We are in the process, as a society, of finding out a lot of public narratives served the causes of the people in power creating them. Myself and three others who spent 9 years investigating the 1978 serial murder case of John Wayne Gacy discovered things that shot so many holes in the current narrative, it needs to be revised.

By circumstance and fate, I had the pleasure of being introduced to three people who really cared, not about the spooky bedtime story of Gacy, but about the victims and their families. One was a retired Chicago Police Homicide Detective, Bill Dorsch, another, a lawyer he was working with, Steve Becker. I was pulled in by the former Chicago Reader Editor, Alison True. When we really got to talking, we believed it was important to understand who created the existing narrative and deconstruct it so fact was separated from fiction.

More than 40 years after Gacy’s arrest, this is the standing narrative: Gacy was a lone wolf contractor who stalked young men, sexually abused them and killed them, hiding their remains underneath his house in a crawl space no one, but Gacy, knew about. He purportedly had 33 victims, 27 of whose remains were identified and 6 who remain unidentified to this day. Twenty-nine victims were found under and around his house on Summerdale Avenue in unincorporated Cook County, Illinois and 4 were found floating in the Des Plaines River an hour’s drive south.

Gacy’s victims were mostly “drug users” and “homosexual hustlers” who Gacy picked up off the streets. Some he offered jobs to and they worked for him, others he killed immediately. He had several living victims, all of whom effectively agreed to rough, but consensual sex. The case was investigated by the Cook County Sheriff and prosecuted by the Cook County State’s Attorney. Gacy was sentenced to death and that sentence was carried out after Gacy had exhausted his appeals in 1994. End of story.

Why is it important to not accept this narrative, even more than 40 years after Gacy’s arrest? Because there is proof there wasn’t enough government transparency or investigative reporting that revealed a clear picture of exactly who or what was involved. Let me explain.

Working backwards in time, the first stop to understanding Gacy’s final arrest and prosecution for murder should be Operation Greylord. While Gacy was prosecuted in 1980, in 1984, Greylord uncovered massive corruption at every level in Cook County after an 8-year investigation. In the end, 92 officials were indicted, including 17 judges, 48 lawyers, eight policemen, 10 deputy sheriffs, eight court officials, and one state legislator.

Although indictments did not touch people directly connected with the arrest and prosecution of Gacy, it’s hard to believe corruption in law enforcement and Cook County’s judicial process wasn’t more wide-spread, as reported in journalist Mike Royko’s seminal book “Boss” (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Boss_(book)). Add to that, Gacy was directly involved with Daley-aligned politicians who only grew more powerful after Gacy was arrested and convicted.

In Royko’s 1971 book, he outlines in detail how the Chicago Democratic Machine dictated local, as well as national politics. Even after Mayor Richard J. Daley’s death, in May 1978, Rosalynn Carter visited Chicago for the Polish Constitution Day Parade as a “peace offering” from President Jimmy Carter to then Mayor Michael Bilandic for some perceived slight. And who was the organizer of the parade there to greet her? John Wayne Gacy.

Gacy had been appointed head of the parade several years before that by the director of Special Events – Mayor Daley’s friend, Colonel Jack Reilly. Months after the infamous photo of Gacy and Carter was taken, the Secret Service was put under a microscope for having allowed a convicted felon to socialize with the First Lady: Gacy had been jailed in Waterloo, Iowa for sodomy and had accrued several arrests in Chicago for sexual violence - one arrest had been just months before.

Later on, it was determined Gacy was the one who organized security for the event, as he had done for several years before without too much thought. Did someone from Mayor Richard J. Daley’s administration vouch for Gacy when it came time to screen him for security? Daley was politically powerful enough in the 1960s to help get John F. Kennedy elected. Who might have known about Gacy’s criminal record before he arranged to meet with the President’s wife?

This was all happening as Gacy himself navigated the Chicago Democratic Machine in the position of precinct captain to Norwood Park Township Democratic Committeeman, Robert Martwick, Senior. The lengthy title may sound inconsequential, but Robert Martwick, Sr. has been a power broker within Chicago politics since he became a Committeeman in 1969 and finally retired in 2017 – almost 50 years.

Starting in 1970, Martwick was among a cohort who pushed Cook County to raise tax bills on commercial and industrial properties. This happened simultaneously to his law firm, Finkel, Martwick and Colson PC, transitioning to a focus on property tax appeals – a surcharge unique to Cook County, since property owners are charged the tax unless they know how to appeal it.

The appeals business made Martwick a rich man and a behind-the-scenes political kingmaker. His law firm made changes along with that of former House Speaker and fellow property tax appeal attorney, Michael Madigan - another politician Gacy rubbed shoulders with according to Gacy’s ex-wife, Carole Lofgren. As Chicago’s infrastructure grew exponentially during the 1970s, so did these men’s wallets and their ability to leverage power.

All that money was swirling around in an environment also occupied by the Chicago Outfit (or Mob) – who trafficked in drugs, guns and humans (this is a convenient snapshot: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Timeline_of_organized_crime_in_Chicago). A reflection in that cesspool makes Gacy start looking like a pretty average player. And what might Gacy’s role have been?

Based on years of research, we know Gacy put it out to his cohort that he was “sexually liberal” during a time when homosexuality was closeted and pederasty stopped being socially acceptable. Instead of simply a politically connected businessman, Gacy comes off in documentation as a potential pimp, pornographer and confidante for those participating in a nationwide sex trafficking ring of teen boys centered in Chicago that is well-documented in a 1977 Congressional Report (https://www.ojp.gov/pdffiles1/Digitization/51083NCJRS.pdf).

What we know now, after 9 years of FOIAs, interviews and archive collection, is Gacy was not a lone wolf or someone who was insane and worked in the shadows: a theory that’s been exploited in countless news articles and documentaries made to enthrall. And although Gacy’s victims were sometimes tarred with the label of “drug user” and “homosexual hustler” – the truth is far more nuanced. Many were simply teen boys looking for work. Many victims walked away to tell their stories, some of which were never made public.

These are just the first brush strokes coloring a whole new portrait of the John Wayne Gacy case that people today might find disturbing, especially since that portrait could only have been created with the complicity of others.

