Griffin, The Man Who Rocked My World

It wasn’t the first book I read but it was the one that ignited my passion to write, a passion that lasted a lifetime. The book was Black Like Me, written by John Howard Griffin.

The book was first published in 1961, by Houghton Mifflin, and I read it the same year. I was 15 and going into my first year of High School. This was an impressionable age and a time in America when everything was about to change. A new generation was beginning to look at who we were as a society, and they weren’t comfortable with what they discovered. Griffin’s personal journey in writing his book was a poignant and timely reminder that we all needed to reconsider what was important in our lives. I caught that fever immediately, thanks to the words of a man I would never meet.

At the time, Griffin was not considered an especially important writer. His work was known to some but he was not a household name in literary circles. Griffin was about to take the art of investigative journalism into the mainstream with his passion for fairness and equality. He would take the rest of us along for the ride and give us a legacy that proved to be unforgettable.

Griffin’s book was a nonfiction, intimate journey that captivated American readers. The fundamentals of the story first came to light as an article in Sepia magazine, who helped fund the writing project. When it appeared in print, Griffin’s experiences instantly drew readers from across the country. The story demanded a full treatment in book form, and what a powerful book it became!

“He who is less than just is less than man.” ―...

The story line dealt with race relations from the most personal aspect imaginable. For those who haven’t read Black Like Me, I won’t throw in any spoilers. I’ll just tell you that it presents the experiences of a white man who went through extraordinary measures to penetrate racism in America by pretending to be a black man. The narrative deals with his travels and personal encounters in the deep South. Through them, Griffin exposes the pain of a segregated, prejudiced America that was so prevalent at the time. He also tells us about a handful of wonderful, incredibly generous individuals he met along the way. The book reaches highs and lows worthy of the powerful point Griffin was trying to make.

It was not just the story line that moved me, powerful as it was. It was the sacrifices of the writer, his determination to get to the bottom of the story, that rocked my young world. All other books seemed tame after reading Griffin. Here was a writer who lived his work, who had a boundless commitment to the story he was chasing. Griffin put no limits on himself to learn what it was like to be black and live in the U.S. in the late 1950s. No one had ever put this kind of experience into written form in quite the same way. It opened my eyes to cruelty and indifference, but also to the willingness of some to extend their hands to the downtrodden and ignored. It showed me both the best and worst in our society. The mosaic it offered was compelling, penetrating and wholly personal. This was the kind of writer I wanted to be, someday.

Griffin made me love the importance of nonfiction when done the right way. Before Black Like Me, I wasn’t especially interested in nonfiction. Now, I understood just how a great writer could move me with something real and tangible. There was nothing dry in Griffin’s writing, nothing impersonal or academic. It was raw and real. It was all painfully true. It was groundbreaking.

There were other writers who strongly influenced me at that young age. Some specialized in fiction, some nonfiction. They all played their part in moving me further into reading and writing. But it was Griffin who started it all with Black Like Me. Even today, the relevance of his work remains strong. That’s surely the mark of a literary classic.

John Howard Griffin, the man I never met, will always be one of my heroes.

Advertisements

Madeleine Hinkes, A Quiet Passion

Forensic AnthropologyMy favorite heroes/heroines are quiet, unassuming and passionate. A writer can’t help but come into contact with an amazing array of people, especially if the writing project deals with topics that impact us all. Many years ago, I was working on a project that dealt with forensic anthropology. It’s one of those fields that often goes overlooked by mainstream media. Yet, it is a vital, passionate kind of science. It’s a science that speaks for the dead.

During the course of the project, I came into contact with some extraordinary people. They were not simply scientists going about their work. These were dedicated, involved and determined individuals, who deeply cared about the meaning of their work.

One of the forensic anthropologists who moved me was Madeleine Hinkes. The depth of her commitment and her obvious passion impacted me at the time and has stayed with me over the years. Here’s a bit of background about this extraordinary woman, and a letter that she wrote to me in the 1990s.

Madeleine Hinkes holds a Diplomate in Forensic Anthropology from the American Board of Forensic Anthropology and has published dozens of important papers in her field. She has worked with the Office of the Medical Examiner in San Diego, Albany, Honolulu, Tucson, and Albuquerque, analyzing human remains and participating in a wide variety of forensic investigations. Hinkes has taught at both the graduate and undergraduate levels and has been involved in many criminal and mass disaster investigations throughout her career. In short, she brings first-rate credentials and decades of experience to her science. However, she also brings something rare and compelling to her work—a deep passion for what she does and an obvious commitment to its social significance. In this sense, Hinkes’ career is an expression of the human side of forensic anthropology—a style and approach that is shared by many of her colleagues.

Here is Dr. Hinkes’ letter. In it, she expressed what her career has meant to her from both a scientific and personal point of view. Despite the chaos and death that naturally surrounds her in her daily work, Hinkes discovered a deep, personal meaning to her science that is moving and inescapable:

You asked if I would tell you something of my career as a forensic anthropologist. Twenty-five years ago, I wanted to be an archaeologist—to dig up dinosaurs, in fact. However, in the Summer of 1973, I found myself in a field school and discovered my first human skeleton. It was 8,000 years old and perfectly preserved. That discovery made all the difference for me and I immediately switched my college major to physical anthropology. Ten years later I earned my Ph.D.

In graduate school, I worked with Walter Birkby, a nationally recognized expert in forensic anthropology. I had the opportunity to serve my apprenticeship with him and also work with the medical examiner in the Tucson, Arizona area. Those years of outstanding training gave me the knowledge and confidence to understand that I could handle any forensic situation that came my way. Since then, I have worked on medical examiner cases for more than twenty years. I’ve investigated homicides, airplane disasters, search and recovery operations, and much more.

Each forensic case is different in terms of the human remains to be investigated and what can be learned from them. These investigations are always fascinating, but sometimes also painful. I try to convey this to my students. I read somewhere that a student once described the human skeleton as bones with the people scraped off, so I try to use that definition in the classes I teach. I tell my students that the job of the forensic anthropologist is to put the people back on the bones. This is the concept of osteobiography—writing an individual’s life history through the skeletal remains. Most people take their skeletons for granted and are surprised at the amount of information contained in them, such as sex, age, race, stature, build, and even more specific characteristics like diseases, nutrition, trauma, occupation, socioeconomic status, and cause of death.

There is a tremendous range of human variation in the skeleton because each of us has a different life history in terms of health, disease, nutrition, exercise, lifestyle, trauma, and occupation. I often meet individuals whose skulls or skeletons I would love to study more closely because of their distinctive characteristics, and it is frustrating to me that the only way I can see my own skeleton is through an X-ray!

