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 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.



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


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.

Review of The Crime of the Century: Richard Speck and the Murders That Shocked a Nation by William J. Martin and Bill Kunkle

Crime of the Century

I had heard of these crimes but only became truly aware when the serial killer Richard Speck died and a video of him in prison was released.  His callous behavior and the fact that he was seemingly enjoying life behind bars appalled me.  I read about his heinous crimes, killing eight young nurses in Chicago in 1966, and I was even more appalled.

When this book came up on my feed on Amazon as a suggested read, I picked it up.  I wanted to read a definitive account of the crimes and the conviction and was hoping this would provide that.  I wanted all of the nuts and bolts detail of what happened that one macabre night when Speck slaughtered eight women, but ignorantly left one alive – one that would, in the end, take him down.  There was almost an Arya Stark (Game of Thrones) story there.

I didn’t want to read the older book, Born to Raise Hell, because I had heard that it was one that seemed to favor the perspective of the criminal.  As a true crime author, I don’t like the criminals being the focus of true crime books.  I know some readers like those…I do not. I wanted not a shred of sorrow for this brutal murderer as I read about the crimes.

This book did not disappoint.

The authors have provided a well-balanced and comprehensive account of the killer, the victims, and a crime that shocked the nation.  This is not a light read, which I embraced.  I have nothing but respect for these authors.  In the pages of Crime of Century, they have recreated the seedy, dingy neighborhoods and characters of 1966 Chicago.  They put you back there as the police stalked a spree-killer through grungy bars and flop-houses.  They masterfully take you on the journey of the surviving nurse, Corazon Amurao, to eventually take the stand against the man that killed her friends and roommates.

Recreating such an old crime is never easy, but the authors have clearly done their homework.  This is one of the better true crime books I have read in recent years and I highly recommend it.  Add this one on your Kindle for your late-summer reading. Five stars and kudos to Martin and Kunkle!

Review of The Phantom Killer: Unlocking the Mystery of the Texarkana Serial Murders: The Story of a Town in Terror – by James Presley

Phantom Killer

I stumbled across this serial killing spree by a meme posted on Facebook that said that this was an unsolved series of cases in Texarkana.  I made note of it because I write about cold cases, with an emphasis now on serial killings.  I thought this might be worth looking into.

I did find a book on the case, The Phantom Killer, so I picked it up.  Wow.  I went from not knowing anything about these murders to being immersed not just in the cases, but in the culture and period of the crimes. The internet meme was wrong (I know, misinformation on the internet?  I was stunned too – NOT!)  The killer was known, but never fully brought to justice.

Taking place in 1946, the Phantom Killer killed five people and wounded three.  The victims were in pairs, which resonated with me after writing about the Colonial Parkway Murders.  The author, James Presley, is a master-historian, taking you back in time to Texarkana in 1946, putting you on the streets of his hometown in that era.

This was a ruthless killer in an age long before DNA testing and modern police investigatory techniques.  Today, this killer would have gone to jail much earlier.  Instead, the murderer hid in the folds of history, concealed by police incompetence or lack of skills we now take for granted.  The stories of the victims are recreated in painstaking detail.  Kudos to the author for what had to be difficult research after all of these years.

The books brings you a cast of characters that are right out of central casting – including a wily Texas Ranger that is bigger than life.

This is not a true cold case though.  The police caught Youell Swinney, a car thief, whose wife implicated him in the murders.  While the case was largely circumstantial, I feel confident that Swinney was indeed the killer.

What follows though is the legal twists and turns as to how Swinney dodged ever being tried as the Phantom Killer.  This is a book that leaves you wondering at the very end if the decisions by the authorities was the right course of action.  Yes, the killer spent years in jail, but never for his most heinous crimes.

James Presley is a great writer.  I found the book compelling and written with the care needed to take us back to the crime scenes.  He weaves a stirring tale of a serial killer in an era far before that label existed.  I devoured the book on a business trip, unable to put it down.

Well worth picking up – I recommend highly The Phantom Killer.

