Review of HBO’s Paterno

True crime stuff always pulls me in and I thought it was great that HBO was going to take a run at the Jerry Sandusky debacle at Penn State.  Having seen Al Pacino play Dr. Kevorkian in a HBO show, I was hopeful to get some real insights as to what actually happened during the turmoil of the case.  I thought with the passage of time, we might get some clarity around the events that rapidly unfolded.

I was disappointed.

The HBO film, Paterno, is a bizarre collage of bits and pieces that barely hang together as a movie.  I stuck with it to the end, because I was still in search of some resolution.  Don’t make the same mistake I did.

Paterno comes across as entirely unsympathetic from a character perspective.  He is detached to the point of senility.  The question remains through 99% of the movie as to what he knew and when he knew it.  Only in the last few minutes do we get a glimpse of how many decades he covered for Sandusky.

The reporter character who broke the case is about the only character you can latch onto as redeemable and her parts are a jumble of disjointed segments leaving you to wonder what she actually thinks and believes.   Her character could and should have been used to guide the viewer through the allegations of misconduct.  In reality, you get the feeling she is along for the ride with the rest of us.

We never see the critical scenes where Paterno is told of Sandusky’s terrible infractions or his action.  All we see is Pacino’s character struggle to remember the event and blow it off as not important.  There are parts of this movie that either were left on the cutting room floor or never filmed in the first place.

Pacino’s acting is great but there is nothing in the character he plays that viewers can or will identify with.  The victims of Jerry Sandusky are backgrounds to a choppy plot.  What was needed here was a treatment like All The President’s Men or The Post. What we get is dull and filmed with lots of strange moving camera angles and poorly written lines about characters none of us can identify with or care about.  It fails as true crime or even as fluff-entertainment.

I was disappointed in HBO this time around, a rarity.


The 30th Anniversary of the Disappearance of Keith Call and Cassandra Hailey – The Colonial Parkway Murders

What happened here was only the end of the story…the abandonment of Keith Call’s car

Every year April 9 passes, and every year there is no resolution to what happened to Keith Call and Cassandra Hailey.  This year is no different other than this is one of those milestone anniversaries – three decades of more mystery than answers.  Every five years the media pays homage the four pairs of Colonial Parkway Murders.  Every five years the same questions are asked.  Who did these crimes?  Why?  But the most nagging question of all remains, “Where are Keith and Cassandra?”

As a writer you get to know some of these families of the victims.  The completion of the book does not end our relationships. My co-author/daughter likes to say, “We are never off the case.”  She’s right. One thing I have come to appreciate is that these are, for the most part, good people. They too are victims of this killer, and carry the emotional scars to prove it.  In the case of the Colonial Parkway Murders, the burden of remembrance of their loved ones has, in some cases, passed from the parents to the surviving siblings.

Almost all have said that this pair of murders stands out.  In the other killings the murderer left mortal remains…the families know somewhat what befell their loved ones.  Not so in the case of Keith and Cassandra.  Their families have no graves, no memorials, nothing.  It was as if they drove off April 9, 1988 into oblivion.

The facts of the case do not change materially over time.  Keith and Cassandra went on a first date together.  When you see their photos, they look as if they were stars of a John Hughes from the 1980s.  This was not a romantic date.  They went to a movie and a party new Christopher Newport Community College (now University.)  At the party, they didn’t even spend time together.  Keith was on a two-week break from his long-term girlfriend; and Cassandra spent her time at the kegger talking to her former boyfriend.  They left the party before 2:00am, Cassandra’s curfew.  It was just enough time for conscientious Keith to get her home in Tabb, Virginia.

The next day their car was found on the Colonial Parkway – abandoned.  Their clothing was in the back seat.  Three of their shoes were in the car as well.  The keys were in plain sight as was Keith’s wallet and Cassandra’s purse.  There was no sign of either victim.

Extensive searches were launched along the Parkway.  In a strange twist, another body was found in the York River near where the car was found – but no sign of either of the victims.

So what happened to Keith and Cassandra?  The Park Rangers foolishly suggested they went skinny dipping in the 40 degree weather.  Most of the searches concentrated their efforts on the York River and the Parkway…but there never was a bit of physical evidence to put either of them there.