I have met many interesting people in my career, like pathologists, dentists, and investigators. I’ve also made some very close friends in strange places—like over an autopsy table. To my mind, the team approach to forensics is indispensable, and the best characteristic a forensic anthropologist can have is flexibility. Every situation is different and a forensic anthropologist can often find herself in some very primitive, difficult situations.

The sights and smells associated with forensic anthropology are distinct and often unpleasant. Much of my education didn’t prepare me for that, but I’ve learned to deal with it over the years. I have also learned much about people and the unspeakable things they can do to each other. It’s been quite an education in the real world, and I am much more conscious about my personal safety now.

I enjoy forensic anthropology because it allows me to give something back to society, to help families searching for loved ones, and to solve puzzles with a skill that few others possess (or may not even want to possess). When I first started in this science, there were few women in the field and I enjoyed that aspect of being different. Today, forensics is a very public arena and the expertise of the forensic anthropologist is constantly being tested. I am always learning something new and gaining a deeper appreciation for how different individuals are.

Testifying as an expert witness at trial can be daunting, but it is the ultimate end to a case—testifying to the trauma that led to death. Knowing that the accused murderer is in front of me in court is a sobering experience. As a scientist, I am supposed to be impartial and leave the arguing to the attorneys. However, the cruelty I often see in these cases—the inhuman treatment and indifference for another—should be punished.

I’ve investigated several mass disasters, like the 1985 crash of an Arrow Air DC8 in Gander, Newfoundland. In that crash, 256 lives were lost and I was instrumental in identifying 70 of the victims. In those kinds of situations, I routinely work at least a twelve-hour shift. The families are desperate to know what happened to their loved ones and the media is constantly pressuring the investigation team for information. In these situations, we cannot make any errors. A misidentification is the worst thing you can do to a family.

I’ve also worked on teams to identify the war dead, spending seven years at the Army’s MIA lab in Hawaii. I have met the sons of dead men who looked exactly like the photographs of their fathers on their military identification. It’s a strange and spooky feeling. Still, I found Vietnam to be a beautiful country filled with friendly people. They seemed very curious about a blonde, curly-haired American woman in their midst. I hadn’t paid too much attention to the Vietnam War when it was happening because I was too young. However, being there and talking to American former prisoners of war stirred me to learn all I could about the War. Each time we sent an identified soldier home to his family, there would be an official ceremony at Hickam Air Force Base. I would attend those ceremonies for the remains of the soldiers I had helped to identify. I don’t think my eyes were dry for a single ceremony. That’s the hardest part of the job—putting aside the clinical detachment and meeting the families and loved one of those men and women whose lives were cut short.

Today, I work on about twenty-five forensic cases a year. Some of them are routine homicides, but others can be quite strange. One of the strangest cases I investigated was the wreckage of a Boston Whaler boat and a gravesite discovered in 1988 on the uninhabited Taongi Atoll in the Marshall Islands. The boat turned out to be the Sarah Joe—a fishing boat that was lost off Maui in a storm nearly ten years previously with five men on board. When the grave was investigated, it contained the remains of a man. The questions that raced through my mind were incredible. What happened? How did this boat get to be 2,500 miles from home? Who found the bones and buried them? When? This case was featured on the television program Unsolved Mysteries because it certainly was an unsolved mystery! When I investigated the Sarah Joe, I had the adventure of sailing on a United States Coast Guard buoy tender through the Marshall Islands to Taongi. I was the only female on board for the four-day mission. The bad news is that I discovered that I get seasick and cannot swim to save my life!

Now, having said all this, I ask you: is there really any other career even worth considering?

Writers Workshop: The Introduction

Dr. Hook, Sometimes You Win

This article is primarily directed to  nonfiction writers, although it also applies to some fiction works. I’m thinking here of that strange invention often called “fact-based fiction,” a hybrid combination of genres. In either case, the Introduction (call it “Prologue” perhaps) is critical to the construction of your entire story line. Without a captivating Introduction, you will lose your readers quickly and, sadly, sometimes forever.

The most important element of the Introduction is “the hook.” Its purpose is to grab the reader’s attention so firmly that he or she must move on to the meat of your story. Without the hook, your reader can easily succumb to that blank stare, yawn state that all writers hate to see. You must set the hook quickly and firmly to keep your readers as happy and interested as possible.

Creating the hook has a few elements that are critical to success.

First, the Introduction must leave your reader with questions, unresolved issues that absolutely must be answered. At the end of the Introduction, your reader must be a little dissatisfied with what he or she has learned. Now, this is a tight line to walk. You can’t really pose these questions directly. Rather, you must use enough subtly and tact to let these questions arise naturally in the reader’s mind, to come about of themselves. This kind of reader participation (interaction) is what moves them to want more. Each writer will probably approach this element in a different way, according to his or her own style. This is a good thing because style counts. Style is what readers appreciate most, sometimes more than the story line. But, the bottom line is that you must offer a mild itch that only you can scratch throughout the remainder of your work.

One of the ways of achieving “the hook” is to interject a bit of speculation into the Introduction. In other words, pose a “what if” element or two in your presentation but simply don’t bother to answer the speculation. These kinds of “what if” elements need to be sufficiently broad to accommodate the majority of readers but they must also be credible in the context of your entire work. Readers like speculation, so long as it sticks to the reasonable side of your genre. There is one exception here that must be acknowledged. If you are writing in the humor genre, let your speculation go as wild as you feel. Crazy speculation is regularly appreciated by readers who thrive on humor.

The second element of a good Introduction is to keep it short. Most readers want to get to the meat of your words. They will tolerate a bit of an introduction because they want to get a feel for what is to come. However, they don’t want an epistle at this point in their reading experience. They want a taste, not the entire meal. That comes later.

The third element of the Introduction should be a “tight summary.” Give your reader a quick, powerful overview of where you are heading. You want to put your reader on the same path as your story line but you always want to keep them moving ahead. Show them the head of the trail but don’t go so far as that first big turn. Give them a step or two along your story line and let them know, indirectly, that they are in for a fascinating journey. My preference is to never allow an Introduction to go on for more than two finished pages. Personally, I try to keep it as close to a single page as possible.

The final element is to keep your “I” in your back pocket and far away from your Introduction. Unless you are writing in the first person, the use of “I” in your Introduction can be a real turn-off for many readers. At the opening of your work, at the Introduction, your reader does not yet know where he or she is going. You are the guide at this point. Like any good guide, you need to focus on the journey that lies ahead and on those who will walk with you. So, keep those personal views and opinions in your back pocket. There will be time enough later for this kind of writing.