The Things I Cannot Control

Much like the rest of us, I’m done with COVID. I want to move on and “get back to normal” – whatever that means. I feel the same way about the climate: I want to get back to my childhood memories of snowy winters and sun-speckled summers with long swathes of green in spring and months of remarkable colors during autumn. Alas, neither of these things is within my control. I watch endless news footage of fires around the world, of mudslides where there used to be frozen ground, of floods that destroy entire islands. Yesterday, more than 4000 people died of COVID – in ONE day that happened. So no wonder my mind has gone to a strange place for escapism that pulls all of this loss of control into a pretty little prehistoric fantasy bow.

Yup, that’s right! No more hair-raising prime-time news hours for me – I have my head in the animal specimens being uncovered by disappearing permafrost and the worlds that existed in those areas before the ice formed tens of thousands of years ago. Dead things that are the result of catastrophic climate change?! I say, if you can’t beat ‘em, join ‘em for the fantastical ride!

In February of last year, a 46,000 year old bird was studied after being found almost completely intact in 2018. This bird was living during the time of the woolly rhino in what used to be a forest, not the current lifeless tundra. Relatively close to that, a 30,000 year old wolf’s head was found – “its mottled fur, brain, tongue, and other features were said to be the best-preserved of any previous specimens” and an 18,000 year old puppy carcass from what’s known as the Pleistocene Epoch (the period between 2,580,000 to 11,700 years ago) were on display following the receding ice.

Reindeer herders, a job I didn’t even know existed before going on this deep dive (giving me a bonus image for Christmas festivities) found the carcass of a cave bear. Ho hum, you say?! This masticator with intact teeth stood more than 7 feet tall and could rip its prey into ribbons before it died over 22,000 years ago and was instantly freeze dried (instantly being a relative term when it comes to prehistory).

You’ll forgive me if I grew up watching “The Land of the Lost” in the late 1970s and a woolly mammoths seemed theoretical. Bones of the actual woolly mammoth were found in northern Siberia that are 10,000 years old. An artic researcher had this to say, “There is a complete head, ribs, various other bones as well as fragments of feet, soft tissues and pelt.” Mind. Blown.

In the Batagayka Crater, in eastern Russia's taiga, a completely intact horse foal was found. “Internal organs, tail, and hooves are whole, and even eyelashes and nostril hairs are clearly visible.” While some trendy shops can’t even make a shirt that lasts a year, this horse brought the goods 40,000 years later!

The ground around the Artic Circle coughed up two cave lion pups who were killed in a landslide, fur and whiskers completely intact - from 25,000 to 50,000 years old. Where you see muddy fur and splayed innards, my mind’s eye sees lush landscapes, noble creatures and…time travel.

I get it, permafrost melting is like taking a confined but toxic sludge and spewing it out into the atmosphere. Along with amazing landscapes to daydream about come ancient bacteria and nasty viruses, not to mention methane and carbon dioxide that further erode our ozone layer and slowly suffocate us. Roads buckle, houses collapse, sinkholes form. If I thought too hard about that and the extraordinary year of badness we’ve had, I’d go running down my street naked and screaming.

Instead, I indulge myself with the 2014 findings at Natural Trap Cave in north-central Wyoming: 85 feet down, this natural refrigerator contained 20 species of mammals and five bird species. including a dire wolf, ancient horse, and mammoth. During the intervening years, Dr. Julie Meacham and her team have been able to assess the anatomy and appearance of species, their diet and the environmental conditions during a time of rapid climate change that can apply to what we’re seeing today. All a win-win, from where I’m sitting!

This weekend I was in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania and it was a very thoughtful trip. We were there for my son’s birthday: every year he picks a location he’d like to travel to and we do our best to get him there and show him a good time. We hit the classics – the Liberty Bell, Independence Hall and the Museum of the American Revolution - as well as a bus tour giving a history of the town.

We were also given insight about a modern tent city we passed, one that obviously hosted hundreds of tents before some of the homeless staying in them were given more modern accommodations. Our eyes only viewed a few dozen still erected. Everywhere we went in Philadelphia, there were people sleeping so rough, one had a bicycle propped over his head as he slept in the middle of the sidewalk, no blanket or padding softening the ground of the cold, which dipped into the low 40s the night before.

I’ll admit that in the past, I might have seen a homeless person as a threat – he’s begging, he’s needy: will he pickpocket me or worse, attempt to rob me? There was also an existential threat in my mind: I’m on my way to a fancy meal and this person might not get any food. I questioned why this person hadn’t been able to support themselves. The thought crossed my mind that they might not be hard-working, like myself. Whatever my thought process, that person dampened my entitlement. Flipped on its head, I now see my reaction as empathy for others who were suffering – how could I enjoy myself when they were so down on their luck? I don’t think I’m alone in these complicated thought processes and contradictions.

I’ve grown over time to recognize the homeless need help, plain and simple. They don’t need to justify to me or anyone why they are homeless. And especially during a time where millions of people are becoming impoverished at once, we need to have more empathy and less judgment.

Thinking more clearly, after I took time to educate myself over years - it doesn’t take that much when someone has medical debt, a drug addiction, a mental health issue or other circumstance - to remove their safety net and force them into free fall. I find that personally terrifying, but the more terrifying, the more compassion I have for the people who are currently falling off an economic cliff right now. And all this during a year when more than $7 billion dollars is going towards political advertising. Irony lives…

Which brings me to the history I learned in Philadelphia. Their last public hanging was in 1829. This used to be sport on a Sunday afternoon for family viewing, where people would bring picnics. Souvenirs with photos were sold while hot dogs and popcorn were available from vendors. Parties were thrown for the occasion. It made me curious to see when the last U.S. public hanging was – in August of 1936 in Owensboro, Kentucky. Less than 100 years ago.

The man’s name was Rainey Bethea and purportedly he confessed to the crime of rape and murder. With our knowledge of false confessions today, I wonder what the true story was. He was born in 1909 in Roanoke. His mother died when he was 10 and his father died when he was 17. He attended a Baptist church and worked as a laborer. For all intents and purposes, he was contributing to society the best he could. In 1935, he suddenly seemed to come in contact with the law for stealing. The charges against him continued to mount until his admission of breaking and entering, raping and then murdering a wealthy woman in June of 1936.

On the day of Bethea’s hanging, the man meant to pull the trigger on the trap door was almost too drunk to do it. A year and a half later, Kentucky was the last state in our union to ban public hangings because of such missteps: ones that often left those being hanged flying through the air as their legs kicked for minutes because the noose was not tied correctly.

