Conventional wisdom about writing is conventionally wrong.
The first murderer I ever met was tall and awkward, with curly hair. But this was sixth grade, and we were all a bit awkward. Every one of us.
This kid didn’t grow up to stalk the streets and slay prostitutes until the TV stations gave him a nickname.
He didn’t buy an AR-15 and shoot up a lecture hall or a nightclub.
This boy became a killer that same year.
One day he was in school. The next day he didn’t show up, and the next, and the next, until we finally learned the truth: he’d been charged with murder.
This boy had a habit of starting fistfights with me, the kind of thing that would get you expelled in a heartbeat today.
We went to school on Plattsburgh Air Force Base, and you expect a few brawls on a military base with new kids constantly showing up every week and your friends always leaving for some other base in Germany, Georgia or Japan.
A couple of scraps or wrestling matches weren’t a big deal. We’re not talking gang warfare. Nobody went to the hospital.
It was a peaceful place to grow up. We camped in the woods next to the flight line, with FB-111’s taking off day and night and the one rule being you didn’t go near the area fenced off with barbed wire, mines and snipers, because that’s where they kept the nuclear bombs.
Kids like me could close our eyes and tell you what fighter, bomber or tanker was flying overhead just from the sound. F-15. KC-135. FB-111.
The base theater played second-run movies for a dollar, which means I could watch STAR WARS, RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK or THE EMPIRE STRIKES BACK just about any day of the week. And many of us did. If we got lucky, we watched a pilot demolish every high score on Joust, Pac Man or the game we were all obsessed with, the one where you fly an X-wing to blow up the Death Star.
These pilots were like gods to us. Their reflexes were insane.
Crime? I don’t remember any.
The most exciting news was when soldiers tried to drive across Lake Champlain to Burlington, Vermont during the winter, which was totally possible when the ice was thick and your head was thicker. Except they’d do it too late, when the ice started to melt, and their trucks would fall in.
What happened with this sixth-grade boy wasn’t just one more sad story in a place full of mayhem.
It was flat-out weird.
TV shows and the movies give us easy, melodramatic answers. They show us charming, brilliant serial killers who the police can’t catch. Meth lords protecting their turf, or murderers who are psychotic or sociopathic.
Reality is far more mundane. Which is scary in some ways. Because it would mean there isn’t such a bright line between those monsters and your neighbors. Or with you.
Why did this boy start fights with me? No idea.
It wasn’t like we’d been best friends and had a falling out. I hadn’t stolen his girlfriend. Never picked on him.
This kid would just get angry about something, ball up his fists and charge you in gym class or in the halls as you were fiddling with your locker. Friends of mine once stopped him in the hallway and pointed at my chin. Go ahead and take another swing, right here, right now.
He just stared at me, breathing hard.
Nobody understood why he was like this. But it wasn’t like he was a bully, a big monster who bloodied and brutalized the place. It was good that he didn’t have any real talent in his fists, because he was tall and big, and could have done damage if he worked at it.
We saw him as a joke instead of a threat, until he killed a neighbor kid.
He did it with a knife while playing out in the woods.
Then came the thing that none of our sixth-grade brains could understand: he cut that kid’s ears off as trophies.
Turns out, this boy, this killer, was bringing a knife to school.
That’s the kind of thing that makes you wonder. Had he been tempted, every day, to take that blade out of his pocket in the hallway, to stab someone in the heart or slash their throat?
Who would he have gone after first?
And was it the same knife—you know, the one he used to kill that neighbor kid and saw off his ears?
Ten years later, I’m straight out of college at a twice-weekly newspaper, taking notes and shooting photos at my first story about a death.
This was a strange one: a man installing a double-wide trailer had an accident while he was underneath it.
The trailer fell on him and just about cut him in half.
It wasn’t long before I learned random mayhem happened all the time.
Our newsroom was full of young, bright young journalism majors like me. We’d write stories about city council scandals and county fairs, all the while keeping one ears tuned the police scanner for craziness like a mobile home deciding to chop a man in two.
When mayhem crackled on the radio, it was a race to grab big honking film cameras and skinny reporter notebooks to run out the door and pile into beater cars, the same pieces of crap we drove during four years of college poverty. We’d drive far too fast in search of floods, fires and murders.
Fires were always interesting and floods were crazy. The Puyallup River flooded twice in three years. It would swell up suddenly, then take days to finally recede. We stood on a railroad bridge to watch a house float down the river and smash into a bridge.
One summer in the small town of Bonney Lake sticks to me even today.
When I covered it, Bonney Lake had expensive homes on the lake, then a block over, past a patch of trees, you might see find big trailer park. The place has grown a lot since then.
The first murder that summer happened in a trailer park.
The second and third were also in that same clump of mobile homes, about a block away, not that the place really had blocks.
The fourth and fifth ones?
I don’t know where they happened. It’s a good bet nobody ever will.
So, the first one: a young wife is missing. This woman and her husband had a young baby, and she called her mom every day. I’m not sure if her mom reported her missing and the cops went to the trailer, or the husband figured it was better to report it himself.
The husband tells the police who show up that his wife just left him, and the baby, behind. That she went off with another man, a stranger.