If you try to stick to these few hints you will find that your Introductions become more fluid, more interesting and more meaningful to your readers. From your point of view as a writer, that first step into your word journey must be fascinating and compelling. If it’s not, the rest of your words may lie sleeping on the page.

Excerpt From: The Millennium Murderer – Richard Ramirez

The Night Stalker

English: Prison photo of .

Richard Ramirez, the Night Stalker, epitomizes the unpredictable, compulsive serial killer. His motives and methods made it obvious that the rules by which we traditionally believed serial killers operated were anything but reliable. His horrific criminal career also taught us that there is no room for competition, jealousy, and lack of cooperation among local police jurisdictions when a pernicious murderer of the stature of the Night Stalker is moving among us. It is likely that a more coordinated and collegiate approach among competing police departments in Southern California during the 1980s would have resulted in an earlier apprehension of the Night Stalker, and would have saved lives. Unfortunately, this was not to be, and Ramirez used this unfortunate flaw in our law enforcement system to his advantage.

Ramirez was born in 1960 to devoted, hard working, Mexican immigrants. The last of five children, he was raised in El Paso, Texas, with a good deal of family attention and support, although without much money. When he was in the fifth grade, the Ramirez family learned that Richard suffered from childhood epilepsy, which, combined with the fact that he was the youngest child, made him the unquestioned center of his parents’ attention. Although this disorder hampered the boy’s ability to play sports—and clearly frustrated him—the seizures eventually subsided on their own and left him physically unaffected.

Since he was the last of the Ramirez’s children, Richard’s parents placed a good deal of hope in his future and tried to support him in the best way possible. Unfortunately, despite their persistent efforts, it is difficult to imagine how much worse his life could have turned out to be as an adult. However, until he reached adolescence, it seemed that Richard was on the right course in life, and his parents must have been generally pleased with their son.

Throughout his early school years, until the age of thirteen, Richard was a good student, often earning better than average grades. His early background was free of significant behavioral problems or brushes with the law, although he did show a sharp and sometimes unpredictable temper—an apparent trademark of all the males in the Ramirez family. Despite a promising start to his life, shortly before Richard was ready to attend high school he was set on a course of destructive behavior that would eventually lead him to become one of the most feared serial killers in California’s history.

By his thirteenth birthday, Richard had grown close to his older cousin, who had been a Green Beret in Vietnam and had returned to Texas after his discharge from the military. He was an imposing, highly decorated soldier, who must have seemed like a real-life hero to the impressionable boy. However, Richard’s cousin was also an angry and often violent man, who loved to share his war experiences with his young protégée. This regularly took the form of graphic combat stories that were sometimes accompanied by even more troubling photographs. Over time, Richard’s cousin taught the youngster how to use weapons, how to fight, and how to use basic survivalist tactics. He also introduced the teenager to his first experience with drugs. During the time they spent together, Richard and his cousin became inseparable, and the youngster’s behavior began to deteriorate significantly.

Ramirez was still only thirteen years old when he witnessed his cousin shoot his wife in the face after one of their seemingly endless arguments. His cousin was quickly arrested, tried for murder, pleaded temporary insanity, and received a lenient sentence because of his excellent military record. However, by this time, Richard had already become obsessed with his cousin’s lifestyle and behavior, which he emulated in every way he could. With his beloved mentor now behind bars, Richard was suddenly left to his own devices, and his life decisions went from bad to worse. Even at such an early age, Ramirez was using marijuana on a regular basis, had lost all interest in finishing his education, and was beginning to steal.

For a short time, Richard went to live with his older brother, Ruben, in Los Angeles. Unfortunately, his experiences with Ruben were as bad as those with his cousin. Ruben was a heroin addict and a seasoned burglar, who did little to push his younger brother in a positive direction. Rather, he re-established the same kind of poor role model that had already captured the youngster’s interest. By the time Richard returned to Texas, he was a regular drug user who had taken to burglary to support his habit.

For the next few years, Richard attended school in Texas, increased his use of drugs, and continued to steal, although he somehow managed to avoid any significant entanglements with the law. During this period, Richard was able to land a job at a local hotel, which provided him with a master key to the guestrooms. From time to time, he would steal valuables from the guests, although he was never caught or charged with a crime. It was also around this time that he developed a passion for voyeurism and would regularly try to catch women at the hotel or in the neighborhood while they were undressing.

At one point, Ramirez sneaked into the hotel room of a female guest and attacked her from behind, tied her, and tried to rape her. His assault was interrupted when the woman’s husband unexpectedly returned to the room and severely beat Richard before turning him over to the authorities. In defending himself, Ramirez claimed that the woman he had attacked had actually solicited him for sex. Since the youngster had no criminal record, he was treated with astonishing leniency by the court and simply returned to the custody of his parents without so much as a probationary sentence. Ramirez was only fifteen years old at the time.

Shortly after he turned eighteen, Richard left Texas and moved to Los Angeles, where he initially stayed once again with his brother. However, the two men soon argued and Richard left his brother’s home to find his own way in life. By then, he was a regular drug user and an experienced burglar. At this point, there was no turning back for the young man. He had simply fallen too far into the abyss that had grown around him years earlier.

Addicted to cocaine, and often using LSD or PCP, Ramirez found himself in a world of dark, violent fantasies that involved intense themes of sexual domination and sadism. He was an accomplished burglar, who began to feel invincible in his ability to avoid detection. Ramirez had also discovered the writings of Anton LaVey, the founder and high priest of the Church of Satan in San Francisco. Through LaVey’s words, the young man discovered what he believed to be the most powerful force in the universe—Satan. In Satan he found the ultimate excuse to freely exercise a compulsion for unspeakable mayhem and violence that had been brooding within his heart for years. He had finally reached the point in his life at which society would become the victim who would catapult him to the fame he had always desired so intensely.

The Night Stalker’s year of lethal violence began when he was twenty-four. It included beatings, slashing, shootings, and unspeakable acts of sexual abuse and molestation. His victims were children, women, men, and even those who were elderly and disabled. Although the Night Stalker is believed to have murdered as many as twenty individuals, several of his victims survived the assaults, and a few were even able to provide fairly detailed descriptions of their attacker. In addition to this, Ramirez was often sloppy in his brutality, regularly leaving a variety of clues at crimes scenes, although it took investigators a year to piece this information together and use it successfully in their search for the serial killer. Like a number of other serial murderers, Richard Ramirez was more lucky than proficient when it came to avoiding capture for so long, thanks in great measure to an uncoordinated investigation into his crimes.