Up until the late 19th century, asylum tourism in Philadelphia and beyond was a huge hit. This was something akin to visiting a human zoo. Never mind someone could end up there as the result of being committed by a jealous husband or an incompetent parent, the bedlam of it all brought throngs who wanted to live vicariously for a few hours. Many saw mental illness as a result of vice or immorality and, much like public hangings, patients were jeered and mocked. Much like our homeless population, many wonder what vice or immorality let them to a fall from grace?

At the Liberty Bell – a worldwide symbol of freedom – it is finally being acknowledged the terrible treatment of Black slaves as society patted itself on the back for establishing a democratic government. Although women were given the vote in 1776, that privilege was snatched back in 1807. It took more than 100 years for women to get the vote back after more or less being seen as chattel for property-owning men during that period (see previous reference to jealous husbands).

One last example of humanity’s worser instincts I knew from living in Chicago. The biggest tourist attraction, up until the 1950s, was having a daily throng of people walk through the Union Stockyards slaughterhouses to see animals being made into food. All of the mechanization was fascinating – millions of animals were killed every year. Some tourists looked on with amusement, while others aptly looked on in horror. As well as having little empathy for ourselves as a species, we have run rough-shot over our environment.

This is all a long way of saying we need education to understand the dynamics of systemic racism, sexism, xenophobia, and other forms of arbitrary misanthropy that contribute to our current lack of empathy and compassion. Why wouldn’t we see the City of Philadelphia, and other places like it, as failing its constituents when they need help? Are we willingly ignorant when it comes to understanding the crimes of white-collar graft and corruption and how that contributes to the lack of funds we have for healthcare, education and other forms of public welfare? It’s much easier to judge the individual or group of other citizens than look at the dizzying trail of money and deals that contribute to empty coffers.

I’m thrilled to see people re-engaging with democracy and playing a role in their own welfare. Willful ignorance doesn’t work in the long term, but we can see its effects very clearly after 50 years of income inequity. What would happen if we stopped admiring material wealth and started tending the garden of our souls? I’d love to see any movement that encourages a reconnection with our human intuition and a tamping down of our worser instincts that we know make us miserable and fraught.

West Garfield Park, June 2013
“This section of the West Side is just beyond Garfield Park, a major tourist destination. I think it’s always surprising to people when they first get a sense of what happened in the immediately adjacent areas and how much depopulation has happened around it. Being just south of Madison Street, it’s a block from a key commercial corridor on the West Side, but you’d never know that from looking at the building. That variability from block to block is really startling.” PHOTO: DAVID SCHALLIOL


On July 1, 2020, myself and my family left New York to move in to the top of a two-flat in Oak Park, Illinois for 2 months. Our lives were in upheaval since both my husband and I were working full-time and we had a 16-year old son with autism to take care of. In New York, he had not left our home for almost 4 months. We determined he could not stand a full summer locked indoors, taking Zoom calls. Luckily, we have two adult children living in Chicago and one of them offered to provide respite care. The West Suburban Special Recreation Association had in-person classes for art, gaming and athletics. Special Olympics had bowling, fishing and mini-golf. And the Chicago Park District provided a 2-week camp for three hours a day. It was a certain sort of Nirvana in light of the lockdowns and constant under-currents of anxiety.

Being back in Chicago, where I’m originally from, was very different after living in New York for three plus years. Chicago has a relatively new mayor, Lori Lightfoot, who although she is black and gay (which would lead one to think she was progressive) is built in the same mold as every mayor since Richard J. Daley. Remnants of the Chicago Democratic Machine are still very active behind the scenes and the Black Lives Matter protests only brought that more thoroughly into bas relief. There is still an invisible line that demarcates gentrified neighborhoods and those considered black or brown: garbage accrues on the streets on the south and west sides, buildings that were once grand are in a decades-long slumber with no investment to open them with. Grocery stores are sparse and storefront churches plug the holes where a once-thriving business district used to be.

I found myself in conversation with journalist, John Fountain of the Chicago Sun-Times (https://chicago.suntimes.com/columnists/2020/2/21/21147953/murder-accountability-project-unsolved-murder-homicide-john-w-fountain) regarding the murder of 51 black women. All of these cases are unsolved and we noted together there was an element of victim-blaming that seemed to further de-humanize these violent and tragic deaths. “If these were 51 cats who were killed, there’d be an uproar”, John said. I’d dare you to disagree.

John and his students at Roosevelt University have been interviewing the families and finding out their back stories. He will continue to publish these but the whole scenario begs the question: at what point will these neighborhoods get investment they so dearly need? At what point will Chicago stop being so segregated? When will Chicagoans stop seeing the corruption of their city as somehow normal or even joke-worthy? When do the property tax refund scams in Chicago - that put so much into the pockets of so few power players – get discontinued and taxes are spread more evenly? And a more personal gripe: when do the majority of journalists in Chicago stop being an extension of the government? Don't get me wrong - journalists like John Fountain are fighting the good fight. But many I speak with let me know about "no-go" topics: ones that will prevent them any further access to government agencies if they say the wrong thing.

The other reason I was in Chicago was to continue producing the documentary series (6 hour-long programs) I’ve been researching and assembling since 2011 that includes John Wayne Gacy. It was great to regroup with my partner on the project, former Chicago Reader editor, Alison True, and meet others who were just as interested in finding puzzle pieces. I say the documentary includes Gacy, but the real story is about corruption - with Gacy being an example of the cost of that corruption. So much of the time we think about corruption as somewhat victimless and financially-based. But what if the cost of corruption is the livelihoods or, literally, the lives of your children? Would you want to fight it tooth and nail to prevent that?

I think about the 51 murdered black women – called prostitutes, drug users and wayward – and those exact stigma were assigned to Gacy’s victims. But after getting my hands on photos of the 33 victims the prosecutors used to remember each one, on the back were names of their colleges, their ranks in the US military, their hobbies, their girlfriends and their children. Even so, during several interviews – 42 years after Gacy’s prosecution – many felt it was still appropriate to refer to Gacy’s victims as somehow culpable for their own deaths: male hustlers, homosexuals and addicts.

These are people in authority for whom it must be advantageous to speak this way. But why haven’t all of these victims been referred to as being cut down in the prime of their lives, dearly missed by their families and dispatched with no regard for the value they brought? How would you like it if the most vulnerable and least shining moments of your life were irrevocably etched in public memory? We as a society need to take on these values and change the way we operate. We can do it, but we have to recognize what’s wrong with the spoon-fed narrative and bravely call it out.

