those genre’s.  It is intended for my author friends out there to give them a moment of self-indulgence.  As such, I present the following:

You know you are a writer when you…

…carry on conversations in your head (or out loud) with people that are either dead or who never existed.

…hate math but when you look at your Amazon author’s ratings you want to get into full algebra mode to try and figure out your book sales, ratings, etc.

…delete more words than ever appear in print.

…begrudgingly admit when an editor catches something you missed.

…wake up in the middle of the night with a brilliant idea…and in the morning you can only remember having the brilliant idea, not what it was.

…you look at an editor’s comment about a paragraph and say, “That’s cute, but there’s no fucking way I’m changing that!”

…have stacks of research and notes all around your PC and can find any single page in less than 20 seconds if called upon.

…experience dread when sitting at a lonely table at Barnes & Noble to autograph books.

…spend six hours reading to get three sentences of content and consider yourself productive.

…have referred to an editor as, “That Fuckity-fuck-fucking-fuck-faced-fucker.”

…don’t express emotion when a person in your life dies, but you weep when you kill one of your favorite characters.

…are writing stories in your sleep.

…critique other writer’s sources and footnotes.

…have told someone, “Yes, everyone has a novel in them.  That doesn’t mean they were meant to put it on paper.”

…think the character you are describing is George Clooney but the fans think it’s Jerry Lewis.

…are accused of having subtext in your work that doesn’t exist.

…devise new ways to procrastinate.

…get excited to learn a new feature of MS Word.

…have seen comments from an editor and said things out loud like, “How in the hell can you have a problem with the word ‘red’?”

…get into arguments with fans about continuity errors.

…get into arguments with characters that don’t really exist outside of your mind.

…can watch TV and know when a suspect is lying on a true crime show because you have studied how to spot it.

…name a character after some douchebag in your life, just so you can enjoy killing the character (slowly, without mercy.)

writers

…read your own words and physically cringe.

…see something on TV and you’re sure they lifted it from one of your works.

…hide Easter eggs in your manuscript just to see if readers find them.

…wince when someone sends you an unsolicited manuscript and expects you to read it and provide detailed input – by Wednesday – pro bono.

…have standing instructions to destroy your personal journals upon your death.

…consider caffeine the top of your food pyramid.

…have asked yourself, “What would my character do in this situation?”

…have boxes of research material you can’t toss because it was so hard to get in the first place.

…have been days when you have not seen sunlight because of your craft.

…lost your temper when someone has asked for a free copy of one of your books. “Can you shoot me a PDF of your latest book?”  “No.  Fuck no.”

…you own a hoodie that says, “Basically a Detective.”  (true story – thanks CrimeCon!)

…engage in debates with people about the range of lasers, particle projection cannons, and rail guns.

…have toys in your workspace to spark creativity.

…have spent 15 minutes rewriting a sentence only to delete it.

…know the archivists at the National Archives by name (or they know your birthday.)

…take notes of people’s personality and physical quirks to use later in your stories.

…own maps for planets that do not exist.

…have nightmares because of things you are writing.

…have books on your shelf that you wrote that you have not opened in years – and when you do, you critique your own work.

…secretly believe your characters are meeting and plotting against you.

…question other people’s/character’s sanity, but never your own.

…have debates with yourself over how a sentence can be interpreted…and lose the argument!

…appreciate why Hemmingway drank so much when he wrote.

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…have flipped-off the PC monitor after reading an idiotic review on Amazon.

…know the tunnel system under the Library of Congress as well as your own basement.

…go through Facebook for photos of people to use as characters in your novel.

…have to ask someone what day it is because you were so busy writing, you are no longer sure.

…never feel alone because of the voices in your head.

…get calls from your police friends asking, “Did you see that shit on TV?”

…can’t cook breakfast but have a solid understanding of forensics psychology and/or quantum mechanics.

…define a great day as, “having scored at the National Archives!” and It has nothing to do with sex.

…meet other authors and realize that there’s a reason you work in your home office alone.

…look forward to meeting your fans and dread it at the same time.

…repeat yourself often because you can no longer distinguish the conversations in your head and the ones you say out loud.  (true story)

…can’t remember the last time you ate, but can describe the last meal your character had in intimate detail.

…are actively considering taking up alcoholism because it might help hone your craft.

…you can’t change the oil on your car but you know when a fusion reactor doesn’t sound right on a BattleMech.
…have written up reviews of reviews you have received.  “Your review of my recent book demonstrates a third grade understanding of grammar, at best.  While I don’t use the words, ‘flatulating butthead,” often, they seem to apply in your case.” Or, the more popular, “Does your mommy know you are on the internet?”

…are caught by your spouse looking at pictures on your PC, and it isn’t porn, it’s autopsy photos.  (true story)

…read an interview where you are quoted, but you were never interviewed by the writer.

…cringe at questions about book production.  Example:  “When will this be available in Australia, as an audio book, in French?”  Rant Mode Engaged:  We are writers, not publishers.  We don’t know this shit.  We are the LAST to know this shit.