Here is a brief summary of the Night Stalker’s yearlong reign of terror in Southern California, which began in 1984. It does not include many of the victims who survived his attacks, nor the countless other felonies that he is believed to have committed during this period. Even in its abbreviated form, it is a tale of extraordinary viciousness that has rarely been duplicated in our long history of crime:

  • June 28, 1984, Glassell Park: A 79-year-old woman is repeatedly stabbed and her throat is slashed in the first confirmed Night Stalker murder. Typical of the pattern that he will follow throughout the next year, the serial killer breaks into the victim’s home at night and steals her valuables after the murder. In virtually every attack, Ramirez seemed to delight in spending time with his victims in their homes, inflicting a broad array of cruel punishments.
  • March 17, 1985, Rosemead: A 34-year-old woman is shot to death in her condominium. Her roommate is wounded but survives, providing police with their first physical description of the suspect. The description is vague but later proves to comport with the appearance of Richard Ramirez.
  • March 17, 1985, Monterey Park: On the same night as the Rosemead attack, a 30-year-old woman is dragged from her car and shot several times. She dies the next day from her wounds. This would not be the first time that Ramirez would claim more than one victim in two different locations on the same night. However, at this point in the saga of murder, investigators had no idea that the crimes were related.
  • March 26, 1985, Whittier: A couple is brutally murdered in their home. The 64-year-old man is beaten and shot to death. His 44-year-old wife is shot and stabbed to death, and her eyes are carved out and placed in a jewelry box.
  • May 14, 1985, Monterey Park: A 65-year-old man is shot in the head, while his wife, although beaten and brutalized, survives the attack. Footprints are discovered at the crime scene, which are later linked to Richard Ramirez.
  • May 29, 1985, Monrovia: Two weeks after the Monterey Park attack, two elderly sisters, aged 81 and 84, are brutally beaten in their home. One of them is an invalid. The assailant draws a pentagram on one of the victim’s thighs and scrawls other pentagrams on the interior walls of the home. One of the women survives the assault, while the other dies.
  • June 27, 1985, Arcadia: A young, female schoolteacher is sodomized in her home and has her throat slashed in a fatal attack.
  • July 2, 1985, Arcadia: Less than two miles away and a week later, a woman in her seventies is slain in the same manner as the schoolteacher. Police immediately see a connection between the two Arcadia murders, although they have not yet established a positive link with the previous attacks.
  • July 7, 1985, Monterey Park: A 61-year-old woman is beaten to death in her home. That same night, the killer rapes and brutally beats another woman in her home. Fortunately, the Night Stalker’s second victim survives the assault.
  • July 20, 1985, Glendale: A 69-year-old man and his 66-year-old wife are slashed and shot to death in their home.
  • July 20, 1985, Sun Valley: On the same night as the Glendale attack, a 32-year-old man is beaten and shot to death in his home. His wife is raped and beaten, and his 8-year-old son is also beaten.
  • August 6, 1985, Northridge: A 38-year-old man and his 27-year-old wife are critically wounded by gunshots in their home. They survive the attack and provide a new description to investigators, which generally confirms the previous descriptions of the Night Stalker.
  • August 8, 1985, Diamond Bar: Two days later, a 35-year-old man is shot to death in his home. His wife is beaten and sexually molested. Following this attack, investigators make a public announcement that they are searching for serial killer.
  • August 17, 1985, San Francisco: Realizing that the police are on to him, the Night Stalker decides to change the location of his attacks. In the only known fatal assault outside of Southern California, a 66-year-old man is shot to death in his home. His wife is also shot and beaten, but survives her wounds. She provides yet another description of the assailant, which closely matches the appearance of Richard Ramirez.
  • August 25, 1985, Mission Viejo: A 29-year-old man is shot in the head and his fiancée is raped before their car is stolen. Both survive the attack. On August 28, the automobile is recovered and a set of fingerprints belonging to Richard Ramirez is recovered. After the killer’s description appears extensively in the newspapers and on television, Ramirez is captured by citizens in Los Angeles on August 31, 1985.

The Night Stalker’s last day of freedom nearly cost him his life. Ironically, it was responding police officers who rescued him from several angry citizens who were beating him into submission after he had tried to forcibly steal an automobile. In a turn of events that should have shattered his belief in Satan’s protection, Ramirez was relieved to be saved by the same pursuers who he had always thought would never be able to capture him. In fact, he pleaded with them to be taken into custody and out of the hands of his enraged captors. Much to the pleasure of investigators in the case, the man who had so terrorized Southern California for more than a year ultimately proved to be easily subdued.

Although Ramirez bragged that he had murdered twenty individuals, investigators believe that the actual number was sixteen. However, given the large number of unsolved homicides that typically plague this area of California, no one can ever be certain of how many murders were actually committed by the Night Stalker. In the end, he was formally charged with 13 counts of homicide and dozens of counts of other felonies, including sexual assault, and breaking and entering. It is virtually certain that many of his crimes, possibly including additional homicides, will never be brought to light.

After more than a year of legal delays, the Night Stalker’s trial finally began in July 1988, more than two years after he first faced a preliminary hearing for his crimes. However, it took some six months before a jury was finally seated and matters began in earnest, in January 1989.

From the onset of the trial, it became clear that Richard Ramirez was basking in the self-perceived glory of his horrific crimes and the inevitable, sensational media coverage that followed in their wake. His typical court garb was a dark suit and sunglasses, which made him look like a cross between a rock star and a Mafia hit-man. Ramirez incessantly played to the court, the jury, a disturbing number of women who apparently had fallen in love with the killer, and virtually everyone else in attendance at trial. Throughout the proceedings, the Night Stalker showed no remorse for his brutality. Rather, he took every opportunity to demonstrate his unremitting faith in Satan and a complete disdain for his victims. Finally, on September 20, 1989, he was convicted of 13 counts of murder and 30 additional felonies, which resulted in multiple death sentences.

For a while, Ramirez fell from the media limelight; however, he continued to capture the imagination of many true-crime devotees. Seven years after his conviction, in 1996, while on San Quentin’s death row, the Night Stalker was married to a woman who had become his ardent admirer during the unremitting media coverage of his trial and its aftermath. Today, Ramirez awaits the last of his appeals and a final date with the executioner.

What was Richard Ramirez, and how do we classify him? Was he an organized or disorganized serial killer? If organized, of what type? What do we really know about this predator, and what have we learned from his horrific crimes that could help us deal with future serial killers?