I know this all seems like a lot of work during the midst of a spirit-crushing pandemic. In the words of former mayor, Rahm Emanual – who used this phrase much more cynically to exploit his opposition during his tenure – “You never let a serious crisis go to waste. And what I mean by that it's an opportunity to do things you think you could not do before.”

The Gacy documentary was commissioned and should be complete by Spring 2021. I know Alison True is busy writing the book that will tell the whole story of what we found based upon hundreds of FOIAd documents, dozens of hours of never heard before audio and video and the private collections that were opened to us.

Now that I’m back in New York, it will be good to chart the progress of schools re-opening, of socially-distant backyard get-togethers and drives into the vast beauty of the Hudson Valley. It will also be a thoughtful period of volunteerism, social activism, hard work and sharing empathy so that I can be a part of the change I desire. I hope you will join me.

For each of the essays in Tender Tales of Tremendous Catastrophe, I think it's important to give the first-person backstory that each is based upon. I wrote this after hearing it almost 20 years ago, while I was a temporary secretary. It was told to me by a main character that appears in this novelized version of a real event from 1966. I never expected an employer would initiate such an intimate conversation and I was grateful to be invited in. She was obviously haunted and that sensation permeated my mind: my heart went out to each individual affected.

On Being Human - Part 2 of 2

When Donald maneuvered to duck down behind a cabinet, Detective Charles stepped forward to see a clear shot to Donald’s head. Five handgun shots rang out. The secretary in Donald’s arms shot forward to remove herself from harm, flying down onto the floor, screaming every inch of the way at the top of her lungs. Donald convulsed to the floor, still alive. Every shot had pierced his body. After a moment, his body lay motionless on the showroom floor. Detective Charles watched Donald’s life pass from him, his gun still trained nervously downward at Donald’s head.


The din of cries and screams picked up in a cacophony of primal emotion. Time stood still as shock set in to safely release the living from their shaken states.

Frank Klein pulled up in the Coupe Deville with a stunned expression on his face. He flew out the door and into the showroom, where he stopped stiff as a board. Looking at the carnage, his heart felt like it was on fire. He had just left ten minutes ago and the scene in front of him was beyond comprehension. Coming to his senses, he ran into the bookkeeping office and found secretaries emerging from underneath their desks. He put his arms around a petite blonde and held her, trying to steady both of them in their confusion and pain.

As more police cars pulled around what had become a crime scene, a mysterious presence walked through the door, head bowed. Everyone turned in his direction as he calmly approached Detective Charles, who nodded his head as the two talked. In black cassock and collar, the priest walked towards the living and gently asked if they would like him to administer last rites to the men who lay dead on the floor. His presence was like a beacon of calm. Three dead were Jewish. One Missionary Baptist. Through tears, everyone strained to hear Reverend McCarville’s Latin words, deftly spoken in an even voice that hummed like a bellwether.

The wall-mounted phone in Sally’s apartment rang in the kitchen. She and Elizabeth had been coloring in the living room. Sally’s face tensed up as she looked toward Elizabeth. She kept saying “uh-huh” in a monotonal voice as tears welled up in her eyes. She put the phone down and bit on her lower lip, as if still trying to process what was said to her.

She picked up the receiver and began rotary dialing Elizabeth’s babysitter. The conversation was brief and to the point.

Sally walked over to Elizabeth and sat down next to her gently. Elizabeth looked up from her coloring book to notice Sally had gone sheet white.

“What’s wrong, Mommy?”
“I have to go to Daddy’s office. There’s been a terrible accident there.”

Sally knew Elizabeth was too smart to make up some implausible response. It was never, ever going to be easy to tell Elizabeth her father was dead.

“Your father died today. And so did Uncle Sidney.” Sally began to cry looking into Elizabeth’s eyes. “It’s terrible. Just terrible. Elizabeth, our whole lives are about to change.”

Elizabeth’s tiny frame went taut, trying to take in what Sally said. “No!” Elizabeth scanned Sally’s face.

“Where’s Daddy?!”
“Daddy’s in heaven, Baby…”

Tears trickled down both their faces. Elizabeth struggled to understand what was going on, other than it was very bad. She didn’t know what to say. She kept looking around the room to steady herself and the only word she could emit was, “Mommy?!”. Sally grabbed Elizabeth and held her as she cried.

Just then, there was a knock at the door. Sally carried Elizabeth in her arms to answer. Elizabeth’s babysitter stood there in shock, looking blankly at the two. Sally leaned forward to place Elizabeth in the babysitter’s arms. Elizabeth folded and began crying hysterically. Sally kept biting her lip as she walked towards the closet and grabbed her coat from inside. She kept walking straight through the door as her daughter screamed for her. She pulled the door closed behind her and walked with the weight of the world on her shoulders as her daughter’s muffled cries moved farther and farther away.

La Jolyn Kelly was sitting in the Chicago Police Headquarters cafeteria when a supervisor came down to speak with her. She couldn’t imagine, as he approached, what he wanted. She was on top of her work and knew what she needed to do after lunch.

“Jolyn. I don’t even know how to say this. Your brother is Donald Jackson, right?”

La Jolyn looked confused. Why would her supervisor know who her oldest brother was? And why did he look so uncomfortable, when he always smiled and seemed easy-going?

“What’s going on?”, La Jolyn said dryly.

“Donald was just shot and killed by one of our detectives on the West Side.”

La Jolyn put her hands up to her face to cover her wide-open mouth. A million thoughts were filling her head: she knew this day would come, she dreaded the day this would come, she prayed the news would be Donald had changed his ways, she knew her mother would be devastated. Her eyes filled with tears as she struggled to respond to her supervisor. He stood up, walked over and put his hand on her shoulder to comfort her.

“What happened?”. La Jolyn’s mouth seemed almost too dry to talk.

“He was at a used car showroom when he opened fire with a shotgun.”

“Did he hurt anyone?”

“He killed three men.”

La Jolyn almost involuntarily fell with her head onto her arms over the cafeteria table. She did not want to exist at that moment. There was no processing the amount of confusion, pain and helplessness she felt inside.

“Is there anything I can do for you?”, La Jolyn’s supervisor said softly. La Jolyn simply shifted her head back and forth. He replied, “I’ll let you be. Feel free to go home whenever you’re ready.”

La Jolyn lay there, limp, unable to mobilize. She knew she had to overcome her own darkness to be with her mother when word reached home.

She summoned the will to stand up, tears dripping from her face. No one else was in the cafeteria. Everything around her seemed to be spinning and otherworldly.