The story is vague, the details generic—a man in blue jeans driving a blue car, that sort of thing—and the husband tells police not to mind the awful smell, because his dog dug up something.
So yeah, this doesn’t feel like a brilliant criminal scheme so far.
While detectives investigate the missing wife, they find the body of a young woman floating down the Puyallup River.
The corpse is nude. There’s a coat hanger wrapped around her neck.
I ask police whether this is the missing wife.
They don’t know yet.
The Puyallup River is big and long, cutting through all kinds of towns and farm country. Somebody could have gone halfway up Mt. Rainier to dump that body. The corpse could have washed up in Sumner or floated on past the Port of Tacoma and into the open ocean.
Later, another body washes down the same river.
Another young woman, also naked, with a coat hanger around her neck.
Is this second one the wife?
Police tell me no.
The husband later cracks while in county jail. They’ve interrogated him until he admitted to killing his wife, burying the body in the backyard and digging her back up.
I drive my beater car up a gravel logging road, trying to keep up with the detective who handles media calls. We’re in a convoy of detectives and forensic types, along with the husband in handcuffs. He’s leading them to where he dumped the body of his wife, and police are used to driving a lot faster than civilians. It’s hard to keep up.
The wife’s body is under a giant tree stump. You never would have found her, not unless the man confessed like he did.
The same summer, in the same trailer park, on the same block, there’s an old man who’s retired from Boeing who lives with his wife and their developmentally disabled son.
Their neighbor is a single man who did time. Goes to their same church. He’s befriended the family and even drives their son to school.
The old man comes home one day to find his wife dead and their son missing. She didn’t die of a stroke or a heart attack. Somebody bludgeoned her.
Her car is gone, too.
The neighbor turns himself to police and claims he discovered the wife, dead, and left in a panic. He admits to taking her car and withdrawing money from her account, but he denies killing her or the boy.
He’s never charged with the slayings.
It’s still an open case.
There’s an interesting book by David Buss, The Murderer Next Door, that drills all the way down on what causes human beings to kill. He says we have these great emotions, including passion and rage, because they were useful to survival for millions of years when we were making spearheads from stones to fight off wolves and bears.
Those old instincts and emotions are out of place in today’s civilized world.
Here’s a key passage from that book:
Case records do show that often people who kill do so while seized by a blinding rage, and they often seem oblivious to the consequences of their actions. We tend to think, then, that killers must be crazy. But they aren’t. Or at least the majority are not.
In the state of Michigan, as in most of the United States, nearly all people accused of the crime of killing end up being evaluated by trained psychologists and psychiatrists. They must be assessed as sane or insane, competent or incompetent to stand trial, psychotic or not psychotic. Surprisingly, in our study of 375 Michigan murders, we found that 96 percent were judged to be legally sane, competent and nonpsychotic. They fully understood that their actions were wrong and illegal.
Most killers, in a nutshell, are not crazy. They kill for specific reasons, such as lust, greed, envy, fear, status, and reputation, or to get rid of someone who they perceive is inflicting costs on them. They are like you. They are like me. As forensic psychologist Dr. Carol Holden observed, after more than eighteen years of interviewing murderers, “They line between us and them is virtually non-existent.” But, perhaps unlike you and me, their cost-benefit calculators have arrived at a deadly solution to their problems.
This seems about right. There wasn’t a single homicide I covered involving a brilliant serial killer or crime lord. They were average people driven to do something average people aren’t supposed to be capable of doing.
There was a double-shooting that involved a love triangle and a sniper in Sumner, but we’re not talking about criminal masterminds or people who weren’t in touch with reality.
The one serial killer I wrote about is the Green River Killer for a profile of Ann Rule right before she published Green River, Running Red.
If you want nightmares, read the court files about that man. But he’s not brilliant or charming. He’s nothing special, just a sad, sick and evil waste of time who simply kept getting away with it.
Although mass shootings are up in America, violent crime has been heading south for years. And it’s not just here: Canada, Europe and most of the world have seen the same long-term trend. You just wouldn’t know it from the press coverage. That’s because in the old days, pre-Google, the only people who heard about a killing in Green Bay, Wisconsin were the people who subscribed to the local paper there.
The more unusual or grisly a crime is, the more likely it goes viral in the press and on the web. A plain-old shooting doesn’t get play, not when there are so many mass shootings now. A regular murder doesn’t get splashed all over the television, but a beheading on a bus does.
The murders I covered, and the ones that get printed in local papers, they’ll never make national or international news. Nobody will write books about them.
But they stick with you. I still remember that hot, strange summer in Bonney Lake.
Not every case gets solved. DNA, fingerprints, hair and fiber aren’t magical.
I understand when police and prosecutors talk about the open cases, the suspects they didn’t get enough evidence to prosecute and convict. It’s been years since I worked at that paper, which was right after college. Yet the stories from the one summer feel like they happened yesterday.
The police never figured out what happened to those two women who floated down the Puyallup River.
I wonder what their names were. I wonder who killed them, and why.
And that boy from Bonney Lake?
They never found his body.
Reformed journalist. Scribbler of speeches and whatnot. Represented by Jill Marr of the Sandra Dijkstra Literary Agency.