The Night Stalker is technically classified as a mixed-type serial killer because his behavior and signature borrowed elements from both the organized and disorganized type of offenders. In truth, Ramirez broke all the rules of how we generally understand these predators. He successfully defied any attempt to clearly categorize him in a formal way. Unfortunately, this is not an unusual scenario with serial killers. They often cannot be categorized successfully, or in more than general terms. However, the Night Stalker proved to be wildly beyond accepted psychological or criminal categorizations. He was a true predator without any hint of conscience, whose exceptional brutality helped define many of the essential characteristics of the kind of societal assailant that we now recognize as a Millennium Murderer.

In many ways, Richard Ramirez rewrote our understanding of serial killers, and he significantly clouded it. Like other serial killers, Ramirez selected his victims at random. However, he demonstrated no preference for any societal, age, or sexual subgroup. In this sense, the Night Stalker lashed out against women and men, young and old, the infirm, and even children, all with equal fury and disdain. He murdered his victims with unspeakable brutality using guns, knives, blunt objects, and even a machete. Like the disorganized serial killer, Ramirez would sometimes use weapons that he found in the victims’ homes. Like an organized serial killer, he would often bring his own weapons with him. It didn’t seem to matter to the Night Stalker how he killed his victims, so long as it was brutal and shocking.

Ramirez would travel significant distances to select his victims, at one point even driving the length of the state of California. This kind of behavior was traditionally attributed to the organized serial killer. However, the Night Stalker’s crime scenes were typically chaotic and gruesome—and he would regularly attack his prey from behind—just as one would expect from a disorganized serial killer. In the end, the murder’s ability and willingness to vary the locations of his attacks probably kept him on the streets far longer than he should have been.

Many believe that this predator was a master at claiming his victims across police jurisdictions, which confused and prolonged the investigation because of the poor cooperation and interdepartmental jealousies that were rampant in Southern California at the time. In effect, Ramirez used the weaknesses of his pursuers against them in a rather sophisticated way, which is certainly a hallmark of the organized serial killer. However, he also left numerous clues behind, such as footprints and even fingerprints in a variety of obviously sloppy and disorganized crime scenes. Nonetheless, Ramirez planned his attacks in at least a modest way, carefully selecting homes that he felt he could enter without being seen or immediately heard, although he did not seem to care about who lived in these houses. To the mind of this enigmatic killer, any victim would do, and the rules of the lethal game were his alone.

Richard Ramirez was convinced that he could not be captured—that his lord, Satan, would protect him throughout his killing career, regardless of his actions. However, despite this bizarre belief, Ramirez was legally sane and well able to understand the meaning of his actions. He certainly knew right from wrong, and he took obvious delight in living on the darkest side of human depravity that he could muster. In this sense, he was a serial killer by choice, not in accordance with the will of some ill-defined demon.

In the final analysis, Richard Ramirez was a Millennium Murderer of the most horrific kind—a man who felt no compulsion about his actions, cared only for his own unspeakable gratification, and was completely dissociated from his victims and society at large. That he was so successful in evading capture for so long, and claiming so many innocent lives, was more a tribute to the lack of coordination among several law enforcement agencies in Southern California than it was to the concise planning of the Night Stalker, or the intervention of Satan. Ultimately, Richard Ramirez was truly a man without a soul. In that sense he probably was the devil’s work, as well as one of the most pernicious Millennium Murderers of the late twentieth century.

The El Mozote Massacre

The work of Clyde Snow and others who labor with problems of individual identification in cases of mass disasters reflects the humanistic side of their profession—the need to account for all human beings, especially those who have been the victims of atrocities. — Kenneth A. R. Kennedy, Ph.D. Professor of Ecology, Anthropology, Asian Studies, Cornell University. (From a private letter to the author.)The site of the old, burned down church in El ...

In his book, The Massacre at El Mozote: A Parable of the Cold War, author Mark Danner wrote that the events at El Mozote in the early 1980s may well have represented the largest massacre in modern Latin American history. In fact, this tiny, impoverished village, which is located in a mountainous region of northeastern El Salvador, proved to be a killing ground of unspeakable horror and a focal point of international controversy that involved the outright denial of historical truth by high-ranking representatives of two governments, including our own. It was only when the science of forensic anthropology was brought to bear at the El Mozote site, more than a decade after the massacre, that the world would learn of the horrific crimes that had claimed the lives of all but one villager. Unfortunately, for Americans, we would also learn that the atrocities that occurred in this Salvadoran village were a direct result of our nation’s unflagging support of a foreign government that set few limits on the use of force against its own people.

El Salvador is a country of less than 6 million people, whose population lives primarily in rural areas. This is a very poor nation, with as many as 3 million inhabitants living in extreme poverty. Most of the citizens of El Salvador eke out a marginal subsistence on the land and live in isolated communities where comforts are few but family and religious bonds are crucial and unquestioned.

In 1981, El Salvador was at the height of a civil war that was ravaging the countryside, costing thousands of innocent lives and resulting in a complex network of foreign entanglements and intrigue that epitomized the political and philosophical divisions inherent in the Cold War. At the time of the civil war, Cuba and Nicaragua supported the guerrillas fighting in El Salvador, who were organized as the Farabundo Marti National Liberation Front (FMLN) and committed to overthrowing the regime then in power in their country. For its part, the Salvadoran government was equally committed to putting down the revolution, using whatever force they thought necessary to do so. The ruling government was strongly supported by American funds, weapons, and specialized military training that focused on counterinsurgency combat techniques. Caught in the middle of this brutal conflict were the Salvadoran people—most of them poor, peaceful, and deeply religious peasants—who struggled with both the civil war and the inherently difficult living conditions common to the vast rural areas of their country.

In all, more than 75,000 people would be killed in the twelve-year civil war before peace was finally restored to El Salvador. Sadly, many peasants and refugees in this conflict became the victims of a series of brutal massacres that were carried out by the Salvadoran military. However, of the many atrocities that took place during the course of the conflict, none was worse than what occurred in the small village of El Mozote in 1981.

On December 10, 1981, units of the Atlacatl Rapid Deployment Infantry Battalion (BIRI), the Third Infantry Brigade, and the San Francisco Gotera Command Training Centre descended on the village of El Mozote in an anti-guerrilla action that had been code named “Operacion Rescate.” The goal of this operation, which had begun a few days earlier on December 6, 1981, was to eliminate guerilla presence in the northern Morazan area of the country and, in particular, in the hills near El Mozote, where a guerrilla training camp was thought to be located. The Salvadoran troops had been engaged in minor skirmishes with guerrillas in the area near El Mozote for several days preceding their occupation of the village. Much of the combat had involved American-trained and equipped soldiers, who comprised the heart of the infamous Atlacatl Battalion.

