Review of A Sniper in the Tower: The Charles Whitman Murders, a true crime book by Gary M. Lavergne

Sniper Book

When I was a kid in the 1970s, I saw the TV movie The Deadly Tower, about Charles Joseph Whitman infamous shooting spree in the University of Texas tower.  Kurt Russell played the killer, in an almost cardboard portrayal.  I remember at the end of the film they referenced that in his autopsy, it was determined he had a brain tumor.  That seemed to explain away what he did – shooting 45 people and killing sixteen (including his wife and mother off-campus).  That movie really stuck with me.

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Kurt Russell playing Whitman

Of course that was before all of the other mass shooting incidents that were to follow.  Still, I never forgot that movie.

Amazon popped up a book suggestion for me, A Sniper in the Tower, the Charles Whitman Murders, and I had to pick it up.  (This says a lot that Amazon’s algorithms thought that this would be a good book for me – but that is for another blog post.)  My first thought was that it was a university press book, which meant that this was going to hit the facts.  A lot of university presses are seeing true crime as a context for history, which is great.  One of my own publishers of Secret Witness is the University of Michigan Press.  I like this trend.  It brings a good clinical perspective to a genre that is often tabloid-ish and exploitive.

This book did not disappoint.  Mr. Lavergne had a daunting task ahead of him, one that only a fellow true crime author could appreciate.  How do you tell the stories tied to such a large-scale crime and do so in a way that the narrative is not a hodge-podge of confusion?  I’ll tell you want, he cracked that nut.  This story begins far before August 1, 1966.  Lavergne weaves a story of a pressure cooker slowly building up steam, reaching the inevitable point of explosion.

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The real life Charles Whitman

So much has been written and produced about the shootings I was worried I would be disappointed with the narrative.  I was not.  Where PBS’s recent documentary Tower failed was that it did not weave a cohesive story.  It tried to mirror the confusion and chaos of that day into its telling.  Mr. Lavergne does not fall into that trap.  He stays the course and leads you on the path from the start of Whitman’s spiral into madness to his death and beyond.

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Where Whitman fired from

The writing style here is crisp and to the point.  There’s not a lot of theorizing.  The facts are what drive this story.  I learned a great deal I didn’t know – which is hard to do with a story that is so often told as this one has done.

I found it interesting in how the author explored the myths and urban legends that surround who actually shot Whitman.  At first I wasn’t sure where he was going, but Lavergne did not disappoint on taking me down this little side-trip through the crime.

A Sniper in the Tower is a great read for true crime enthusiasts.  I have to admit, I’m jealous of Gary Lavergne’s efforts. I always thought this might make a good book, and it has – I just didn’t get the chance to write it.  I think this book will remain the go-to book on this heinous crime for generations to come.  I give it five out of five stars.

Now, I need to start getting paranoid about the books Amazon is suggesting I might like…

Anniversary of the Disappearance of Keith Call and Cassandra Hailey

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Crime scene photo of where Keith Call’s car was found on the Colonial Parkway near Yorktown, Virginia.

For those of you that follow my blog, you know I take the anniversaries of victims of unsolved crimes seriously.  April 9 marks the 29th anniversary of the disappearance of Richard “Keith” Call and Cassandra Hailey. I say, “disappearance,” because their remains have never been recovered. While it is surmised that they were murdered, we do not know what their final fate was.  We only know that they have never been seen since the night of their journey into the unknown.

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Keith Call – Student at Christopher Newport
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Cassandra Hailey – Christopher Newport student

Over two years ago I had no idea who they were or how they were intertwined to the murders dubbed the “Colonial Parkway Murders.” A lot has changed in two years.  Like most cold cases, the story is often treated as a footnote in the annals of law enforcement.  Keith and Cassandra are not a mere statistic, they were vibrant young people with the world and lives ahead of them.

In working on our book on these murders (A Special Kind of Evil) we’ve had a chance to interview Virginia State Police, FBI, and, most importantly, family members of this pair.  I can’t call them a “couple.”  They disappeared on their first date, and it was not a romantic affair but a trip to a movie and a visit to a college party off-campus near Christopher Newport in Newport News, VA.