Sally Fohrman arrived at Fohrman Motors in the midst of endless chaos. Ambulances, police detectives, family members and the press formed a collage of endless activity. She walked over to Detective Charles and introduced herself. As he was expressing his condolences, a reporter rushed over and stood too close to her face.

“Mrs. Fohrman?! Is it true that Fohrman Motors charged the gunman in this crime extortionate interest for his used car? There’s been a lot of talk about Jews and predatory economic behavior in the black community. Do you have a comment?”

Surveying the scene, eyes darting towards each corner of a place that used to be familiar - now irreparably changed - Sally turned her mind inward, a voice inside repeating, “Please, hold me…” as her mouth remained locked shut.

With the downtime we all now have, I've set about writing a non-fiction book about a life spent interviewing and talking intimately to people about traumatic events - either as a medical/forensic photographer, a temporary secretary or a television producer. I'm working on the book with poet/editor Lisa Andrews (https://www.amazon.com/Inside-Room-Lisa-Andrews/dp/1945023155) and artist/illustrator, Tony Geiger (tonygeiger.com). Here is one of the essays. I'd love to hear any feedback you have since this is something of an experiment. All stories are based on real events that I have experienced myself or heard direct from source and then supplemented with historical research.

On Being Human - Part 1 of 2

Thirty-seven year old Frank Klein knocked on the door of the bathroom at the used auto dealership where he’d worked for a decade. Who was making such a racket inside and why were they taking so long? Jesus H. Christ, Frank had to pee and it was freezing outside. If he didn’t make a move, he was going to wet his pants. That’s the last thing he needed to do to impress, he joked to himself. Turning away from the bathroom door, Frank’s anxiety about his bladder sent his head first looking to the sky for guidance. He snapped his fingers as the answer to the problem came to him and he walked over to his bosses’ desk, where there lay a set of car keys. Cadillacs were their specialty, and Frank decided he would drive a finely polished ’62 Coupe de Ville up the street four blocks to the grocery store, where he knew he’d find a men’s room. He felt embarrassed as he ran across the lot, but his mind was focused. He forgot his hat. Should he run back? No time.

Starting up the car, he gave it a little gas. The weather was only in the teens on January 7, 1966 and the engine needed a moment to heat up. “Dear Lord, please don’t let it take long”, Frank thought. He laughed at himself as he imagined urine tears floating down his cheeks and freezing. When he pulled the gear shift into drive, the car leapt forward just a little, eager to go. Frank was on his way up Madison Street heading west on Chicago’s west side. He could spot the orange and white “Jewel” grocery sign up ahead. He was going to make it.

Sally Fohrman was at home at her apartment, inside a steely high-rise, putting together salami and mustard sandwiches for her and her 4-year old daughter, Elizabeth. She looked out the window onto Lake Michigan as snow flurries were blowing in. The wind brought a cold chill through the minuscule crevices in the molding and she paused for a moment to shiver with her arms crossed in front of her. Even a warm cup of tea beside Sally could only eek out small wisps of steam as it became more tepid.

Little Elizabeth smiled adorably, with one of her front teeth missing. Sally smiled back as she put the sandwich and a glass of milk in front of Elizabeth at the round kitchen table. “I made it with the soft rye bread so you can chew easier.” Sally sat at the chair closest to the window, a small gesture of protection from the cold for her little girl.

They both looked off into the distance, eating silently. On the table sat the newspaper and Elizabeth asked, “What does the word “disgust” mean?” Sally smiled again and thought about it a moment. What would be the best way to let Elizabeth know the definition of “disgust”?

“Where did you see that, Honey?”
“It’s right here.”

Sally looked at an announcement about the Chicago campaign of Dr. Martin Luther King, which was starting that day. As she scanned the article, her face dropped into concern. The thrust of it was about the conundrum of Jewish landlords who exploited black tenants in previously Jewish neighborhoods and anti-Semitism growing in the black community as a result. Dr. King was quoted as saying anti-Semitism should be looked at with “disgust and disdain” and he went on to describe the special relationship blacks and Jews had in the fight for civil rights.

Sally thought about the Jewishness of her family, about their emigration to the United States from Germany at the turn-of-the-century. She was from a family who were hard-working and liberal-minded. She had disgust for Jewish landlords who behaved in such an ungodly way, knowing they gave devout Jews a bad name.

“Disgust means you really don’t like something. Dr. Martin Luther King really doesn’t like it when people don’t play fair. Does that make sense?”

Elizabeth seemed satisfied by Sally’s reply. The two went back to finishing their sandwiches, with Elizabeth scanning the remainder of the newspaper page that lay open before her. Sally was glad to be raising such a curious and intelligent girl. Elizabeth was the apple of her eye, along with Sally’s husband, Edward.

Twenty-four year old Donald Dean Jackson was not having a good day at all. He had only been out of jail just over a year after serving a 4-year term for armed robbery. He had been diagnosed with leukemia earlier in the week. The oldest son of a single mother with 6 children, he was expected to do right by his family but always seemed to be doing the wrong thing.

He choked back tears of anger as he began loading his sawed off shotgun in a men’s bathroom stall. He had a .22 caliber Luger in his pocket that was loaded, too, with a plastic bag of extra shotgun shells and a cartridge belt with 25 bullets for the Luger. As he took a deep breath, halfway praying to God and halfway psyching himself out, he put his sawed off shotgun under his coat.

Just for a moment, his mind’s eye took him back to church, singing hymns alongside his large, extended family. He was a handsome boy with an adorable smile, watching his mother clutch a handkerchief towards her breast, eyes tightly closed, praying. As Donald regained his focus, he opened the bathroom stall door and wiped the remaining tear lines from his face. Unexpectedly, he said aloud, “I love you, Mama. I love you.”

Donald cocked the shotgun and pulled open the bathroom door. He walked straight over to the desk of Albert Sizer, who had been trying to get an estimate for Donald to fix the car he’d bought just months before: Donald had been in three crashes since and finally disabled it. Donald moved quickly upon Albert who did not know what was suddenly at the side of his head. Still looking downward at his paperwork, Albert unconsciously pushed the barrel away gently with his two fingers. A loud clap emitted from the gun as a shell emerged and entered into the side of Albert’s head, blowing his ear clear off and upward. Albert slumped down in his chair and down to the ground. It was 1:05pm.