The Atlacatl Battalion had an unhappy history that may have led to its reputation as an especially brutal element of the Salvadoran military. Nine months before the commencement of Operacion Rescate, a company of the Battalion had taken part in another anti-guerrilla operation near El Mozote. During that encounter, the Atlacatl Battalion had suffered heavy causalities and was forced to retreat in disgrace from the area. After this incident, the Battalion became the brunt of jokes from other military units, acquiring the hated moniker of the “Rapid Retreat Infantry Battalion.” When the Atlacatl Battalion once again found itself positioned near El Mozote, its members were committed to not repeating their mistakes of the past.

El Mozote was a typical rural village, comprised of about twenty small homes that surrounded a modest central square. Facing the square was the village church, which was the primary gathering point for villagers and the pride of El Mozote’s inhabitants. Behind the church, a small building had been erected, which was known to the villagers as the “convent house.” This structure was used by the Catholic priest to change into his vestments before celebrating mass for the residents of El Mozote and the surrounding area.

When they arrived in the village, the Salvadoran soldiers discovered that the population of El Mozote had swelled with a large number of peasants from the nearby area. These refugees had fled their own villages and homes to avoid the ongoing clashes between the military forces and the guerrillas, seeking the relative safety they thought would be provided by a respected businessman who lived in El Mozote. The occupying soldiers immediately assumed that the villagers and refugees were guerilla sympathizers and decided to deal with them in the harshest possible way. In reality, few of the peasants that the soldiers encountered that day were involved in the ongoing conflict. Most of them were women and children.

Soon after their arrival in El Mozote, government troops ordered the residents to leave their homes and gather together in the village square. There, the frightened peasants were divided into groups of men, women and children, and placed under guard in various structures, including the church and the convent house. Throughout that night, the villagers were held without food or water and kept under an armed watch.

The following morning, December 11, members of the Atlacatl Battalion reassembled the villagers in the square in front of the church. At midday, the male villagers were systemically interrogated, tortured, and then executed by the soldiers. When all the men in the village had been massacred, the troops began murdering the women and children by herding them into the convent house and shooting them to death. When they were convinced that the entire population of El Mozote had been slain, the troops set fire to the buildings in which the bodies lay. However, one woman managed to survive the ordeal and later tell her story of that horrific day.

After the massacre, the government troops spent the night in El Mozote without bothering to bury the bodies of any of their victims. The following morning, they moved to the village of Los Toriles, which was approximately two kilometers away. There, they continued with the massacre. However, a few residents of Los Toriles were able to flee the area after the soldiers arrived and later confirmed the atrocities that they had witnessed.

In the village of El Mozote, only one individual was known to have escaped the massacre of December 11, 1981—Rufina Amaya, who had witnessed the murder of her blind husband while hiding in some bushes at the edge of the village. Tragically, while still out of sight of the soldiers, she also heard the screams of her four children as they, too, were systemically murdered.

When she was later located and interviewed by investigators, Amaya explained her remarkable tale of survival in an exceptionally moving and straightforward way that both affirmed her strong faith and expressed her deep pain:

God saved me because He needed someone to tell the story of what happened. I wish He hadn’t, though, because it is very painful to have to think of it all the time. There are so many things that I remember, and I tell them, but I just cannot stand to be there [in El Mozote].

The actual number of victims who were massacred at El Mozote has never been precisely determined. However, highly conservative estimates initially put the number at two hundred. Some estimates ran as high as 1,000 victims slaughtered that day. In fact, most investigators believe the number to certainly exceed five hundred.

The villages of El Mozote and Los Toriles were not the only locations of atrocities carried out by Salvadoran troops around that time in the Morazan area. In fact, the Atlacatl Battalion and other government troops ravaged several surrounding villages. According to the United Nations Truth Commission Report on El Mozote, the following massacres of civilians also took place at approximately the same time in nearby locations:

  • More than 20 civilians were murdered in the La Joya area on December 11, 1981.
  • Approximately 30 civilians were murdered in the village of La Rancheria on December 12, 1981, by units of the Atlacatl Battalion.
  • An unknown number of civilians from the village of Jocote Amarillo were executed on December 13, 1981.

On January 27, 1982, the American public and the world became aware of the El Mozote tragedy when articles written by Raymond Bonner and Alma Guillermoprieto appeared simultaneously in the New York Times and the Washington Post. In those articles, the investigative journalists confirmed that they had visited the site of the massacre earlier that month and had personally seen the remains of the victims and the ruins that had once been El Mozote. When these articles first appeared in the press, Reagan administration officials involved in overseeing Central American policy publicly ridiculed them and brushed aside any possibility of a massacre. In fact, they claimed that El Salvador had made a good deal of progress in the area of human rights. However, as the world would soon learn, nothing could have been further from the truth.

Despite an immediate outcry by a variety of human rights organizations in the United States and other countries, the Salvadoran government immediately and unequivocally denied that any atrocities had taken place. The United States government continued to publicly support the Salvadoran government position and no official investigation into the incident was undertaken. However, human rights activists, working in secret, located the few remaining eyewitnesses to the massacres. Their testimony left little question that the alleged atrocities had actually taken place. Still, in the face of strong denials by both the U.S. and El Salvador governments, more than eyewitness testimony was needed to confirm what had occurred. Somehow, hard scientific evidence of the tragedy that had befallen El Mozote would have to be gathered.

In 1989, the legal office of the El Salvadoran Catholic Church, Tutela Legal, began an investigation into the massacres at El Mozote and the surrounding villages, based largely on the scarce eyewitness testimony of survivors and the work of a few investigative journalists. It was not long before the findings of Tutela Legal were made public. They indicated that at least 767 persons had been killed in the area around El Mozote in 1981. Still, even the report released by Tutela Legal was publicly derided since it contained no hard evidence to refute the Salvadoran government’s revised position that only insurgents had been targeted by their military actions.

In an effort to produce further hard evidence of the massacres, the leaders of Tutela Legal contacted the Argentine Forensic Anthropology Team (EAAF) and asked them to provide scientific assistance in their investigation by conducting an exhumation of key areas in and around the village of El Mozote. This action, they believed, would finally provide irrefutable proof of the atrocities that were now known to have been committed but continued to be so vehemently denied by government authorities.

In 1992, the warring parties in El Salvador’s civil uprising executed a peace accord, formally bringing an end to the twelve-year conflict that had ripped the country apart. As part of the treaty, both sides agreed to let the United Nations oversee an investigation into serious acts of human rights violations that had occurred over the previous decade. This was the opportunity that was needed by organizations like Tutela Legal to move ahead in gathering solid evidence of war crimes.