It started out so innocently – like a scene from a 1980’s teen movie.  Keith picked up Cassandra at her parent’s home.  They went to the movie then onto the party and mingled, and Keith left to take her home.  That’s the short version.  In the early morning hours, only a short time later, Keith’s car was spotted on the Colonial Parkway by several people…including his brother.  It was at a pull-off right after Yorktown heading north on the Colonial Parkway, less than 15 feet from the road in plain sight.  Keith’s father found the car on the way to work but was not entirely alarmed by what he saw.

The majority of their clothing was in the car and the National Park Service rangers proposed to the media that they had gone skinny dipping in the York River.  It was a preposterous suggestion – it had been in the low 40’s that night and just getting to the river would have been treacherous, especially if you were naked and in the pitch darkness of the historic roadway.

On top of that, both of them had an aversion to the Parkway.  Two years earlier, a mile or so from where Keith’s red Toyota Celica was found, there had been a brutal killing of Cathy Thomas and Rebecca Dowski.  Their deaths were horrific and proved to be the first of four pairs of killings on the Virginia peninsula.  Their murders cast the first shadow on the Colonial Parkway.

Most in law enforcement have contended that Keith and Cassandra went there to make out. Empty beers were found in the back seat of the car near their clothing. When you find clothing and an abandoned car in a place known for wild partying and young couples parking to do what young couples do when they park, it almost made sense.  Almost.  The thing was that Keith was in a serious relationship at the time.  He and Cassandra had not demonstrated any romantic inkling towards each other.  Many authorities still cling to the concept they went there to park.  This was reinforced by search dogs that seemed to indicate they were taken separately from the vehicle to the icy cold York River.

I favor Major Ron Montgomery’s (York County) thinking however.  In my interview with him he told me he doesn’t believe they were ever on the parkway…that was just where Keith’s car was abandoned.  Honestly, there’s a lot to back that theory up. There is no tangible physical evidence that verifies they were on the Parkway.  On top of that – the Parkway is past where Cassandra’s house was.  They would have had to driven her past her home to go to the Parkway, and when they left the party Keith’s intention was to get Cassandra home before curfew.

I used to love driving the parkway before I worked on this book.  Now I drive it and I go slow, noting the changes to the terrain over three decades.  I am always torn between the natural beauty of the drive and the horrible things that happened there.

All of the crimes tied to the parkway murders are horrible.  This one stands out for most people for one reason – there were no bodies.  Keith and Cassandra were simply gone.  Having a body does not ease the pain but it is important beyond description.  It means their remains are someplace known.  I cannot fathom the anguish of not knowing where your loved brother, sister, or child is.  Keith and Cassandra left that party and drove off into nothingness.  It is an open wound that tears at you as a writer or as a human being.

The sad part is that someone out there must now something about what happened to them on the drive between Christopher Newport and Sandra’s home in Grafton, VA – most likely on or near Route 17, J. Clyde Morris Boulevard.  In that short distance, someone had to see something – even if it was a faux police car pulling over Keith’s red Toyota Celica.  At the time you probably didn’t give it a second thought.  Today your information could help re-energize this 29 year old cold case.  There is no such thing as an inconsequential tip.

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Keith’s car…did you see it that night?  

If you do have any information, please contact the FBI at (757) 455-0100 or me at bpardoe870@aol.com. I will be passing along any tips directly to the authorities.

Having spent considerable time crawling through these murders each one is special…and I will cover them as each couple’s crime arrives on the calendar.  Today however it is about Keith and Missy (as she was known to her family.)  Today, we need to focus on solving their disappearance.

And to the insidious monster that was responsible for these crimes – my daughter Victoria and I are your worst freaking nightmare.  We are going to get the full story out, as full as possible, and we are going to generate new tips and leads.  Our books on cold cases generate tips for law enforcement all of the time – and this book will do the same.  Your days of living free thinking you got away with these murders are limited.  Why?  Simply put, we are not alone.  The people of the Tidewater want justice and the families demand it. We won’t let this story be a footnote.  We want it to be page one.

It is time for us all to work together to bring Keith and Cassandra home once and for all.  It is time for justice.

Review of A Taste For Murder by Burl Barer

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I’ll open with the proviso that the publisher of this book, Wild Blue Press, is the same publisher that is printing our next true crime book.  They did not solicit this review – I saw their notice for a flash-sale on this book for 99 cents and picked it up.  (If you follow them on Facebook, they do these kinds of sales often and obviously you can score some good true crime cheap.)  So, this is an unbiased review.  Also, I will give no spoilers. 

