The 30th Anniversary of the Last of the Colonial Parkway Murders

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The roach clip hanging in Daniel Lauer’s car

As a cold case true crime author you become emotionally invested in your work.  If you are going to do your job right, you have it.  Sometimes that connection is with investigators, other times it is with family members of the victims. You have no control over where those connections are going to come from, in many respects, you are along for the ride.

The first interview we did for the book was with Larry McCann, the Virginia State Police profiler who worked the case.  Victoria and I needed the big picture, a strategic perspective.  Larry was the guy to do that for us.  Larry taught me more about criminal profiling in four hours than I got from three textbooks on the subject.

Next came my interview with the brother and sister of Annamaria Phelps.  It was deeply moving, though I did my best to keep my poker face on.  The love and frustrations they had been forced to endure and lose was incredible.  They felt that the system had failed them…and it had.  The killer of their beloved sister has not been brought to justice yet.  Over the years they have been emotionally jerked around by investigators who flip-flopped on whether their sister’s case was tied to the Colonial Parkway Murders or not.  Despite tantalizing leads, there has not been an arrest.  For them, it tore them apart internally and brought them together spiritually.

If you think I didn’t get in the car after our interview and break down…you would be wrong.

The case is baffling and more complicated than it appears on the surface.  Labor Day weekend, 1989, Daniel Lauer went to visit his brother Clinton and Clinton’s girlfriend, Annamaria Phelps, at Virginia Beach.  He brought along three passengers, Joe Godsey, his wife, and their young daughter.  It promised to be a weekend of partying.  Unfortunately, it got out of hand – resulting in a large scale riot.

At the end of the weekend, Daniel had decided to move in with his brother and Annamaria.  The plan on that Sunday night was to drive back to their home in Amelia County, Virginia.  He would drop off the Godsey’s, grab his stuff, get paid by his father, then drive back.  Annamaria decided to come along.  Daniel would drop her off with her parents while he packed, then would pick her up and together they would drive back to join Clinton.

Everything seemed to go as planned. Annamaria saw her folks and Daniel picked her up for the drive back.  The last place they were seen by witnesses was in the east-bound rest area on I-64 in New Kent County.

The next morning, Daniel’s car was found in the west-bound rest area on the merge ramp, abandoned.  The glove box was opened and a roach clip hung from the driver’s side window which was partially lowered.  The keys were in the vehicle, as if someone was staging the car for theft.

Authorities mounted a search but found nothing.  It would be six weeks later when their bodies were found by turkey hunters just a mile from where Daniel’s car had been found.  It would take experts from the Smithsonian to help the Virginia State Police to try and piece together what happened.  All they could say for sure is that Annamaria had been cut by a knife on one of her fingers.  There was no way to ascertain the cause of death.  All we know for sure is that Annamaria fought with her killer that night.

I’ve been to the site a few times and it remains pretty much as it looked back then.  Visiting the Crime Scene In talking with investigators that were on the scene at the time, we are convinced of one thing – the killer had stalked the site out in advance, or at least had familiarity with it.  Otherwise getting back there and out again would have been a challenge.

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The logging road.  The victims were found just off it, just around the bend to the left. 

This weekend marks the 30th anniversary of their deaths.  When you write true crime, the key dates stick with you.  I cringe in August because it marks the bombing/murder in Marshall I wrote about and the murder of Maggie Hume in Battle Creek, MI.  January always makes me think of Daisy Zick and her death.  Labor Day, that is reserved for Annamaria and Daniel.  In my mind I replay everything.  How did their car end up on the other side of the highway? Why did the killer target them?  What happened in those dark woods?  What clues were lost because the police did not do an effective search?  Why did the killer stop after this pair of victims?  How did the killer get control of them?  Why didn’t someone see something on that holiday weekend?

We have new techniques and technologies that can help crack the cases…but is time running out?  No.  I don’t believe that, not for an instant.  The moment you go down that road, you only find despair.

