Engage me in conversation more than once, and you’ll figure out pretty quickly that I have a deep fascination with true crime stories. I don’t consider myself particularly morbid; rather, it’s a quirky manifestation of my voyeuristic tendencies. Perhaps surprisingly, I never considered becoming a cops reporter — a title that often leads to writing books about crimes. (See also my introvert tendencies.) Instead, over the years I’ve read voraciously about a variety of missing persons and particularly well-publicized murders.
I’d like to say it started with “Helter Skelter,” which I read when I was 14. My English teacher kindly but firmly dismissed it as sensationalistic (what true-crime book isn’t?) but I wasn’t deterred. I loved the story of the Manson family and loved freaking myself out by studying the ghoulish photos of the crime scenes, with the bodies of the victims tastefully cut out, which invited my imagination to run wild.
That was my first really meaty book, but my fascination ignited even earlier. It really began, I think, with two made-for-TV movies based on true stories:
- “Unholy Matrimony.” I may have read this first, in a Reader’s Digest Condensed Book (an atrocity best saved for another entry). It was the story of a naive young woman who moved to Texas in the early 1970s and was hustled into a quickie marriage with an already-married shyster who then had his pal, a mail-order priest who conducted the ceremony, kill her by way of vehicular homicide so the new husband could collect on a big insurance policy. Patrick Duffy played the police detective.
- “Cross of Fire.” There was no book to precede this one (that I’m aware of). I’m not sure how I got away with watching this at age 10, given the sensitive content. The grand dragon the KKK is tried and convicted in the early 20th century in the death of a young woman he brutally raped who subsequently committed suicide. Prosecutors showed that the defendant’s actions had led directly to her death, even though she admitted she poisoned herself.
Not exactly appropriate for a preteen, right? Curiosity trumped propriety then, as it does now. Over the years, I’ve accumulated high-profile cases the way some people collect Star Trek action figures or shot glasses. The more news coverage, books and documentaries available, the more interesting they are to me, though if a case is ongoing, I prefer to wait till there’s a verdict before digging.
Here’s a quick look at some of the cases that I’ve followed over the years.
Jeffrey MacDonald. Convicted in the early 1980s of killing his pregnant wife and daughters in 1970 on Fort Bragg. To this day, he claims intruders did it. Did he or didn’t he? I’ve changed my mind more than once on this case. Lately, I’m in the “yes, he did” camp.
Scott Peterson. I wonder how long this guy set off warning bells to the people around him. Also, I love that his illicit lover wrote a book about the case. I respect her for cooperating with the police, even if her taste in men is teh suck.
Jason Young. What is it with psycho husbands and their pregnant wives? This one rounds out my triumvirate of cases involving upwardly mobile families who appear to “have it all” but whose rosy-looking lives mask some sort of hidden hell.
Eileen Franklin. Twenty years after a childhood playmate was killed, she accused her abusive father of the crime, claiming she had seen the murder and repressed her memory of it. He was convicted, but the verdict was thrown out. She wrote a book about the case; another well-researched tome (that was recently updated) offers a fuller view of the case and the people involved.
Michelle Theer. Army wife and psychologist by day, philanderer by night. Her husband was fatally shot outside her office in Fayetteville, NC (not far from where I lived in 2002-03) and her lover convicted by a military court in his death. She went on the run but was caught in Florida, her appearance altered. She was convicted and sentenced to life.
Michael Peterson. The N.C. novelist allegedly found his wife unconscious at the bottom of a narrow staircase, but his story doesn’t line up with the blood spatters found on the wall, and a jury finds him guilty in her death. An appeal is under way.
Jacob Wetterling. The 11-year-old went missing in a small town about an hour away from where I grew up. We were the same age. He’s never been found.
Maura Murray. I just recently discovered this case, thanks to the TV show “Disappeared.” It fits neatly in the intelligent-young-woman-vanishes-without-a-trace mold, but lots of unanswered questions remain, about her family, her friends, her studies and even a possible criminal record.
This list might inspire one of you to call the men in the white coats, but let me assure you: I love comparing accounts, hunting down elusive facts and marveling at stranger-than-fiction characteristics. My only crime is curiosity.