Dropping the Subject

I received a disturbing ten-page letter this week. It was from a prisoner who last year confessed to a triple homicide. An attorney who represents a woman I am writing about also represented the prisoner, who I will call John. The attorney asked whether I was I interested in interviewing John, because John wanted to talk.

John's crime - murdering and dismembering three meth buddies in eastern Oregon - did not in itself interest me. Now in his late 30s, John had been in trouble with the law since age 12; his confession, to the television cameras, seemed to leave little room for interpretation. Still, the rock had been placed at my feet, and I felt, as someone increasingly working within what I've come to think of as the murder machine (the killers, the victims, the cops, the press), I thought it best to turn it over.

I drove across the state. The night before John's sentencing, I sat with his mother in her tarpapered kitchen. She showed me a hundred letters and drawings John had sent her for the past twenty-five years, from various boys' homes and jails. She confessed she felt she'd failed John, what with the savage beatings from his father; her own alcoholism, and the family's chronic impoverishment, which caused them to live in the woods for several years. She lived now in a town of twelve hundred; it was impossible to not run into the mothers of those her son killed. She expressed to me, then and in the months to come by telephone, how grateful she was that I was interested in her son; how he'd told her he was going to commit the rest of his life to speaking out against methamphetamines. She took this as a good sign, yet another signal he was a good person, which she also knew because he had told people that when he walked his female victim through the woods, first making her take off her shoes so she could not run away, and the woman had complained her feet hurt, John had said, "Here, get on my back, I'll carry you." This, before he strangled her, cut off her head, hands, feet and tattoos, threw them in a gym bag and tossed it in a lake.

John's mother could not bring herself to go the following day to the sentencing. I went. It took place in a mean cold courtroom. Forty relatives of the victims were there. John sat at the defense table, shackled. He appeared relaxed. The judge went over John's crimes, asking whether it was true he killed over a $5 debt. John confirmed this.

The relatives spoke: John had robbed them of a mother, a grandmother of a two-week old infant, the father to two little girls, and the only child of an 86-year-old woman. Those who spoke could not show John enough contempt; could not wish him a long enough rot in hell.

"And I do not believe you are sorry," said the sister of one of the dead. "You are someone who brags to anyone who will listen about what you've done."

I thought, after listening to John swear how he'd give his life to bring back his victims but seeing him swan for the judge and give the assembled puppy-dog eyes of contrition, that the sister had a point.

I did not say as much to John's mother when she called to find out how the sentencing went. What could I say? The world hates your son?

In the months to come, I did not pay much attention to John. I spoke with his mother when she called. I did not bring up having been told by the DA that she'd had an incestuous relationship with John. Meanwhile, I discussed the story with my editor at the Oregonian: how would we tell this story, and why? We thought it might be along the lines of, "A Year of Reconciliation," John would have undergone changes; we would look at the event as it impacted the community, his family, and whether he was following through on his claim to preach against drugs. It didn't matter to me what road John chose, but one must have a reason to tell a story; something must be illuminated, or why else are we here?

These are the questions I asked myself when I received John's ten-page letter. In it, he requested I send him clippings of his crimes, and asked if I could put him in touch with an author who wanted to write a book about him (or maybe I was interested?). He told me he lied in court; he wouldn't give his life for his victims. "I have zero remorse... I honestly have not had a single lost night's sleep over them," he wrote, and then detailed for me how he killed the woman. This took four pages. I read the letter at a coffee shop. I went outside and called someone familiar with the case: did he think John was unburdening himself to me, or was this his m.o.? The person said, the latter; that it seems John is turned on by his crimes. I drove home and was sick.

I could say it was then I had to decide whether to continue with the story, but that is not the case. I knew I would not. Not because John wanted attention (or, as my husband put it, "Fuck him, he doesn't get your time"), or because there is nothing there to write about. The circumstances and decisions that got John where he is today might well intrigue another writer, who will want to spend time excavating the story. But it is not for me. For me, John is a shallow stream. Or, as I later wrote, of the letter, to John's attorney, "It was like having an ugly woman lie naked on the bed and say, 'Take me.' And you think, uh, no thanks."

I wrote to my editor, explaining the situation, saying I was open to continuing but did not see the reasons why. She didn't either. I did not feel I owed John any more return letters. I did write a note to his mother, saying I would not be continuing to write about John. I did not elaborate as to why. One assumes she knows her son better than I do.

My choosing to not write about John (or, not today, more than I am here) is not a consequence of his actions. I might have the tools to write this story; I don't feel like using them here. This has little to do with being repulsed by murderers. The first feature I wrote was about John Wayne Gacy, who I drove across the country to meet. More recently, when I learned Amanda Stott-Smith forced her two young children off a bridge, one of who died, my Geiger counter went nuts. I had to know how this happened. I had to dig and dig and look and put the pieces together until they made sense.

If the comments on websites are an indication, most people do not want to read about how people come to murder. They want retribution. I get this. John will likely have as terrible a life in prison as he did out of it. This does not trouble me. I have fantasized about dropping Lily Burk's murderer from a plane. But I don't feel this way about Amanda Stott-Smith at all; I think hers in an important story to tell, and I respectfully disagree with the judge who last week sentenced her (to life with the possibility of parole after 35 years) and characterized her actions as "truly incomprehensible." We don't have to like what Amanda did, or forgive her (if you think that is up to you), but the duty to try to understand, in this case and for me, is immutable.

For every person who reads what I write about Amanda and asks me to continue because it helps, there is another who tells me to go to hell. All, I think, have the same motivation: they sense a type of redemption if they take the journey, and some are not, as I was not with John, ready for that.

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