Even today, when I drive to Williamsburg I make myself stop at the refurbished rest area – the last place they were seen.  I take a minute or two and look around and think of what happened thirty years ago at that site.  A great deal has changed, but not the mystery, and not the sense that more could and should have been done at the time.

It’s the 50th Anniversary of Manson’s Start of Helter Skelter

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Pure evil

It is hard to believe that five decades have come and gone.  It was on August 9, 1969 that Sharon Tate and her guests were brutally killed.  These were not the first murders done by Charles Manson’s “Family,” nor would they be the last.  In many respects, we are still grappling with these crimes.

In a summer filled with turmoil in our nation, these horrific killings stood out.  The hippie culture of love and peace which had brought protests to many college campuses had taken a dark turn.  The media, for the first time in the TV era, had a true crime unfold that captivated the world.  The excellent book, Helter Skelter, hooked myself and millions of others into this emerging genre.  The television coverage of the Manson trial laid the foundation for OJ Simpson, ID Discovery, and Oxygen to follow.

Going over these crimes is pointless – we all know the terrible details.  We saw what twisted insanity looks like in the guise of Manson and his girls.  Together, they killed the hippie-era.  Gone was the thin veneer that we would somehow emerge from the 1960’s with our innocence intact. The killings in Los Angeles made the entire nation fearful.

The surviving murderers are old women now.  Every now and then one is up for parole and each time it is pushed back.  I fully support this.  I don’t care that these women have been model prisoners or have found God, or anything else.  Nothing can bring the family members back their loved ones.  Their trial put the survivors through a televised living hell and America was shown a true face of evil in Charles Manson and his Family.  The brutality of their crimes, whether it was under the influence of a madman or drugs, has no excuse.  I realize that comes across as harsh, but when you write true crime you tend to have seen the darker side of humanity and do not wish for evil to be free.  Let them die in prison, never again experiencing the freedom their victims had torn from them.

 

 

Review of the True Crime Podcast – Man in the Window

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I am not a huge podcast follower when it comes to true crime.  When I do listen, I put one on in the background when I write.  There is a lot of people competing in the true crime space for podcast time.  Some don’t resonate with me well.  I don’t like the ones that joke a great deal.  I get it, you want to stand out and lighten the mood.  To me, it feels disrespectful.  Same for the drinking and true crime podcasts.  I never got into the concept you could pair a wine with a crime…but that is a matter of personal preference on my part.

We drove to Michigan this week to visit family and my wife asked me to play some true crime podcasts on the trip.  This was high on my list and I was not let down.

Man in the Window is gripping.  One, it was done by a writer for the LA Times who has dived deep into the Golden State Killer case.  This podcast really grabs you with a mix of interview snippets and a compelling story.  It is professionally produced, top-notch stuff.  At the same time, the most gripping part is not the production – it is that it provides us all with an in-depth view of the Joseph DeAngelo, the accused Golden State Killer.

Accused is a light word here, a formality.  It is hard to dodge multiple DNA hits.  He totally did it.  But what we have never gotten is “why.”  This podcast gets us much closer to that answer, delving into his background.  The interview with his former girlfriend is creepy, and weird, and the kind of stuff you can’t pause.

This is good investigative journalism colliding with social media to produce a wonderful and sufficiently eerie experience.   I highly recommend this podcast to any true crime aficionado.  An easy five out of five stars.

 

 

 

 

 

Our next book – Tantamount – The Washington DC Freeway Phantom Serial Killer

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The time has finally come to tell folks what my daughter Victoria Hester and I have been working on.  Our next true crime book is about the Freeway Phantom serial killing spree, 1971-72.  We have been working for over a year and a half on the book, gathering research materials, interviewing investigators, etc.

We have both been heads-down writing and are nearing the completion of the first draft.

For those of you not familiar with the Freeway Phantom, he struck in Washington DC’s Southeast neighborhoods (primarily) in the early 1970’s.  Depending on the list you use, he killed between six and eight young girls, sexually assaulting then strangling them.  On one, he had the victim write a note that was left with her body – taunting the authorities to “Catch me if you can.”  The book title comes from a key word in the note he had his victim write.