…are convinced that white van parked for three hours in front of your house is the FBI or Virginia State Police surveilling you. (true story)

…count comic books and movies as “research expenses.”

…watch a true crime show and mentally pick up on all of the procedural mistakes.

…have spoken in the voice of one of your characters, hopefully when alone and in private.

…like a book for things that no one else does.  “The plot structure was unorthodox and cool…I’m SO stealing it for my next project.”

…consider among your best friends, characters you created. Sidebar:  Do not use them for references on job applications.

…you get hang-up phone calls from burner phones and are convinced it is serial killers you have written about.  (true story)

…are unsure what day it is because you are so in-deep with a writing project.

…spend your whole life waiting to be recognized and asked for autographs, only to find each one to be an awkward and sometimes disturbing encounter.

…are recognized for something you wrote that you put little effort into; while the work you are most proud of is hardly read by fans.

…have missed one or more meals because of a sentence that is being a bitch and refusing to be written correctly.

…study things that most other people do not, just so you can be accurate.  Example:  Geographic profiling algorithms.

…have had an argument with a fan over a character you created, and killed.  “How could you have killed her that way?”  “You do realize that she’s not a real person, right? And I killed her because I created her!”

…have made someone uncomfortable at a dinner party when they ask you about your latest project.  “…and she was brutally stabbed repeatedly for a dozen times.  The splatter pattern was everywhere…”

…realize your search history on our PC ensures you are going to go to jail.  Examples:  Ligature strangulation.  Time to asphyxiate an adult.  Moving dead bodies.  Decomposition of human remains.  Unsolved serial killing sprees.  Murder kits. Note:  My wife is the safest person on the world.  If anything happens to her, I will go to jail on my search history alone.

….apply what you learned about police interrogations and spotting liars into your day-to-day interactions with other people.  “Oh, she’s lying, listen to how she responded by my question…”

…have no idea what kind or size of engine is in your car, but can rattle off the fusion reactors and manufacturers for every model of BattleMaster BattleMech ever produced.

…have maps of WWI battlefields (or similar locales) laying around your office because you never know when you might need them.

…experience both excitement and sheer terror when a new book is released.

…struggle telling people at your day job what you do at night.  “Technically, when I’m not here, I’m out fighting crime…”

…admire when another author gets it right!

Review of Zodiac, The Case of the Zodiac Killer, by Michael Morford and Michael Ferguson

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Zodiac.  Just the mention of it to true crime fans elicits reaction, be it because of the books or the motion picture, the History Channel series, or the rumors and innuendo about the case. Like many people, I got sucked in by Robert Graysmith’s big yellow covered book on Zodiac years ago.  I even listed it on my compilation of best true crime books.  Blaine’s List of True Crime Books  It isn’t perfect, as a true crime author I understand that.  Let’s face it, that book was a gateway drug for all of us into this case.

Zodiac, as a killer, compels us…taunts us.  He was one of those rare serial killers that communicated to the public and toyed with the investigators.  He dared the police to catch him, and thus far, they have failed.  The new DNA sampling techniques and use of hereditary DNA sites may yet net this murderer…but until then, he remains elusive.

One of my publishers (full disclosure here) recently published a book on Zodiac, The Case of the Zodiac Killer – The Complete Transcript and With Additional Commentary, Photographs, and Documents.

I wasn’t sure if I would even like the book because it is the transcripts of a very popular podcast, Criminology.   Would transcripts of a podcast make for a readable book?  I went in with a healthy dose of skepticism. Some podcasts out there would not be able to pull this off, the back and forth banter would make it a train wreck in print.  Not so with Criminology.  The flow of the book is conversational, entertaining, and enough to keep you drawn in.  In fact, this is one of my favorite books on Zodiac in a while (though I have another two on my Amazon wish list.)

Why did I enjoy it?  Quite simply, there are new tid bits and details that the podcasters/authors explored.  I love getting this stuff.  I also liked the fact that the publisher/authors included other audio transcripts to augment this material.  You may think that having a 1960’s reporter’s interview transcribed in a book is meaningless, but in some cases it puts you right there with the investigators at the scenes.  Moreover, this is new data.  In a case as frigid as Zodiac, any new insights or perspectives are appreciated.

The book is not your typical true crime fare.  This is a transcription of a podcast.  It is done well, and Wild Blue Press has broken new ground doing this – creating a new sub-genre or true crime.  I really came to appreciate and enjoy the podcaster’s logic, inquisitiveness, and attention to detail.  It made me want to go back and listen to their podcasts.  Morford and Ferguson have upped the bar for the dozens of other podcasters out there with their depth of research.  This book is innovative and different, with a lot of variation.

Some people are not going to enjoy the conversational format, and that is okay.  Not every true crime book is for the masses.  This book does fill a niche and is well deserving of space on your true crime bookshelf.  I give it 4.5 out of 5 stars.  If you are hooked on the Zodiac case, this is worth picking up.