RESEARCHING TRUE CRIME
PART I – THE MONSTERS WHO WALK AMONG US
I have always had an interest in true-crime and the enigma of serial murder. In writing, I often find myself drawn to the serial killer as the definitive monster. Mostly, because they’re real, which makes them more terrifying than DRACULA or the zombies of THE WALKING DEAD. The difference is, that those creatures aren’t real. They can be explained away by a parent’s soothing words or extinguished by a crack in the bedroom door or a night light.
But what of the predators that walk among us? The monsters who cannot be bargained with, whose souls are without mercy or conscience? They are the stuff of nightmares, terrifying and unrelenting, knowing no bounds in their craving for torture and murder. That is what makes them so chilling. Why they inspire the monsters of literature and film. They are enigmatic, loathsome, robotic, and unremorseful. But as already stated, they walk among us every day. I read extensively on these real-life monsters while doing research for written works, finding myself inspired by the depravity and humbled by the tragedy. Let me tell you a bit about what I have found and experienced.
THE GHOUL OF PLAINSFIELD
“I like this place, everybody treats me nice, some of them are a little crazy, though.”
— Ed Gein referring to his incarceration at the Mendota Mental Health Institute
Ed Gein has inspired authors like, Robert Bloch [PSYCHO,] Thomas Harris [SILENCE OF THE LAMBS,] and filmmakers like Tobe Hooper [THE TEXAS CHAINSAW MASSACRE.] Serial killers are the real monsters that walk among us. They hide in plain sight, predators who feed on fear, torture, and death. They lack conscience and are usually master manipulators. Gein was the extreme of decadence. When authorities entered his home in Plainfield, Illinois, they found soup bowls fashioned from human skulls, a belt made of nipples, lips hanging from a drawstring on Venetian blinds. When police entered his barn, they found the body of missing store clerk Bernice Worden. Authorities had been drawn to the farm after they discovered a receipt for anti-freeze filled out to Ed Gein by Worden at the hardware store where she had disappeared. Little did they know that this ghoulish little man would be the inspiration for so much horror in the future.
“These children that come at you with knives–they are your children. You taught them. I didn’t teach them. I just tried to help them stand up.” –Charles Manson
I remember when I was a kid back in the 1970s, and my mother had a copy of HELTER SKELTER by Vincent Bugliosi and Curt Gentry lying around. I picked it up and began reading. While Charles Manson wasn’t a serial killer, he was most assuredly a psychopath and his cult, THE FAMILY were a terrifying bunch. I was 11 years old when I began reading about the 1969 murders of the Tate–LaBiancas. Strange that a kid would be drawn to such a book, but I’d already read THE EXORCIST, and I absolutely loved horror movies, but HELTER SKELTER scared me. When they aired the television movie, I watched it with my mother, and I was afraid to go to sleep. You see, not all of Manson’s family was locked up when the television miniseries aired in 1976, and I was fearful that cult members might come calling to my home. My mom assured me that they were thousands of miles away and eventually, with the door open a crack, I fell asleep.
I’d also had two brushes with such evil in my youth. One confirmed, the other speculative.
THE ROSEDALE MURDERS
“I shot them and stabbed them in the heart to make sure they were dead. It all happened very quickly. I threw the bodies into the river.” –Walter Murray Madsen
In the 1970s four teenagers were murdered by a stranger on British Columbia’s Fraser River outside the town of Rosedale. Everyone knew about the killings. My older brother had gone to school with the victims. We were all talking about it. One evening after the murders, myself and a friend were camping in his backyard in a pup tent. I said to my friend that maybe we should stay inside because the Rosedale Killer [a name coined by the media] was still at large. My friend replied, “He’s miles from here.”
Two houses down, the police arrested a young man on that same night. His name was Walter Murray Madsen, and he was charged with the murders. I would recount this night in an essay titled: THE OLD MAN IN THE RAIN. In the piece, I recounted the evening of the arrest and the aftermath in which I followed the killer’s father down Yale Road East after the arrest. Madsen’s father was also a victim of his son’s rampage and would die not long after the arrest from what would be deemed as natural causes. But I am sure that the shock of his son’s act played a role in his passing by elevated stress. We forget that the families of criminals are often casualties themselves.
THE BEAST OF BRITISH COLUMBIA
If I gave a shit about the parents, I wouldn’t have killed the kid.