Was the murderer cunning and crafty, or damned lucky?  Why did he stop…or did he?  Were there other victims?  Who were the suspects, and why?  We have been able to really pry this case wide open in some areas – providing more facts than the public has known before.

This book will be different than our last book, A Special Kind of Evil, in several ways.  Our last book focused heavily on the victims and their stories.  With Tantamount, we are focusing more on the investigation.  Our efforts to contact the family members have, understandably, been either disregarded or in some cases, outright rejected.  These folks have had nearly fifty years of reporters dredging their painful losses up – and we respect that.  On top of that, the victims were very young, making it difficult to write a great deal about them.

It is a different style of book, as a result…a little grittier, with some real insights as to how and why the case became so cold.

My co-author/daughter Victoria and I have been immersed in this for a while now.  Even how we split the book up is different this time around.  I’m not sure which one of us had the harder job. There are nights when I am done that I feel physically and mentally exhausted. Serial murders are like that.

We are quite excited about the book. For us, it is a chance to thaw some cold cases…bring them to the light of day and expose new information, facts, and details that might bring in new tips for the authorities.  Our books on cold cases have always succeeded in that in the past, and we’re confident this one will as well. Though with this one the solvability gets harder each passing day.

In some instances we have struggled to get information – where in other areas, we almost have too much data.  I’ve corresponded with prisoners, which is interesting and weird at times.  Victoria and I have been all over Washington DC meeting with former detectives who themselves are still on the case.  From a local bar on Pennsylvania Ave to hours at the DC Superior Court, we’ve been finding information in the most interesting of places.

The book will present reams of new data about the cases that has never been made public before.  We have learned a lot about not only the key suspects, but how the case went off the rails and has remained cold all of these decades.  We have been stonewalled by the Washington DC Metropolitan Police Department on numerous fronts.  Still, I think we have prevailed and have been successful in crafting a meaningful story out of these murders.

Something else we will be doing differently with Tantamount is that we will be doing a podcast about the Freeway Phantom that will coincide with the book.  We’ll be talking not only about the case, but about writing about the book as well.  It will be an insider’s look into the Freeway Phantom cases and is likely to include some details we couldn’t confirm or include in the book.  Think of this as a companion.  We’re new to producing a podcast, so we ask you to be patient with us.  Our goal is simple – get this right and get it with a high quality.

Don’t worry, we will still be talking to other podcasters out there too.  The true crime community is tight knit.  Several podcasters out there encouraged us to take this step to go out on our own.

Wild Blue Press is going to be the publisher.  We liked what they did with A Special Kind of Evil and you tend to stick with a winning combination.

So there you have it…another serial killing case near our homes and hearts.

Review of Netflix’s Conversations With a Killer – The Ted Bundy Tapes

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It might not surprise you that when I am writing a true crime book, I usually have true crime going on the TV.  I’m usually not watching it, but I like the background noise.  My usual go-to film is to go to the blu ray of Zodiac.  Having recently watched Extremely Wicked, Shockingly Evil and Vile (perhaps the longest title for a series) I was wanting to reacquaint myself with Ted Bundy.  Normally I would have dusted off my copy of A Stranger Beside Me, but I decided to look at the Netflix offering of Conversations With a Killer – The Ted Bundy Tapes.  I fired it up in the background and started to write.

Then I stopped writing to watch – a rarity.  I am pleased to say that this series delivers in new and eerie ways.

This four part series delves into the interviews two authors did with Bundy just prior to his execution.  It is framed against the timeline of his crimes and subsequent trials.  It is well-produced and at times, downright creepy.  In order to get Bundy to talk about his crimes, they convince him to speak in third-person.  So what you get throughout this series is his voice, almost disembodied, talking about what “someone” might have done.  It was brilliant on their part and leaves us with perhaps one of the more disturbing discussions we have been privy to from a notorious serial killer. Bundy’s lack of emotion about anything other than himself does send chills down your spine.