For much of 1992, the EAAF and several internationally renowned forensic anthropologists and scientists struggled to obtain legal permission from the Salvadoran government to begin their investigation in earnest. Finally, near the end of that year, all permissions were in place and the fieldwork was scheduled to begin.

An exhumation of the remains of the victims at El Mozote took place from November 13-17, 1992, by a combined effort with Salvadoran and international forensic scientists. It was decided that particular attention would be given to the area near the village church and the convent house, where Rufina Amaya had claimed to witness the murder of her entire family.

The El Mozote team of scientists included: Clyde C. Snow, Ph.D., forensic anthropologist; Robert H. Kirschner, M.D., forensic pathologist; Douglas D. Scott, Ph.D., archeologist and ballistics expert, and John J. Fitzpatrick, M.D., trauma radiologist. This team operated as consultants to the United Nations Truth Commission in El Salvador and in conjunction with the EAAF, who had intimate knowledge of fieldwork in Central and South America.

Eight years earlier, in 1984, the Argentine Forensic Anthropology Team (Equipo Argentino de Antropologia Forense, or EAAF) had been founded under the guidance of Clyde Snow to investigate the fate of individuals who had disappeared during the many years of a repressive military regime in that country. Since its inception, the EAAF had handled cases in Chile, Guatemala, Haiti, Honduras, Panama, Brazil, and a number of other Central and South American countries. It was comprised of an experienced and highly professional group of scientists, who were familiar with the special challenges of forensic anthropology fieldwork in rural Central American venues. The organization’s efforts at El Mozote proved to be crucial to the successful exhumation of remains and evidence collection, as well as the eventual confirmation of the atrocities that had claimed the lives of so many villagers.

The Science at El Mozote

The principle site exhumed by the El Mozote forensic team was the convent house—the ruin of a small, single-room building that was adjacent to the remains of the village church. This structure measured 4.36 by 6.94 meters and had been destroyed by fire after the inhabitants of the village were executed. It was at this site that at least 143 human skeletons were unearthed.Because of the time that had elapsed since the massacre, the lack of burial of any of the victims, and the actions of predatory animals in the area, many of the remains were scattered and partially destroyed. In addition, because the structure had been set ablaze, the remains were also subject to damage by fire and the crushing weight of the structure as it collapsed on the bodies inside. The El Mozote site was exhumed by members of the Equipo Argentino de Antropologia Forense (EAAF) and the remains were subsequently analyzed by members of Clyde C. Snow’s interdisciplinary team, acting as consultants to the United Nations Truth Commission.

The exhumation team carried out the field investigation, prepared extensive sketches, photographs, and videotapes of their work, which were later provided to Snow’s analysis team using the facilities at the Institute of Legal Medicine at Santa Tecla. Both Snow’s team and the EAAF subsequently released separate reports on their findings. Snow’s report was included in the United Nations Truth Commission Report on El Mozote (1992), which proved to be the definitive account of what had transpired in that village in 1981.

The El Mozote team issued their report of findings on December 10, 1992, which not only authenticated the story that had been told by Rufina Amaya but vilified the government of El Salvador. The conclusions reached by the scientists clearly demonstrated that a horrific act of mass murder had occurred at El Mozote and had been subsequently covered up for more than a decade.

While in El Salvador, the El Mozote team analyzed hundreds of skeletal remains, ballistic evidence, a variety of clothing, coins, and other artifacts that had been exhumed in and around the area of the village church and the convent house. After collecting the evidence at the village, the group undertook its analysis at a special laboratory that had been established at the Institute of Legal Medicine in Santa Tecla. There, the scientists were assisted by various members of the Institute staff, a local dental expert, and the Comision de Investgacion, which provided additional ballistics testing support.

The El Mozote team was able to confirm overwhelming evidence of the massacre that had been denied on virtually all fronts, including by the United States government, for so many years. In their final report, Snow’s group offered precise and compelling evidence for their troubling conclusions:

  • At least 143 skeletal remains were discovered, including 136 adolescents and children, and 7 adults. The team was able to determine that the average age of the slain children was approximately six years. Despite the confirmed number of victims, the scientists believed that a greater number of deaths had occurred at El Mozote. However, they were unable to positively confirm additional victims due to the chaotic nature of the burial site, the activity of predatory animals in the area, and the number of years that had passed since the executions.
  • The skeletons unearthed at El Mozote demonstrated unmistakable evidence of severe trauma caused by high velocity gunshot wounds, crushing wounds, and fire or heat damage to the remains.
  • The team determined that the victims had all died at approximately the same time, followed by a deliberate burning of the structure in which the villagers perished. It is possible that some of the victims were burned alive since not all the remains showed evidence of death by gunshot wounds or other identifiable trauma. From the evidence at the scene, including coins and other personal belongings, the team determined that the victims had definitely been slain no later than 1981.
  • Although the vast majority of the victims were children, one of them was a pregnant woman.
  • At least nine of the victims were shot inside the convent house while they were lying in a horizontal position.
  • Nearly 250 cartridge cases and more than 260 bullet fragments were discovered at the El Mozote site. The majority of these cartridge cases (184) showed discernible headstamps that indicated the ammunition had been manufactured for the United States government at a Lake City, Missouri, location. Beyond this, 34 of the casings were preserved well enough for the team to further identify certain characteristics related to the weapons that had been used in the executions. According to the El Mozote ballistics team report, all but one of the bullets had been fired from M-16 rifles that were manufactured in the United States. Twenty-four individual weapons were identified, based on an analysis of the casings, implying at least twenty-four individual shooters who participated in the massacre.
  • According to the unearthed ballistics evidence, the team determined that the shooters fired at their victims while they were huddled together in the convent house. The shooters had positioned themselves near the doorway and at the area of a window to the right of the doorway, while their targets were gathered together in the middle of the room. In other words, the children and adults were surrounded and fired upon by the shooters, who had blocked any possible escape from the structure.
  • There was no evidence discovered that would support the long-held government assertion that these victims were actively involved in armed conflict or caught in the crossfire of warring parties. Rather, the evidence clearly supported the conclusion that the victims were intentionally murdered while unarmed and apparently uninvolved in any ongoing conflict.

Even at the time of their field investigation, the forensics team was convinced that many more victims had been claimed at El Mozote than could be accounted for by their findings, and several EAFF scientists carried on with the work at the site. By late 1993, the EAAF team publicly announced that they had been able to identify more than 500 people who had been killed in and around the village in December 1981. However, it is widely accepted that the true extent of the massacre will never be known.