La Jolyn Kelly smiled as she walked up the hallway towards the records department. She had never been prouder of herself, going to work for the Chicago Police Department. Here she was at their headquarters, filing and making coffee. One of her friends passed her and asked her what she was smiling about.

“It’s gonna be a good day. I’m ready for that.”

They both giggled like the 18-year old girls they were, both from Princeton Park on Chicago’s south side. La Jolyn looked down at the wedding ring on her finger. Her job had helped her and her husband buy a brick bungalow at Forest and 99th. They were talking about starting a family.

La Jolyn hadn’t had it easy in life up until now. Her oldest brother had always been a challenge for their mother. It didn’t set a great precedent for her other two brothers, who were often in and out of jail for theft or disorderly conduct. The city of Chicago was divided in two: black and white, with black always getting the short end of the stick. La Jolyn wanted to be one who could move in both circles and moved upward. Like her two sisters, she did well in school, went to church and lived the word of the Lord. She had even seen Dr. King in person at a church service and believed he could heal the wounds so many around La Jolyn felt from systemic racism. La Jolyn believed the promised land of equal rights was possible.

As she flipped through the file folders in the top drawer of a cabinet in a long succession of them, she kept her focus on putting the new folders in alphabetically correct. Her determined accuracy was discipline for the goals she wanted to accomplish in life itself.


The shot that rang out at Fohrman Motors at 2700 West Madison Street sent customers who had previously been ogling the showroom’s Cadillacs screaming towards the exit doors and running into the parking lot en masse. Chicago Police Detective Roland Charles was in a squad car with his partner, York Anderson, when they saw the chaos. Their first impression was a robbery might be in progress. They pulled up alongside the lot as the next gunshot rang out.

Edward Fohrman had just been leaving his desk to talk with Albert Sizer when he heard a gunshot. As he rushed from his office, Donald Jackson came up on him and fired his shotgun into Edward’s head unhesitatingly. “I’m going to kill all bosses!”, Donald screamed as Edward’s blood spatter stained Donald’s face.

Donald moved fiercely into Sidney Fohrman’s office. Before Sidney could rise, Donald reloaded his shotgun and fired it into Sidney’s face as he sat at his desk chair. A man outside the office tried to throw a soda bottle at Donald to divert his attention and more shots rang out, with huge picture pane windows exploding with each boom!

Detective Charles came in through the front door with his handgun drawn. Officer Anderson simultaneously came in from the side, his gun trained on Donald. Donald evaluated what was in front of him and grabbed a young secretary to use as a shield. That sent the rest of the secretaries who weren’t already underneath their desks scurrying for cover. Weeping could be heard but not seen from every corner of the showroom. (PART 2 WILL BE IN MY NEXT POST)

Last year, I had the pleasure and privilege of meeting with a woman by the name of Kay Weden. In 1993, she was a school teacher in Salisbury, North Carolina who was simply living her life, going to work and raising a teenage son, Jason, on her own. She was very close with her mother, who she regularly visited and you would think her life would be fairly straight forward. In December of 1993, her life veered off into a direction she would take decades to straighten out.

Earlier in 1993, Kay had been dating a local police officer, L.C. Underwood, who was introduced to her by a neighbor. When their relationship fell apart, he became enraged to the degree that he constantly stalked Kay and threatened her well-being. He let her know if she tried to tell anyone about it, no one would believe her because he was a cop. The level of intimidation and manipulation was hard to bear. Then, on December 9th, 1993, L.C. Underwood killed Kay's mother in cold blood. What Kay didn't realize at the time, was L.C. Underwood had also killed her current boyfriend, Viktor Gunnarson, a Swedish national who had moved to the area. It would take months to locate Viktor's body and in the meantime, L.C. Underwood engaged in a terror campaign against Kay and Jason Weden that changed their view of life permanently.

For whatever kismet there is in the world, I happened to contact Kay just after L.C. Underwood died in prison of cancer. To his dying day, he was unrelenting in his threats against Kay and Jason and unapologetic for his crimes. He even tried to engage conspiracy theorists to believe Viktor Gunnarson was responsible for the crimes. The responsibility rested firmly with L.C. Underwood and retired police chief, Paula May, knows that for a fact. She recently wrote a book about the story, First Degree Rage: https://wildbluepress.com/first-degree-rage-paula-may-true-crime/. Her amazing work and Kay and Jason's incredible resilience are a credit to the survival of the human spirit.

I had the privilege of speaking with Paula, Kay and Jason during interviews for the series Dead of Winter on Investigation Discovery: https://www.investigationdiscovery.com/tv-shows/dead-of-winter/full-episodes/cold-blue. At the time Kay and Jason were estranged - he blamed her for dating men who basically ruined their lives. It was only when L.C. Underwood was dead and the two of them could unite for the production, that each relaxed and looked at their situation with clarity. Kay was simply at the wrong place at the wrong time with the wrong person. If it wasn't Kay who was in L.C. Underwood's sites, some other naive and loving woman would have paid the price. If anything, this was a lesson in not ignoring red flags and listening to your gut when you know someone is behaving badly. Sadly, love can be blind for all of us in those situations.

This story went straight for my heart and I felt a great amount of compassion for everyone involved. I kept in touch with Kay and learned during last year, Jason and his wife - after almost 20 years together - decided to start a family. They now have a lovely little girl, Olivia, who is the light of their lives. Today the Wedens have some sense of peace - the peace they deserved all along.

Recently, I've been on the other side of production. Jerry Gaura of Toowimedia made a podcast as part of his Dragonsbread series about a period of my life that began with marriage to widower and writer, Jeffrey Felshman, and the adoption of his two children; to us having a child with autism; to his death from an aneurysm in 2009; and my re-marriage to Tim Hogan while one of our children, Iris, was in the process of transgendering. Feel like you have whiplash from reading that? I can only imagine. I hope you enjoy the podcast and look forward to any comments or questions you have. https://toowimedia.com/freeing-iris/

Frank Lucas, aka the American Gangster, died last May and a true personality left this earth when he did. I researched and interviewed Frank in 2006 while filming the very first Gangland for The History Channel. My late husband, Jeff Felshman, had a little trouble with heroin during 1970s NYC (https://www.chicagoreader.com/chicago/the-killer-inside-me/Content?oid=911383) and readily advised me on the players, like Frank and his counterpart in Harlem, Nicky Barnes.