Interlaced throughout this is a lot of footage from TV news about the cases, with the surviving investigators, witnesses and victim weighing in.  It is well edited and the following of the timeline really helps a viewer stay focused and organized during viewing.  I really like watching the period broadcasts…they pull you in.

I was a little surprised that Netflix has hopped onto the Ted Bundy wagon.  Moreover, there are things in this documentary that contradict things in their other series, Extremely Wicked, Shockingly Evil and Vile. That is to be expected, but it does make you scratch your head a bit…almost as if the programming folks at Netflix were not talking to each other.

Conversations With a Killer is a welcome documentary, a secret pleasure for true crime aficionados and newbies to the genre.

So I Received This Death Threat The Other Night…

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Last week, while working late, I received a phone call on my home office number.  There was a barking dog at first.  I assumed someone had butt-dialed me.  I said, “Hello.”  What I got back was, “You dead” though it sounded like, “deed.”

“Who is this?”

“You dead.”

“Are you saying I’m dead?”

“You dead.”

We did this at least one more time.

I hung up and went back to my writing.  Hey, I was on a roll.  Frankly, I didn’t appreciate the interruption.  Then, in the wee hours of the morning, I woke up sweating thinking about it.  I had been so focused on my writing, I had shuffled the threat aside.  I had even forgot to tell my wife about it, but in the middle of the night it came roaring back at me.

It dawned on me that I write about cold cases and in many instances, my daughter and I  out would-be killers or draw attention to cases that the murderers might like kept quiet.  I rolled out of bed and *69’d the number and I wasn’t from an area code where we were doing interviews for our new book.  So I contacted the appropriate authorities on the whim that maybe one of their suspects on one of these cases had placed the call. Who knows, that number may actually help law enforcement narrow their list of suspects?

In other words, it was a typical night in the life of a true crime author.

Chances are it was a creep, a drunk, someone upset over a typo…who knows?  I upset BattleTech fans from time-to-time, but I doubt any of them would threaten me outside of social media.

I’ve had closer calls with suspected killers.  I have had one murder suspect my daughter and I outed actually show up at a book signing.  He didn’t confront us, but hovered around behind us. I had some well-placed family members that not only saw him, but photographed him as well.  If you’re going to do that kind of stuff, you shouldn’t have your picture out on Facebook…I’m just sayin’.  We were prepared – my daughter has a conceal and carry permit.  Now I may be getting one as well.

I don’t intimidate easily.  Some of that is raw, raging stupidity on my part.  Another is that most killers are cowards at their core.  That and the cases we research and write about are from the 1960’s thru the 1980’s which means that I’m more likely to be assaulted with a walker or a driveby on a Rascal scooter.

As a writer, I am a public figure of sorts, albeit a minor one.  I cover cold cases with my daughter because we like to think we can make a difference.  We expose new facts and details for public consumption.  We generate tips for the authorities. In doing so, there is a minor element of risk associated with the job. This call reemphasized that for me.

Normally I don’t share this kind of stuff except at dinner with friends (it is also a great way to get people to stop talking to me at parties.)  I understand it.  Normal people don’t get death threats.  I was not going to make this new threat public, but I started thinking about all of the people I know who are authors, bloggers, or podcasters.  They too are stirring the pot on cold cases and crimes and may be putting themselves inadvertently in the sights of killers as well.  So I offer this to them as a cautionary tale and encourage them to share it with their listeners.

It does make you pause and think for a moment.

And to the douchebag that called me – the authorities have your number…

Review of Netflix’s Extremely Wicked, Shockingly Evil and Vile

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Netflix plays a little footlose and fancy-free with the Ted Bundy case

I will preface this by saying I don’t like serial murder docudramas that glorify the killers in any way.  Our fascination with serial killers exists though which invites films such as Extremely Wicked, Shockingly Evil and Vile.  We are drawn in by serial killers.  It is one of the things I like about writing about cold cases, you can’t sensationalize the killers because you don’t know who they are.

I did not want to watch a hack-and-slash take on the Ted Bundy case.  I also was not expecting anything really new or revealing.  Bundy has not been news for years – though some new facts do emerge from time-to-time.