True Crime Book Review – The Shawcross Letters – My Journey Into the Mind of Evil By John Paul Fay


If you read my reviews, you know by now I tend to be pretty fair.  Now and then I will simply pass on doing a review rather than write a bad review and risk injuring an author’s reputation.  I try and be nice because I expect the same from my peers.  I struggled with this review for two weeks, wondering if I should do it.  My publisher encouraged me, despite my reservations.

I write for the same publisher as this book and requested a copy for review.  It came with a warning from my publisher, “this book is not for everyone.”  I am sure there are some fans of the genre that are bound to be drawn to this book…possibly for all of the wrong reasons.  I think readers should know what they are getting into first.

I can’t say this is the worst true crime book I have ever read, but I cannot recommend it – not to the general fans of genre.  It is disturbing on so many levels that it reminds me of an auto accident.  You drive by, knowing the scene is potentially gruesome, but slow down to look regardless.

Trust me, with this book, the scene is gruesome indeed.

The book is about the author, John Paul Fay, who corresponds with Arthur Shawcross, a renowned serial killer.  The book flip flops between the story of Fay’s life and the letters he receives from Shawcross.  Fay is far from being a sympathetic character in this twisted saga.  He is a person that collects and sells mementos from well-known serial killers.  I have never understood that entire bizarre underground market.  Why would anyone want Charles Manson’s autograph?  I will never understand this kind of collecting.  Worse yet, through this book, you get a glimpse into how convicted murderers make money on these sales.

Fay’s life is not the “boy next door” story.  His father has abused him, he suffers from addiction, and was even involved in some abuse of a woman…which he claims he doesn’t fully remember.  It is hard to form any sort of emotional bond with this character, he is damaged and so far removed from the world I live in, I cannot recognize him.  Yet in this book he is oddly baring all of his flaws.  I wanted to sympathize with him, but never found that common ground.  You may feel very differently.  I kept on reading though – searching for that connection to Fay that slipped through my fingers.

One image that bothered me was that he sent photos to Shawcross of his pregnant cousin, further feeding the serial murderer’s fantasies.  What kind of person does something like that?  One gets the feeling that Fay saw Shawcross as possibly his only real friend in the world…and that such actions were necessary to keep those ties alive.

The letters from Shawcross are sick, vulgar, disconcerting, and horrific. In some respects, reading his letters is like watching an episode of Mindhunter, only darker and without the balance of morality.  You see this killer for what he was, a slice of evil that preyed on people for the sheer thrill it gave him. There is nothing redeeming about this man.  The fact that he was able to make money and have sexual visitors did nothing to help my impression of our prison system.  The best part of this book was the knowledge that Shawcross was dead.

Trying to figure out which sub-genre of true crime this book fits in is impossible.  It is not a true serial killer book, because the vast majority of the book is about Fay’s lifelong journey.  It is not a psychological thriller because it is far more troubling than that. It doesn’t reveal anything new about Shawcross or his crimes.  In fact, crime plays little role in the disquieting relationship between Fay and Shawcross.

It is the only true crime book I have ever read that I deleted from my Kindle afterwards.  Some of that was embarrassment.  This is something in the genre I write in.  Another reason was I didn’t ever see myself going back to this book. Some images are burned into my memory.

This book is not for the squeamish or the faint of heart.  On one hand, it is the only book of its kind in true crime.  It is not the kind of book that should be read at night or when you are alone.  It is not a book for the “typical” true crime reader.  One should wade into this book carefully, with trepidation, fully prepared for the stark and sometimes sickening shock factor you are about to embrace.


Review Time-Life’s Killer Cults – Inside the Mind of Charles Manson and Other Cult Leaders

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If nothing else, this made me question, “what is a cult?” 

As a true crime author it is impossible for me to walk past a magazine with Charles Manson on the cover.  I’m weak that way.  After all, one of the books that drew me into writing TC was Helter Skelter.  Also, I just finished watching Waco on Paramount network, so I was compelled to pick this up.