In the early 80s, a serial child killer was abducting young girls and boys and killing them in the lower mainland of British Columbia. On one such night, a friend of mine and I were down by the Chilliwack River in a truck doing what teenagers do, and I decided to have some fun. We both knew there was a serial killer at large, so freaking my friend out seemed like a great idea.
I thumped on the inside of the door and said, “What was that?”
My friend, whom I’ll call Danny, said, “Quit screwing around.”
Then something scary happened.
Somebody banged on the side of the truck, and I almost jumped out of my skin.
Again, Danny said, “Quit screwing around.”
He turned on the backup lights, and this scruffy looking guy came walking up the side of the truck. He had unkempt hair, a half-grown beard, and he was stalky. He walked right by the passenger window peering in at us. His eyes were piercing, his face emotionless, and my heart was thudding like a jackhammer. He continued by into the amber headlight array of the ’69 FORD pickup.
Once he was a safe distance away, maybe 75 feet, I stuck my head out the window, and called to him, “Hey man, you scared the shit out of us!” He turned back and held us in his gaze, then carried on down to the river. Danny threw the truck in reverse, and we got the hell out of there.
On August 12, 1981, a serial killer named Clifford Olsen was arrested, and charged with the murder of 11 children ranging in age from 9 to 18 years old. One of his victims was recovered from a remote location on the Chilliwack River. I can’t say for sure if it was Clifford Olsen we encountered that night, but I have always wondered. Olsen bore an uncanny resemblance to the stranger who had spooked us that evening.
When I decided to write my third and fourth book, I knew that I would be going back to the enigma of serial murder. I immersed myself in that world and the police that hunted them. I had already read a lot of true crime by authors like Ann Rule, Park Deitz, Robert Ressler, John Douglas and hundreds of others.
In fact, at one point, in reading true crime, I had to put it down for a while. The content was incredibly disturbing. Some of it involved the killing of children, some of it was about dismemberment, necrophilia, cannibalism, the use of sex organs or appendages like feet for deviant sexual practice. I read about monsters like, Jeffrey Dahmer, Henry Lee Lucas, Ottis Toole, and scores of others who had crossed the line that separates good from evil.
I thought I knew everything there was to know about these killers.
THE DELIBERATE STRANGER
““Murder is not about lust and it’s not about violence. It’s about possession. When you feel the last breath of life coming out of the woman, you look into her eyes. At the point, it’s being God.”
Probably America’s most notorious serial killer would be Ted Bundy. I had read Ann Rule’s book, THE STRANGER BESIDE ME, but then I picked up a book by author Kevin M. Sullivan called: THE BUNDY MURDERS: A Comprehensive History. Sullivan delved deeper into Bundy’s history uncovering new evidence, giving a criminological account of the monster that was Theodore Robert Bundy. I knew that Bundy was a rapist-killer, but I had either forgotten or was being newly schooled on the absolute depravity of this killer. A bold psychopath, Bundy was known to abduct some of his victims from the safety of their homes. Even in broad daylight, amongst 100s of potential witnesses, in Lake Sammamish, WA, Bundy lured not one, but two young women on the same day using a ruse in which he wore a cast on his arm and asked for help to load a sailboat onto his car. After abducting and raping the first woman, Janice Ott, 23, he returned to Lake Sam [sic] and abducted a second young woman, Denice Naslund, 19. Years later he would confess to killing one woman in front of the other to heighten his sexual thrill by elevating fear in the other. Bundy not only tortured raped and murdered his victims but had a taste for necrophilia. Bundy sometimes decapitated his victims, keeping their heads to use in necrophiliac acts. He was one of those rare monsters that move among us, seemingly ordinary, but behind the mask, a monster in its purest predatory form waits to feed.
After being apprehended and tried for a kidnapping attempt, Bundy would escape twice. First by leaping from a courthouse law library window. Bundy would remain at large from Jun 7th to 13th in 1977. After becoming lost and traversing the forest unsuccessfully for a week, he eventually stole a car and was apprehended by two officers in Aspen, Colorado. On December 30th of 1977, Bundy would mount his second escape. Thanks in part to the lax jailers and a broken light fixture, Bundy climbed out of his cell into the ceiling above. This would lead him to the apartment of the chief jailer and freedom. After breaking through the ceiling of the apartment, Bundy stole items and successfully escaped, this time he went to Florida. There he would melt into the environment he felt most comfortable in. Bundy rented a room in a boarding house under the alias, Chris Hagen, he was in the heart of Tallahassee’s university district.