Burl Barer sucked me in early on with this book.  Frank Hernandez dies at home, dying a most horrible death…apparently from poisoning.  His wife suspected a colleague of the crime.  From there, Barer takes you on a joyride into the bizarre.  From the opening of this crime this seemed cut-and-dry, but it is like riding the Hulk rollercoaster at Universal Studios.  You think you’re going one way and bam! You’re suddenly spinning the opposite direction.

Mr Barer does an outstanding job of putting the reader in the community where this murder took place, Montebello, CA. Adding to that was the details of what this poisoning did the victim. This is not a clinical read, but one that helps you understand just how horrific this murder really was.    

I have never read any of Burl Barer’s books but I became a quick fan.  He leads you down a dark corridor, lantern in hand, on a journey that I didn’t expect at the start of the book.  I devoured chapter after chapter, not ever losing my interest.  After the first third of the book, it was as if there was a new twist every chapter or two.  Barer masterfully takes you on the long journey from murder to conviction. 

To say that this case was full of bizarre behavior is an understatement.  The murderer seems to be running con jobs within con jobs at times. 

About halfway through the book I realized I actually had heard something about this case.  That didn’t diminish it in the least for me. 

Is this a good solid true crime book?  Absolutely.  I give it 4.5 out of 5 stars.  Well worth your time to consume (pun intended). 

Review – Killing Fields Season 2

 

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There are no cold cases…only unsolved cases…

I am a junkie for good true crime and TV has let me down a lot this year.  Part of that is being an author of true crime books, but the majority is me being a fan of the genre.  After the OJ series on FX, I was hopeful to see more good prime-time true crime.  There was some, but most of the series came across as cheap, exploitative, or designed to sway public opinion (i.e. the Jon Benet series on A&E).

Discovery Channel, however, does not fail with the second season of Killing Fields.  Our boys are still working the case of Eugenie Boisfontaine but this season they shifted to a local man, Tommy Francise, who is implicated in not one murder but two.

Few series out there show you how investigations work as well as Killing Fields.  The dogged pursuit, the following of where the evidence takes investigators, and the cooperation with prosecutors.  This is a great series that takes you through small-town America, warts and all.

Tommy Francise is a bad apple all around.  Frankly I was stunned he wasn’t arrested for the murder of at least one of these men – he confessed the murder to one of the officers, Rodie.  I won’t ruin this season for you, but it ends with a big event, one you find yourself rooting and cheering through.

Tips for Eugenie Boisfontaine are still coming in too.  I personally hope our two officers in the series get an arrest soon on that case.

There are two other things that make this series a winner.  One is the filming.  You get lots of neat angles, drone-shots, etc., that just put you there in Louisiana with the investigators.  The second thing is the dialogue between officers Aubrey St. Angelo and Rodie Sanchez.  These two are opposite sides of the same coin.  They are funny and filled with steely determination.

The series is short and available on Discovery Channel or On-Demand.  Watch it – soak it in.  This is hope for everyone out there who wants to see cold cases resolve.

 

Review – HBO Documentary Beware the Slenderman

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When urban legend becomes folklore becomes murder attempt

This HBO documentary is compelling, chilling, disturbing and frightening all at the same time.  We’ve probably all heard about the case – two young girls who attacked and nearly killed a friend of theirs because of a fictitious character on the internet called Slenderman. 

As a true crime writer, I knew that the media only marginally was telling the story…and I was right.  This documentary is not just about the crime, it is about how some urban legend takes becomes folklore that is trusted and believed.  I was familiar with this phenomena, having written a book on the Scottish cannibal, Sawney Bean.  Slenderman doesn’t exist, but thanks to the internet and Photoshop, this mythical strange tall kidnapper of children has developed a near cult-like following. 

This is a story of two quite normal young girls that get caught up in the stories about the Slenderman and believe they must kill their friend to prove themselves worthy of him.  Separately, they are seemingly normal kids.  Together, they became a single killer. There are elements here that harken back to Capote’s In Cold Blood

You may be quick to blame the parents for letting them on the web sites, but when you watch the show you come to realize that these were not negligent parents.  They simply had no idea of the power of images and words might have over their daughters. 