Frank was delighted he got a revived interest in his story more than 30 years after his star had subsided. In the picture, you can see he was wheelchair bound, much of which was due to diabetes. In his heyday, he was a real ladies man and he still had some of that charm left over. But he also had a flaw when it came to his story. I won’t be speaking out of school, since the show aired in 2007, but I will reveal what that flaw was here.

Frank had told his story so many times over the years, he either believed some major transgressions of fact, or more likely, needed the inaccuracies to avoid facing the consequences. (On the other hand, diving in to do research about Frank, I found time and again the media had also perpetuated the lie) Frank never went to jail for his vast crimes – not because he was crafty and eluded justice – but because he colluded with authorities to take down his opponents. It was also a fiction that Frank had heroin shipped from Vietnam during the war in the caskets of fallen soldiers, although several criminal colleagues in the service did help him smuggle heroin into the US from Southeast Asia.

Denzel Washington did a phenomenal job of playing Frank Lucas in the film The American Gangster and what he really got right about Frank was he an amazing businessman who, if he had been legitimate, could have made a marvelous fortune and devoted his intellect to innovation. Instead, more than 650 heroin addicts a year found themselves dying on NYC streets during Frank’s tenure.

Russell Crowe, again, was admirable as Richie Roberts, but when I met Richie, his relationship with Frank was far more complicated in reality than any Hollywood simplification would do justice to.

When the show was set to air on November 1, 2007, Frank called me a few days beforehand. He said, “Tracy…did you f#ck me?”…as if he was asking whether I’d included all my research in the show, all of which I had asked him to speak to during his interview. He asked me a second time and I was trying to figure out how to answer. So when he asked me a third time, I decided to make my response tongue-in-cheek: “Frank, I promise I would have kissed you before I f#cked you.” Not long after, he invited me to a barbecue at his home in Newark, NJ. I demurred…

The program came and went, more for people who wanted gangster porn than those interested in righting history. Over the next several months, Frank Lucas was interviewed for dozens of programs. He started his own clothing line. He was living the life.

After our show aired, a couple of times I got calls from producers who were scared to negotiate with Frank about his fees. To one, he told them I had paid $25,000 for his interview, hoping to get the same again. I told the producer, at The History Channel, we could not pay for interviews and he did not receive compensation. You have to admire his endless moxie.

I know there was a lot to be learned during my relationship with Frank and I will always harken back to the time fondly, however stressful it may have been. RIP, Frank Lucas.

Several years ago, I produced a few programs in a series for The History Channel called Gangland. As a mother of 3, for whatever nuts reason, I decided it would be smart to go into the field and spend vast amounts of time in the unprotected atmosphere of gangs. No offense to any of the gentlemen I made an acquaintance of, but it was an eye-opener and definitely a high-risk lifestyle.

One of the shows I produced was about The Mongols motorcycle club – a group of 1%ers (outlaw motorcyclists). I went out to California where their headquarters is located. In the car on the way there, we came to a corner and didn’t recognize it was an active hostage situation. My cameraman, being a cameraman, got out and started shooting footage. Contrarily, I slumped down in my seat and started trying to figure out how to become much smaller. When I got my wits about me, I finally sat up and thought this, hopefully, would be the only time I was on an active crime scene. I started taking the photos you can see here. The perp was successfully arrested without any bloodshed.

After all the adrenaline of that scene, we carried on to a very fancy house where I was greeted by a number of The Mongols in their colors. As a documentary maker and voyeur, I have a hard time not taking EVERYTHING in and just behind these men was an ample selection of fire arms on a pool table. I started to mention that I record EVERYTHING and they cleared out as much contraband as they could before cameras were actually rolling.

I spent the next 4 hours interviewing members about their lives and insights. I was positively fascinated. I was only flummoxed when one of the members, who I had a special liking for his directness and great stories, told me he had many more stories that were even uglier than the ones he’d already recited. I reminded him he’d done a perfect interview, but nonetheless, he wanted to pursue his point. (Keep it in the back of your imagination, I’m one of two women in the room – there are approximately 2 dozen men). Before I knew what was happening, he wanted to prove himself by striking himself with a solid blow to his groin area. Although my mouth flew open in shock, the men around me were devastated (I did see a few of them blanche). He did it again, much to my amazement and their horror. We all assured him he had proven himself and that we could carry on.

The next move was to Long Beach Longshoreman’s Hall, where we met up with hundreds of other Mongols, ready to party and have their yearly meet up. As we arrived, I made a call to my office saying that if they didn’t hear from me the next day, I would be floating in Long Beach harbor. I really did not know how things were going to go. We filmed late into the night. By the time I emerged, I was thankful indeed that I was all in one piece with great footage in the can.

That’s a long way of saying it’s better to live life to the fullest and be grateful for every experience than to live life in fear. I get it, it was not the smartest thing I’ve done, but I was handsomely paid, the show aired to fabulous ratings and it changed me, if only a little bit, having been exposed to something I would never have had contact with otherwise.

Recently, I had the pleasure of meeting Cliff Linedecker, the author of “The Man Who Killed Boys” and “Children in Chains”, amongst dozens of other titles. He’s now 88 years old and living with his wife, an artist in her own right, in South Florida.

We agreed to go out to lunch at the Dune Deck Cafe – a restaurant I’d highly recommend if you find yourself in the Lantana area. While eating fresh seafood and drinking wine, he told me about writing “The Man Who Killed Boys”. He said it was a book he simply fell into. He had just finished writing “My Life With Elvis”, with Elvis' personal secretary, Becky Yancey.

In December of 1978, the details of John Wayne Gacy’s murders were just coming out in the news. Cliff was based in Chicago and when he went to Gacy’s next door neighbor, Lillian Grexa, to see if she’d talk to him, he found out she was a huge Elvis fan – something he used to his advantage. That night, Cliff and Lillian talked endlessly about Gacy’s comings and goings-on. One anecdote she shared was, not long before, several neighbors had their tarot cards read and Gacy’s showed he would end up imprisoned: he wasn’t too thrilled.

Not long after meeting Lillian, Cliff took the chance of dressing himself in workmen’s clothes and entered the Gacy house to see so many workers digging. It was such a grim task, no one asked him if he was there on official business.

For the next two years, Cliff uncovered amazing details about the case that were either obfuscated for political expedience by biased parties or embellished by people like witness for the defense, Helen Morrison. When Cliff’s book came out in 1980, it was extremely popular. But it’s also stood the test of time.