Considered a methodical planner when it came to murder, Bundy was able to evade detection in the past, but the monster that drove him had begun to take over. In a heightened state of homicidal frenzy, Bundy entered the Chi Omega sorority house at Florida State University and went on a spree of rape and murder. He raped and killed two women and severely injured another two. But he didn’t stop there. After leaving Chi Omega, Bundy attacked another FSU student in her apartment, and likely would have killed her, if not for neighbors who had heard the student cry out and reciprocated by calling to her through the apartment wall. Bundy fled the apartment, but not before severely beating the woman and masturbating on her bed. He would escape detection on this evening, returning to the boarding house, but his reign of terror was not yet at a climax.
On February 8th, 1978, Bundy would first attempt to abduct a 14-year-old, but this was thwarted by the young girl’s older brother intervening and asking questions. The young man even jotted down the license plate of Bundy’s stolen vehicle. Unfulfilled, Bundy continued to troll and would abduct his final victim, Kimberley Diane Leach, 12, from Lake City Junior High School.
Bundy would be apprehended on February 12th driving a stolen Volkswagen in Pensacola Florida, but he didn’t go down without a fight. The officer, David Lee, was knocked down by Bundy who attempted to escape, but after a struggle, that included a single gunshot by the officer, Bundy was taken into custody. Transporting his prisoner to jail, and completely unaware of his notoriety, Lee heard Bundy say, “I wish you had killed me.”
Ted Bundy met his fate in the Florida electric chair on January 24th, 1984. At the end of his life, he confessed to the killings for which he was suspected, 30 in total. But authorities alleged that Bundy may have killed many more, possibly as many as 100 women.
Even in his final moments, Bundy remained a master manipulator. Having become a born-again Christian, Bundy blamed his killing as being rooted in the evils of pornography in an interview with Dr. James Dobson, a pastor with the organization FOCUS ON THE FAMILY. He claimed that his early exposure to pornography seeded a growing madness that demanded to be fed. Having started with pornographic images, that included bondage and sadomasochism, he stated that he evolved from a voyeur whose dark fantasies intensified until he resorted to rape and murder. While there may have been a kernel of truth in Bundy’s last interview, his manipulative nature contrasted by millions of others who did not take the same path after being exposed to similar pornography casts doubt on his sincerity.
On January 24th, 1989, Theodore Robert Bundy was strapped into the electric chair and died after being executed. Outside the prison walls, a crowd of 500 celebrated his end, while a smaller group of anti-death penalty advocates protested it. The night before is reported to be a night of weeping and praying on Bundy’s part, little consolation to the families of the 30+ women and children whose lives he extinguished.
ART IMITATES LIFE
Writers often base their fictional stories on the monsters who walk among us. In SILENCE OF THE LAMBS by Thomas Harris, serial killer, Buffalo Bill uses the ruse of wearing a cast and struggling with loading a couch into a van to lure and abduct a victim. Ted Bundy regularly wore a cast and used a story in several scenarios where he abducted and killed women. Harris also touched the character of Ed Gein, in which Buffalo Bill, a frustrated transvestite, denied gender reassignment surgery for psychological reasons His solution was making himself a woman suit fashioned from human skin. As stated at the beginning of this writing, Gein had a fascination with the dead, especially the sex organs of the female anatomy.
Harris, Bloch, Hooper, and countless others have drawn their own fictional characters from the pages and documentaries of the crimes that haunt us. I am no different in that regard. My first book drew from the evils of child killers Dean Corll and John Gacy. The Highwayman series follows the trail of a serial killer who crosses America in search of victims to feed not only his homicidal cravings but his ego in becoming as infamous as Bundy.
We the public have a fascination with the monsters that walk among us. We read and sometimes write variations on their deeds. Even making movies and television programs that mirror the real-life horror. In the interim, as we go to the well of information to draw inspiration and research, a new generation of monsters, move out of the shadows and into the anonymity of society ready to strike and kill.
In my next blog, we will look a little closer at one such monster.
I hope you’ll join me.
M.J. Preston – The Voyeur