This is not that kind of docudrama.  Instead it focuses on how Ted lied and deceived his girlfriend and how he manipulated those around him.  That was a sigh of relief.

I am from the generation where Mark Harmon played Bundy years ago.  I will say that Zac Efron did a reasonably good job at portraying this waste of a human being.  Comparing him to Mark Harmon is fair, but not necessary.  Efron looks like him.  At the end of the film, you see some of the real-life scenes that were recreated in the film and you realize that Efron was pretty close to the mark.

I was surprised at a few things I didn’t know about the case that were presented – so it was good.  I think the producers took the safest angle they could, leveraging the book by Bundy’s former girlfriend.  There are some things the docudrama omitted, most likely for dramatic effect.  If my memory serves, she found plaster of Paris and he stole the crowbar from her.  Bundy used fake casts to lure in his victims – which was much more than what her film-version revealed. Other things were added for dramatic effect.  That’s what happens when Hollywood gets ahold of source material.  I understand it, but no one should watch Extremely Wicked, Shockingly Evil and Vile and think of it as a documentary.  It is, at best, in the ballpark with the facts.

I’m not disappointed, but I wasn’t overwhelmed either.  It is worth watching, but I am going to tune in a documentary to get some real facts and refresh my memories of these cases.  Overall, it is 3.5 stars (ish) out of 5.

 

 

Review of The Most Dangerous Animal of All: Searching for My Father . . . and Finding the Zodiac Killer, by Gary Stewart and Susan Mustafa

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I am a true crime author and write about cold cases.  Often times I won’t write reviews about true crime books I don’t like because I respect the work that went into them, even if I disagree with their conclusions.  In the last few years we have had a rash of books where people claim family members are DB Cooper or the Zodiac or some other famous case. A part of me always fears that this is people capitalizing on famous cases for a quick buck.

I went into this book hoping to read a theory of a truly viable suspect in the heinous Zodiac murders.  In reality, the Zodiac portion of this book is about 1/4 of the content – and even there, it offers nothing substantially new.  The author added in his father’s name, attributing him to being the Zodiac.

This is more of the story of the author who tracks down his birth father, who is a low-life character.  This is more than validated. He claims his father was a big fan of the Mikado, potentially into devil worship, liked cyphers, and had access to the same style shoe as Zodiac.  I do not doubt that his researched unearthed these bits of his father’s personality. His birth father also lived in the area and had a reason to have a grudge against Paul Avery at the San Francisco Chronicle.  Digging through the cyphers, he found his father’s name…but much like a game of Scrabble, a number of names can be created from letters found there.  Again, kudos to the author on his research, but I cringe at the conclusions.

Circumstantially it seems like he might, stress might, be a candidate for consideration as a suspect.  I, however, needed more than this, and in The Most Dangerous Animal, it just isn’t there.  There is no smoking gun, no tangible piece of evidence that links his estranged father to these crimes.  Coincidences, yes – absolutely.  Speculation doesn’t make it so.

The parts of the book where the Zodiac is covered, he has written his father into the role of the killer. I struggled with these chapters of the book most of all.  It just feels like a huge leap.  That, and the dialogue he attributes to his father throughout his life seems contrived.  There is no way for him to have reconstructed that dialogue, even from witnesses, all of these decades later.  It feels highly speculative, if not, utterly fictitious. The book has an agenda and attempts to dovetail the evidence to fit that agenda.

What the author does provide us with is a potential suspect that has not been on our collective radar.  I applaud that effort, but let’s not make this more than what it is.

The book is well written and organized, which made me read all of it, despite the flaws in the research.  The author’s story of what he found out about his father is compelling on its own and does not need a flimsy Zodiac connection to resonate with readers.

If you are purchasing this book because you have tracked the Zodiac case, I advise caution. While this is a gripping story of a man searching for his roots and discovering dark secrets – he fails to make a case that his father is the Zodiac killer.  If you are a Zodiac reader, you will pick this up regardless of my words.