Unfortunately, there are few final answers to the El Mozote tragedy, and much will likely never be known about the atrocious acts that destroyed the village and its inhabitants in 1981. The Salvadoran government has persistently claimed that it is unable to identify any of the participants in the massacre at El Mozote, publicly maintaining that there are no government records still in existence from the time period in question.

Today, in the village of El Mozote, a Wall of Lamentations has been erected in honor of those who died so needlessly. The monument depicts a man and woman holding the hands of two small children. On the monument, a plaque reads: “They have not died, they are with us, with you, and with all mankind.” For El Salvadorans, no other explanation is needed to describe the horror that befell this small village.

The humanitarian work undertaken by the forensic scientists who excavated and analyzed the El Mozote massacre site confirmed the truth of what had happened in this tiny village so many years ago—and it did so beyond any doubt. The efforts of these scientists not only led to an important revision of false history that had been propagated by government authorities for far too long, it also brought honor upon themselves and to the victims who perished in such a merciless, cruel way. Hopefully, the truth of the horrible history that the EAAF and Clyde Snow’s team brought to light will lead us all to a heightened awareness of the atrocities that are so often committed by a government against its own people. In so doing, perhaps this knowledge can help prevent future occurrences of these kinds of horrific crimes.

Tit Willow

Tit Willow: The Story of the Zodiac Killer

Tit Willow - The Story of the Zodiac Killer

Author Judith Chapman
Publisher  No Publisher (June 2012)
Availability  Paperback and Ebook format at amazon.com

Synopsis: The author, who claims to have lived with the Zodiac killer for two decades, tells her personal story. Numerous photographs and other images add interest to the story.

Although I often receive evaluation copies of books (or proposed books), I don’t often write reviews. I am generally not comfortable with passing judgment on  the written work of others, unless there is something that especially grabs my attention. This book did just that, although not for the reasons that would seem obvious from the synopsis.

The author proposes that she married and lived with the Zodiac killer for over twenty years, and she outlines a good deal of information that may (or may not) point in that direction. She isn’t the first person to claim an intimate knowledge of the uncaught killer and she certainly will not be the last. In this sense, she is but one of many others. However, that is not what captured my attention and kept me reading. In fact, I finished her book in a few hours without the usual sleepiness that often besets men of a certain advanced age.

I suppose it’s best to begin with the preliminaries that all book reviews seem to mandate. I’ll make it as quick and painless as possible, just four sentences.

This is not a polished piece of work. It has many rough spots, lacks good editing, and drifts off more than once. In other words, it is not a technically pleasing read. However, what is lacks in polish it makes up for in heart.

I have never met the author, never spoken to her, and never had more than a single-line email exchange. Yet, after reading her book, I felt as though I came to know this woman and understand her struggles. In fact, I came to like her and care much more about her personal journey than the Zodiac theory she originally  set out to memorialize.

It’s a difficult thing to describe, but one knows when a writer is being open and honest. In fact, I think all readers develop this sense after enough time and words have passed. In my view, this author was sincere and open, even when it must have been very difficult to do so. After reading her book, I felt that the writer told me everything she knew, holding nothing back. It was all there; the pain, the frustrations, the failures, and the deep fear that she often felt. She made no attempt to hide her mistakes, soft-pedal the bad times, assign blame, or make excuses for herself or anyone else. This is something I rarely find among writers, who are often careful to distance themselves from the uglier parts of their stories. This author put it all out there, as far as I can tell, and that kept me turning the pages.

Did the author achieve her goal of putting forth a solid Zodiac theory? In the end, that will have to be decided by each reader. I felt that it fell short in a number of technical areas, such as timing, dates, that kind of thing. The theory is loose, much too loose for me. However, it’s certainly at least as good as many other theories floating around in Zodiac-land. She has worked with a variety of law enforcement agencies and provided all that was asked of her. Be her right or wrong, she is going about things in a way that seems to make sense and, from what I can tell, has been above-board, even when the story became obviously very hard to recount.

Can I recommend this book? Yes, but not for the obvious reasons, as I mentioned earlier. This is a personal journey and, in many cases, it’s a painful one. I wasn’t many pages into her book before I found myself far less interested in her Zodiac theory than I was in her personal journey. Another reader may come away disappointed that the author didn’t wrap-up the Zodiac case in a neat bundle. I, for one, am glad she took me along on her journey, all the roughness notwithstanding.

This is a relatively short book but it’s not an easy read, in the traditional sense. Don’t expect lots of polish here. However, if you have a heart, this writer may just get to you the way she got to me.

Introduction: Suspect Zero

Introduction

In 1968, a notorious serial killer, who chose the moniker “Zodiac,” began his lethal career with a horrific double homicide in the city of Vallejo, California, just east of San Francisco. Within a year, he had brutally attacked 7 individuals at random, mostly young couples, killing 5 of them. This murderer would eventually lay claim to more than three dozen victims in a series of bizarre and disturbing letters sent to the San Francisco Chronicle that continued until 1978. In the end, after two dozen of these letters, Zodiac inexplicably disappeared from the Bay Area scene, leaving investigators confused and empty-handed.

While an army of law enforcement personnel was unsuccessfully chasing after California’s most notorious fugitive in the late 1960s and 1970s, another series of murders was taking place less than an hour north of San Francisco, in the semi-rural community of Santa Rosa. Between early 1972 and late 1973, at least 7 girls and young women were slain in a similar way by an unknown male assailant. These crimes took place during the same period of time that Zodiac was feverishly writing to the San Francisco Chronicle, claiming more victims with each of his taunting and convoluted missives. Since Zodiac had attacked at a variety of locations around the Bay Area, including Vallejo, Lake Berryessa, and San Francisco, many investigators assumed that the Santa Rosa murders were his doing, although the fugitive himself never took credit for them. These crimes came to be known in the press as the Highway 101 Murders, and, like the Zodiac killings, the case has never been officially closed.

However, even unsolved cases of serial murder do have a resolution, somewhere. There is often a sea of certainty and understanding that lies forgotten or ignored between what is known and what can be proved in such cases. This was certainly true with the Highway 101 Murders. It was true for Lieutenant Manny Bruin of the Sonoma County Criminal Investigations Division—the agency in charge of the investigation—and for those who worked the case with him. It was horribly, unspeakably true for the victims of Byron Avion.

When traditional justice fails because of unexpected circumstances, lack of hard facts, insufficient resources, or unremitting confusion, there is still the possibility of a resolution, somewhere. What happened in Sonoma County, California, a few years ago is evidence enough to believe in that possibility, even when fiction must, of necessity, take the reins from fact.