The filming of this documentary is outstanding.  If you watch Killing Fields on Discovery, you will get the same vibe here – lots of drone shots and angles of neighborhoods that cast a sinister shadow and add to the ambiance.  The use of the interrogation footage of the two would-be murderers is creepy all on its own.  One girl was more concerned about the distance she had walked before her capture rather than what she had done to her friend. The victim had been stabbed 19 times.  It’s gut wrenching and you can’t shut it off because it is so well done.    

This documentary is not the complete story – the victim and her family did not participate in the filming – for obvious reasons.  It is complete enough though….so much that you will never let your kids onto the internet again.  That cannot be a bad thing.  Some of the footage is so disturbing and captivating that you come through the viewing emotionally wrung out. 

While the Slenderman is digital folklore, his impact in our reality is quite tangible…and chilling.  I give this a solid five of five stars.  Kudos HBO!

My listing of the best true crime books…

My daughter and I write true crime, mostly because we love reading true crime.  The genre has changed a lot over the decades.  In some respects, the caliber of writing has gotten better.  As we become more connected as a people, we are learning about crimes that we might have otherwise never heard of.  That is one of the pluses and minuses of social media.

This is list of just my opinion.  You’re welcome to disagree with me.  I didn’t count books that were novelizations based on true crimes…I tried to stick to the straight-forward non-fiction true crime books. I also limited this to books that I have personally read – not just what others say is a good book in the genre.  The criteria is books that appealed to me or were compelling in their storytelling.  In other words, the criteria is “Blaine had to love the book.”

I will also say that my original opinions on some books have changed over time.  I reread books and sometimes they grow on me.

These are not in any particular order.  Don’t read anything into the sequence.  As a side note: I did not put any books I have written on the list.  Even my ego isn’t that big.

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Helter Skelter

This was my first true crime book I ever consumed. I’m sure my mom will not win an award for letting her kid read this book, but regardless of that, I loved it.  It was a book that really put you in the chair of the prosecutor in going after Charles Manson.  It was a gripping and gruesome series of murders but somehow managed to hold onto me as a reader.

I also found the way they grayed out the victims in the photos to stand out.  You didn’t need to see the remains of those killed.  Not showing the victims in the images was far more powerful than showing the images.  Your imagination does the rest.  It is tasteful and cunning all at the same time.  I wish more true crime books adopted this approach.

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The Onion Field

I picked up this book years ago and found it compelling.  This was not a “big crime” but Joseph Wambaugh took these killings and made me want to see them solved.  To me, what drew me in was the details that the author introduced. I learned one thing – it’s all in the details when you write true crime.

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Case Closed

One of the biggest murder cases in US history was the assassination of President Kennedy.  I know a lot of true crime authors tend to move assassination books out of the genre.  I don’t because they are crimes.  Gerald Posner takes the stand that Lee Harvey Oswald, acting alone, killed the President.  Yeah, I get it, it’s popular to hop on the conspiracy bandwagon.  For years I was there then this book flipped my switch.  Don’t make that leap unless you have read this book (and possibly History Reclaimed).  Posner has a very tight writing prose and pulls you into a mass of data like a guide navigating rapids on a river.

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The Michigan Murders

Edward M. Keyes penned this book in 1976 when true crime was merely “non-fiction.” It covered a serial murder, John Norman Collins and his string of co-ed murders around Ann Arbor Michigan in 1967-1969.  Keyes changed all of the names of the participants in this case, which was its only downside.  I devoured this book in 1977 when I was in high school and it was in these pages I learned what a serial murderer was.

Even over the passage of time, this book has managed to stand the test and still is a solid read.

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The Stranger Beside Me

So, you’re Ann Rule, researching a serial killer for a book, and it turns out he’s working right next to you.  If that doesn’t creep you out, nothing will.  Ted Bundy’s string of murders comes to life at the masterful hand of someone that knew him personally.  This book gave us the Godmother of True Crime Books. The pages on my copy are literally falling out…so what does that tell you?