The truth is only their killer(s) know for sure.  What I am confident of is that whatever happened didn’t happen at the Parkway.  Even if we wildly stretch our imaginations and assume that Keith and Cassandra were going to go somewhere to make out, it would not be the Colonial Parkway.  Keith didn’t frequent it because of the murders of Cathy Thomas and Rebecca Dowski there is 1986.  Cassandra felt that he road was creepy and avoided it.

Whatever happened, in my opinion (and some in law enforcement) took place between the party at Christopher Newport and Cassandra’s home – along the Route 17 corridor.  Yes, the car was found at the first rest area on the Colonial Parkway, but that was all.  I doubt that either of them were on the Parkway.  There’s no physical evidence of it.  That was simply where the car was dumped by the killer(s).

Did you see this car the night of April 9, 1988?  Contact the FBI if you did.  

There are questions that nag at me, both as a researcher/investigator and an author.  The short version includes:

  • Where did Keith and Cassandra confront their killer(s)? If it was along Route 17, why weren’t they seen by someone that night?
  • How did the killer(s) get them to pull over?  Was it someone impersonating police officers, or someone actually in law enforcement?  Was it a flash of police lights or some other ploy to get their attention?
  • Where are their remains?  With all of the development in the region, one would think that someone would have come across their remains over the years.
  • I have long believed that the removal of their clothing and shoes was a means for the killer to exert control.  Why fold up their clothing and put it in the back seat of Keith’s car?
  • Why take the car to the Parkway to abandon it?  Was it a taunt aimed at authorities?  There were dozens of places that car could have been left – why on the Parkway?
  • Did the killer order them to drive around that night?  There were empty beer cans in the back of Keith’s car on the floor.  Did the killer take them for some sort of ride at gun or knife point?  To where?
  • How did the killer get away?  Remember – we are dealing with multiple scenes of this crime.  One, where Keith and Cassandra were confronted. Two, where they were killed.  Three, where their remains were disposed.  Four, where the car was abandoned.  Some of these may be the same scene, regardless, there was a lot of potential travel that night.  After the car was left on the Parkway, did the killer have an accomplice pick him up – or did he walk off into the night?  If so, how did no one not notice him?
  • What DNA, if any, can be recovered from this crime scene that is of use?  Bear in mind, the Park Rangers rooted through this car twice, removing the clothing and contents then restaging the vehicle.  How contaminated is the material they have left?

Of course, one of you may have the answers.  On April 9, 1988 you may have passed Keith’s red Toyota Celica pulled over somewhere?  Did you see the killer walking along the Colonial Parkway?  Did you see someone at Keith’s car at the pull-off on the York River?

Sadly, we are left with more questions than answers.  The passage of three decades has done little to fill in the gaps in our knowledge.  While to me, it is important to know who this killer is; it is far more important to learn where Keith and Cassandra are.  If the murderer is reading this, and there is a good chance that he is (organized killers follow their crimes), let the families know where you put their bodies. There are a lot of ways to do this without risking your exposure.  Send a letter to the press, to me, or the authorities.  Tell the families where they can find their loved ones.

After three decades…justice needs to be served.  If that is not possible, perhaps closure for the families is a good place to start. Let’s hope that the killer is reading this and has an ounce of humanity still left in him.

Unmasking a Killer – The Golden State Killer – Mid-Season Review


Headline News Network’s (HLN) Unmasking a Killer is two episodes in to a five part series on the Golden State Killer that terrorized California in the 1970’s and 80’s.  There’s a lot of buzz around the Golden State Killer, new books (including Michelle McNamara’s I’ll Be Gone in the Dark), several new series, etc.  I have to admit, I knew very little about these cases until the last year.  As a true crime author you tend to be heads-down on certain cases and only have cursory knowledge of others.  It’s a matter of maintaining focus.  All this means is I cannot tell you how comprehensive this show’s coverage of the cases are.