Review of How to Catch a Liar, by Steven David Lampley – 3rd Edition

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I rarely review a book whose information I use almost every day – a book that has changed my life.  This book has.

Let me tell you a short story. I was at CrimeCon 2018 and went to the lecture on How to Catch a Liar by Steven Lampley.  He has trained law enforcement professionals on the techniques of spotting deception during interviews/interrogations.  I was stunned by how simple and practical the information was.  I went back to work on used it on a video conference call during my day job.  It worked!  I was able to tell when people were being deceptive.  Steven and I became acquaintances and I was so pumped when his third edition of the book was announced a few weeks ago. He was kind enough to shoot me an early edition.

To be blunt, I wish I had gone to his lecture or read his book when my kids were teenagers.  They would have been toast!  This is the kind of information that transcends true crime and applies in every aspect of your life, be it personal or professional.  To Steven’s point, this is also a book that can screw up a marriage if used incorrectly.  With great power, comes great responsibility.

It has also enhanced my ability to watch true crime shows on TV.  When you watch interrogations on The First 48, or when officers confront suspects on LivePD, you can spot the triggers with many of them and know when they are outright lying.  The stuff in Steven’s book works!  I shared the tips with my wife and when we watched the Netflix series, The Staircase – we could spot the lies and liars fairly quickly.  It has also applies when politicians are confronted by the press.  I cannot say enough positive things about the stuff crammed into this book.

The author dispels some of the myths (like arm-crossing) and provides concrete techniques that anyone can use.  I have used these on job interviews, discussions with people associated with crimes, and at work.  They are short, simple, and powerful tips.

There are some minor nits.  There are no page numbers, and I found two minor editing errors – no biggies.  In fairness, my copy was pre-release and complimentary, so such things are to be expected.

The book is a fast read – it took me less than two hours to devour.  It is not a dry read, Lampley has incorporated a very free form style to it.

Even if you are not a true crime fan, this book is a must-have.  I use the techniques constantly at work and when doing research for non-fiction books.  Steven also has a PDF that he offers on how to spot a liar when texting – which is also fabulous and useful.  If you ARE a true crime fan, you need this book.  It immensely changes and enhances your enjoyment of watching true crime TV.

If you want to be able to start identifying when people are deceiving you, (and who doesn’t?) it is worth it.  I haven’t seen the latest book on Amazon yet – but you can be sure he will have access to it at https://www.stevenlampley.com/

Review of Mapping the Trail of a Crime – How Experts use Geographic Profiling to Solve the World’s Most Notorious Crimes – By Gordon Kerr

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I picked this book up for research on a series of murders my daughter and I are writing a book about.  We were able to get a copy of a geographic profile of our cases and I wanted to learn more about the techniques used in geographic profiling.  As an entry level book on this subject, it hits the mark.

Geographic profiling looks at the patterns a crime creates and maps probable areas where the killers live, have familiarity, or work.  It is not an exact science (yet) and some killers’ patterns defy the technique, such as those killers that are highly mobile and cover a broad geography.

It is a highly intriguing science.  Many serial killers follow a pattern which can be conveyed on a map. Most do not strike right at their home or immediate neighborhood, there’s too much of a chance they would be seen and recognized.  The majority strike in a band further out from their neighborhoods, where they are familiar with the territory but there is less risk of them being recognized.

The book is a paperback format, heavy with maps (duh) and photographs.  A large number of serial killing cases are examined and, in most cases, it is explained where geographic profiling could have helped or did help on the case.  In a few of the instances, there’s not a lot that ties to the subject matter in a given chapter, because the cases don’t fit the model where geographic profiling can apply.

The book was pretty good, but really didn’t dive deep enough into the subject for me…but remember, I’m a true crime author and want more nuts and bolts.  There’s not a lot of books on this subject…not for under $100, so I do recommend this for the “casual” true crime reader who wants a great source of maps of murders and explains the basics of geographic profiling.  I find myself wanting to pick up some of the author’s other books, which says a great deal about his style.  I also loved the paperback format, with end flaps which mirror a hardcover book. It is a nice touch from the publisher.