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Fatal Vision

Joe McGinniss’s book on murder of the MacDonald family by Dr. Jeffrey MacDonald has come under scrutiny over the years but still holds strong after the test of time.  This book has a it all – a cunning killer who tries to deflect the murder of his wife and two small children to a band of drug-addled killers.  McGinnis goes so far as to tell the reader that he went into the case convinced MacDonald was innocent and was even hired by MacDonald to tell the story, but comes to the conclusion that he is guilty.

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Lost Girls

I loved this book – it did something that was wonderful – delving into the victims more than the crimes themselves.  The Long Island serial murders remain unsolved.  Robert Kolker does an outstanding job of crafting the stories of the victims, often prying open the darker side of our humanity in the process.

With 10-16 victims, it is astonishing that no one has been brought to justice.  Why?  Perhaps the shattered lives of the victims contributed – or the incompetence of local authorities.  You have to read Lost Girls or watch The Killing Season to form your own opinion.

This book has recently become my binky – a comfortable read I go back to.

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Zodiac

We are all sucked into the Zodiac murders as an unsolved string of cases.  Graysmith does a masterful job of pulling the reader into this killer and his subsequent works have done a good job of laying out the prime suspect.  I re-read this book recently and it still holds the test of time and the movie remains a go-to film for me to have on when I am writing true crime.  I have heard people nit-pick this book apart, but for me, I still find it holds me in tight – a real page turner.

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When Evil Came to Good Hart

For full disclosure, Mardi Link is a friend of mine.  We both wrote for the same publisher.  She’s a friend of mine because she is an outstanding writer. Her cold case book about the execution of a family in upstate Michigan is my go-to book when I start writing about a cold case.  The book is not long but is deeply moving to read.  All of Mardi’s books are outstanding but this one is fantastic.  The frustrations of a cold cases really resonates in this book.   When I start on a cold case book – I reread this book.

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The Wrong Man

I saw the TV version of this in 1975 with George Peppard, Guilty or Innocent – the Sam Sheppard Murder Case.  The case was the basis of the film and TV show, The Fugitive.  The case made F. Lee Bailey’s career.  I picked up The Wrong Man a few years ago and I was sucked into the intricacies of this murder all over again. This was a case that had it all – a wealthy doctor, a dead wife, a bushy-haired intruder, and a railroading of justice in the Midwest.

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The Lindbergh Case

Jim Fisher covers the crime of the century before the OJ Simpson case – the kidnapping of Charles Lindbergh’s child.  I find that this book holds the test of time, despite shots by the pundits.  There are other fantastic books out there, like Hauptman’s Ladder, but this one is my long-term favorite.  Everything from the bizarre characters that became drawn into the case to the show-trail are covered.

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Green River Running Red

Ann Rule’s book in the Green River murders is solid. It is thick but captivating to read.  You come to appreciate how some officers refuse to give up on the victims and carry the fight on for years.  This was one of those lingering serial killer cases that was solved by good old-fashioned determined police-work.

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In Cold Blood

I will confess here, I didn’t read In Cold Blood until about seven years ago.  I have no idea why I hadn’t gone to this book earlier.  After all, Capote define the genre of true crime with this book.  What is masterful is that Capote really doesn’t tell the reader what happened at the farmhouse until near the end of the book.  Our imaginations fill in the gaps, making the crimes feel even more grandiose in our minds.  That – my friends – is storytelling.

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Columbine

We thought we knew the depth of this tragedy at Columbine High School. After the national news media let the story die down, the author doggedly stuck to it.  What is revealed is how the news agencies misrepresented some of the elements of the entire spree, and how others went out of their way to exploit it.  If you think you know about what went down at Columbine High School and haven’t read this book – well, you’re wrong.

Update on our Colonial Parkway Murders Book

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Walking the crime scene in search of something…anything. 

When you write a non-fiction book, at the beginning it is all research.  Researching is constant and ever-present.  In your head you are mentally writing, but most of what you are doing is digging, sifting, requesting – capturing information, organizing it, etc.  You want to write, but you know that you need to keep soaking in the data.  Oddly enough, when you get to the point where you are ready to write, there are still a lot of little holes in your information you are seeking to fill.  So you end up researching and writing full time.  I am willing to bet on the last week of writing I will still be talking to people, trying to get that last tid-bit of information squeezed in. Up until the last day before you ship the book off, you’re doing interviews.