I saw some of the Golden State Killer series on ID Discovery on these cases and wasn’t dazzled with their presentation or format.  It wasn’t bad, it just didn’t seem to flow very well.  Not so with HLN’s Unmaking a Killer.  Two episodes in and I am hooked.  To me, it is all about the packaging of a good true crime on TV.  The HLN series talks to some of the victims, but really engages law enforcement who worked the cases.  The reenactment elements are short visuals, not overboard like you see on some series.  I like hearing from the people that worked the cases on my true crime TV, because they often offer details you haven’t heard before.

As someone who knew little about these crimes, Unmasking has done a great job of taking me on a journey as to how the East Area Rapist (EAR) and the Original Night Stalker (ONS) are actually one-in-the-same.  The second episode takes you through the MO of the EAR – what were his signature actions, how he stalked his victims carefully, etc.  In a visual checklist on the screen, you really get a sense as to how this horrific criminal meticulously worked.  Unlike most criminals, the East Area Rapist would call some of his victims’ years after the crime, to continue to torment them.  This is not your typical serial killer or rapist. This sick bastard is diabolical.

I got hooked.  In fairness, it is hard for a true crime series to compel me to watch.  This is one I make sure I follow.  It is on Sunday nights and has disturbed two Sunday’s worth of sleep so far.  Well done HLN!  Combined with the Patty Hearst series on sister station CNN, it is clear that CNN/HLN are dipping their toes into the true crime market.  Does this mean another true crime network is not far off?  I tend not to think of HLN as a true crime channel, despite the series Forensic Files. We may have to rethink that now that they are putting out quality shows like Unmasking a Killer.

So far, this is what I call, reflective true crime…a retelling of the crimes and investigations. There’s no heady promise to unearth new evidence, not yet.  This is opposed to the investigative true crime series, like the History Channel’s Zodiac, where the investigators are pursuing new leads and doing new(ish) investigative work.

I recommend you DVR or On-Demand watch this series!  They even have a follow-on podcast after each episode.  #truecrime

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.


Mid-Series Review of Waco


Waco is everywhere on TV…there are at least three documentary-style mini-series out there interviewing the survivors of the disastrous raid.  The 25th anniversary generates that kind of true crime nostalgia.  Just to be clear, I am reviewing the Paramount (formerly Spike) network docudrama called Waco.

It might be hard to remember the events accurately.  In 1993 the ATF and FBI raided the Branch Davidian Compound in Waco, Texas.  The Davidians were led by David Koresh and were often characterized at the time as being a cult and that Koresh was a madman.  Of course, that is the government’s side of matters.  The raid turned into a gun battle that ultimately resulted in the deaths of 76 of the Davidians.  For those of us who remember the 51 day standoff, it was horrific on many levels, and seemed brutally unnecessary.

Ironically this mini-series comes out at a time when the integrity of the FBI is being drawn into question.  This series subtly provides a backdrop for current political events and takes us back to a time when the integrity of the FBI was at deepening low.  There’s no way the producers could have foreseen some of the parallels that could be drawn, which makes the series more genuine.

Normally I am not a fan of docudramas, but this one has the same polish and excellent writing/casting as FX’s The People vs. OJ Simpson.  Yes, it is scripted, but it does a great job of keeping to the facts.  As a history and true crime author, I had a benchmark coming into this series.  I told my wife, “You can’t tell the story of what happened in Waco if you don’t tell the story in some way, about what happened with the Weaver’s at Ruby Ridge.”  That standoff set the stage for Waco.

The first episode started with Ruby Ridge and immediately I was drawn in.  I knew that the producers were going to try and tell the whole story of the tragic events that unfolded.

Koresh is not a crazed cult-leader. There are a lot of layers to this man.  The series does an excellent job of drawing in the viewers to the life he was trying to establish for his church members.  This is not Jim Jones, but a man that finds himself the target of the ATF because that agency was trying to use the Davidians as a PR event to rebuild their reputation after Ruby Ridge.

David Koresh does not come across as a cult leader, but a victim of sorts.  His followers are not mindless drones in the series, but well-crafted characters and personalities all on their own.

Waco is captivating, compelling, and has outstanding performances.  It pulls you in and holds you tight to your seat.  It doesn’t stray from the truth, but attempts to put it into context…a rarity for Hollywood these days.  If you are not watching it, I recommend you do (Paramount Networks – Wednesday’s at 10pm).  We are just two episodes in and I am truly enjoying this series.