Time-Life has put out of few of these magazines focused on true crime. Lavish in photos, they don’t go into much depth. If you are looking for shocking revelations or new information, generally these are not where you go.  This issue, I have to admit, they did provide some new bit of information I was unaware of – hence my taking the time (pun intended) for a review.

Half of the 96 pages of this magazine are dedicated to Manson.  There are some photos I have not seen before, plucked from Life’s archives no-doubt.   When it comes to new information, there’s not a lot here, but there are some nuggets that were interesting – especially about Manson’s life behind bars.

The remainder of the article focused on the Jonestown massacre, the Branch Davidians, the Heaven’s Gate suicides, and the terror attacks of Aum Shinrikyo.  There’s not a lot of depth here on these other groups, only the basic information.  I have to admit, I knew almost nothing about, Aum Shinrikyo which made it most interesting chapter to me.  It surprised me that this organization had such a strong following in Russia.  You just don’t associate cults with Russia, at least I don’t.

I probably could just end the review right here and say it was three out of five starts.  Mildly entertaining, but not a lot that is new.  It was worth looking at for some of the photos.  I can’t just let it go that easily.  What this relatively simple magazine does is make you wonder and question, “what is a cult?”

Time-Life seems to concentrate on any group of people led by a charismatic leader; where the leader exerts control over these people to some extent.  “Cult” is a word that has a negative connotation to it, but in this case it makes you wonder what Time-Life’s criteria was for inclusion.  I understand the arguments for most of these cases, but in the case of the Branch Davidians I am wondering if they were truly a cult.  I think David Koresh had a strong influence over his people, but from accounts I have read from the survivors, they also opted to stay with him on their own accord based on their beliefs.

Were the Branch Davidians simply a deeply devoted group of followers of a religious lifestyle, or were they a cult?  I’m not sure I can make that call, but the fact is, this book helped me consider that question says quite a bit.

Overall this is a three out of five stars.


Review of My Brother’s Keeper – By Chris Russo Blackwood


I purchased a copy of this book because of the theme.  This is not just an off-the-shelf true crime.  It has a potent twist.  It is a story of the sibling of a victim and his dogged pursuit of his brother’s killers for three decades. That angle is potent and intriguing and makes this book stand out.

I won’t ruin the plot much for you in this review.  My Brother’s Keeper is a gnarly story of a typical entrepreneur who collides with the wrong people – heinous individuals out to rob and murder him.  It is more than that though.  The brother of the victim, Ted Kergan, finds himself thrust into the role of private investigator.  He doesn’t just accumulate information about his brother’s untimely demise, but takes a hands-on role with the pursuit of the killers.

I found myself glued to the text, unable to put the last five or so chapters down.  This is not a book where you are wondering who did it – but instead you see the victim through his brother’s memories, intertwined with the gritty detective work that Ted undertook to bring the killers to justice.

As a true crime author I interact with family members who carry the mantle of memories of their lost family members. Many cradle a box of reports and newspaper clippings, or printouts of emails from would-be tipsters.  Only a rarified few go to the extent that Ted Kergan did bring murderers into the light of justice.  In this respect, the book rang true to me as few true crime books do.

I found myself angered and frustrated that the killers were not tried decades earlier.  The evidence that was in the hands of police was staggering, right down to diary entries and maps.  This is a classic example of where justice damn-near failed. I found myself re-reading the chapter where they were let go, just so I was sure I fully understood the reasoning. It was a decision that drove this case into the frigid icebox of cold cases, almost forgotten, except by a handful of people.

My Brother’s Keeper is not a remarkable crime, not one that tattoos itself into your memory.  The killers were not stunningly cunning in their evasion of law enforcement.  What makes this book stand out is the relationship between Ted and Gary Kergan and the extent which Ted rolled up his sleeves and stalked the killers, ensuring they went to prison.  While it is not a crime that you will remember, it is a book you cannot ignore or put down – especially near the end. Chris Blackwood is an author to watch.

You can purchase the book on Amazon here