Candidly, we end up doing some after the book is in print.  With a cold case book you are never really done until there is an arrest and conviction.  My co-author and daughter, Victoria and I know we are signing up for the long haul with the Colonial Parkway Murders.  That was part of the decision process.  People will reach out to us and we will continue our efforts.  Why?  Our books generate tips.  That’s the reality folks.  Those tips go to the authorities so they can do their job.  When we undertake a project like this we know we are diving in deep, making a potentially lifelong commitment.  That is – until an arrest is made.

The writing process (if that is what it is) can be confusing to an outsider.  You end up calling people back to get clarity as you go.  Think of it this way – you talk to Person X for an hour or two.  Then two months later you talk to Person Z and they say something that forces you to go back to Person X, and reach out to Person W for additional information or corroboration.  And we track all of this too.  Writing a true crime book on this scale is as much as a research challenge as it is a logistics exercise.

There’s some fringe interviews too – people we need to just track down and talk to. Fringe may not sound fair – but they are often folks that are not adding to the narrative of the story – but have some tid-bit that is worth extracting.  You never know where the evidence will take you.

A project like this is also a huge emotional drain.  Someone recently asked me what it is like to write a true crime book and my answer was, “I feel like I make a lot of people cry.”  It is not intentional but it happens.  There are laughs too.  Summoning memories in people is bittersweet, joyous, and painful all at the same time.  Anyone that thinks this doesn’t take a toll on an author is wrong.  I don’t break down during the interview – but usually afterwards, alone, I let the tears flow.  You couldn’t be human if you didn’t weep for the dead and what has been lost. Emotionally books like this take a toll on you as a writer. I get oddly depressed and short of temper in this stage of working on the book.  Thank God for my medication.

Yet weirdly, I love every minute of it.

When I was a kid, like most kids, I wanted to be a superhero and fight crime.  Now I’m doing that, in my own weird way – writing about cold cases, generating tips for the authorities, etc.  I lack a cape and tights (for which we are all thankful) but there is a satisfaction with the effort that is hard to describe.  Sometimes just telling the story is the best justice that you can shoot for.  You want the crime to be solved with cold cases, hell, you live for the crime to be solved. A day doesn’t go by that I don’t hope that a ringing phone is someone in law enforcement telling me that charges have been filed.

This book is different though – very different.  As writers, Victoria and I have the responsibility of making sense out of three decades and eight victims and four or more crime scenes and locales spread from Amelia County south of Richmond to Virginia Beach.   While a wealth of material is out there, it can be confusing to organize it into a narrative that a reader will want to read that is accurate.

All around me are piles of paper.  They look in disarray to everyone but me.  There are two massive notebooks filled with my interview notes.  Digital recordings chat in the background.  My big-honking notebooks doggedly marked flank the chaos. It is daunting.  Letters and mail everywhere around my workspace are all pieces of the puzzle.  Each fills in a little gap for me.  Each is precious in its own weird way.

Thanks to this book I have been to places in Virginia that I didn’t know existed.  I’ve done interviews in garages, police stations, and the homes of strangers – now friends.  I go out to the murder scenes as often as possible.  It is difficult to explain why.  There’s zero chance of me finding or seeing anything new after three decades.  Still, I go, hauling Victoria with me.  Some of it is respect.  Some of it is wishing that the road or the trees could talk, fill in that most important delta of information – who did it.  The locations are irrelevant, mere settings for the stories, but they are important.  In this case I learned a lot about the killer looking at where he plied his evil trade.  The strange similarities of the locations of these crimes can creep you out once you see them.

With the Colonial Parkway Murders, the work we have done has ruined the Parkway for me.  Up until this book, I used to look forward to driving the Parkway when I visited the area.  Now it is nagging reminder of what may or may not have happened there.  I cannot help but think of how eerie it is at twilight and how different it was at night.  The splendor is now overpowered by the events tied to that place in my mind.

So now, it’s back to the stacks of paper, the blurred handwriting, the cackle of the audio recordings.  It’s back to the darkness in search of the light.  It’s back into the confusion in search of the truth.  It’s back in time and in space.  It’s back trying to make sense of the senseless.  It’s back looking for the justice.

I would’t change a thing.

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An eerie walk in the woods – one of the crime scenes today.