As a former seasoned journalist for several newspapers, Cliff was one of my first “go-to” experts. He followed up “The Man Who Killed Boys” with “Children in Chains”. The book further expands on the themes of child sex exploitation that were brought up in the Gacy book, but then shows Gacy in the context of the wider set of predators around him. To start, at the time, there was a child sex trafficking ring that had its nexus in Chicago that could then be traced to a state and federally-funded camp on North Island in Michigan where children were sexually abused. There is also information about a farm in Franklin County, Tennessee run by a pastor who had over 200 sponsors looking for pornography made including young men the pastor was responsible for: runaway boys, foster children, disadvantaged youth. It’s a tough read that Cliff told me was inspired by one of Gacy’s victim’s families who had lost both sons to child sex exploitation.

The reason I went to speak with Cliff was in the hope that he’d remember as many anecdotal experiences about his research for “The Man Who Killed Boys” as possible. Although he worries his memory is imperfect, he was able to reach back into his mind to relate his perceptions about people he met in the late 1970s aligned with the case and anomalies he noticed, especially when it came to Gacy’s accomplices.

When lunch was over, I went back to his apartment and met his beautiful wife, Junko, to whom he’s been married for over 60 years. They laughed as they told me the adventures of how they met and those that ensued continuously thereafter. He gave me the book “Victim” by Gary Kinder and told me it was some of the best reporting he’d ever read from a victims’ point of view.

Our parting words may seem macabre, but they were an exchange between two people heavily invested in understanding crime. As Cliff recounted for me some of the more profound passages from “Victim” that touched him, I commented that people in the midst of a murderous act are very busy people. They don’t have time to feel sorry for themselves. They don’t have time to consider regrets. They can only go toe to toe in a dance of primal rage between victim and perpetrator that ignores hairs out of place, sullied eye make-up, clothing mishaps and the newest iPhone. And when it’s done, there’s either the relief of no longer having to fight or the emergence into a whole new phase of life, having gotten a view to what death might be like while remaining alive.

Nine months after I was widowed when my late husband, Jeff Felshman, died of an aortic aneurysm, I finally went back to work. I was hired to interview people whose loved ones – mostly children – had disappeared without a trace for a new series on Lifetime launching in the Spring of 2011. One of the families I met during this period, where I was still living the nightmare of my own loss, was that of Jennifer Kesse.

She was 24-years old, vivacious and beautiful, her career was on the rise in the Orlando, Florida area and she had a wonderful boyfriend. On January 24th, 2006 that continuum stopped suddenly and unbelievably. She would usually text or call her boyfriend on her way to work, but that didn’t happen. Any attempt to get a hold of her by phone simply went to voicemail. While her boyfriend lived outside of the Miami-area 4 hours south, her parents, Drew and Joyce lived by Tampa and were able to arrive late that morning. They entered her apartment and saw nothing awry. Her car was gone. She has never been seen since.

I arrived at Drew and Joyce’s house in Tampa almost five years later, at the end of 2010. I also met their son, Logan Kesse. All were still visibly in the throws of depression and anxiety. Drew was the kind of father who wanted to protect his little girl and instead, he’d become an expert on what happens to the missing: often they become victims of human trafficking. That can mean forced labor, marriage, prostitution or organ removal. During our discussion, his mind was living through each scenario he could imagine happened to his baby girl and it was unrelenting. He couldn’t find Jennifer, much less protect her.

Unlike murder, which is definitive, people who are missing may just be “out there”. Loved ones long for their return, pray they’re not being tortured and hope if they are deceased, they haven’t been defiled. Not a great set of options. My heart went out to them in no uncertain way. During my interview with Jennifer’s boyfriend, Rob Allen, his way of describing the love he felt for Jennifer and after 5 years, how much he missed everything about her, hit me at my core.

To this day, the Kesses continue to honor Jennifer’s memory and be proactive about finding out what happened to her. Please consider visiting https://jenniferkesse.com if you have any thoughts or information that might help them.

As for other missings that can be quantifiably tied to human trafficking, it’s a topic we as a society want to ignore but can only do so at our peril. Between 20 and 40 million people are trafficked involuntarily. The global profits associated with human trafficking are around $150 billion dollars – the GDP of some small countries. The "2018 Federal Human Trafficking Report” by The Human Trafficking Institute shows over half (51.6%) of the criminal human trafficking cases active in the US were sex trafficking cases involving only children. That blows my mind. Know what to look for: https://www.dhs.gov/blue-campaign/indicators-human-trafficking. Know trafficking happens around you every day. Learn the signs that someone you can see in front of you is being trafficked. Be the source that could change that person’s life. Contact Polaris if you or someone you know has been trafficked: https://polarisproject.org/victims-traffickers.

Lately, people have been asking me if I have nightmares about the work I do. I rarely think about my work literally. I don’t try to get inside peoples’ heads – I want to report facts as part of a story and I want to get those facts right. I try to remain impartial and merely respond to the facts. But there are a few cases that I found highly disturbing and a few images I unfortunately return to that hurt me to my core.

When I was in college and as a young adult, I was a medical photographer, first at the University of Iowa Hospitals and Clinics and then at the Glasgow Royal Infirmary in Glasgow. My role was to be an adjunct for teachers, many of them studying anomalies of the human body through documentary photos. My protection from some truly mind-blowing situations was that I was behind a camera: I saw gangrene, a woman whose every blood capillary exploded in her body making her look like a grape, I saw peoples’ innards as part of surgery and I recorded their nose jobs for rhinoplasty surgeons.

While I’m in the field for television production, I am not the one with the camera. I don’t have that emotional shield. I’m the one receiving documentary photos, usually by the hundreds, of victims in situ at a crime scene and then at their autopsies being taken apart, piece by piece. I find the human body fascinating. I find violent crimes that destroy the human body positively horrific.

The story that disturbed me so much was perpetrated by James Marlow and Cynthia Coffman, spree murderers who abducted 4 innocent young women, raped them and then killed them across a long swathe of the southwest in the mid 1980s. Upon looking at the evidentiary photos of each of 4 crime scenes where Sandra Neary, 32; Pamela Simmons, 35; Corinna Novis, 20; and Lynel Murray, 19 were murdered, the photos of Lynel Murray’s crime scene caught me sideways. Not only had the 19-year old psychology student been abducted from her part-time job at a dry-cleaning business, having her life altered irrevocably within seconds, but Marlow and Coffman dragged her off into a lair for a session of torture bar none. Her end would have been terrifying, painful and extended far beyond something cruel and unusual. The image of her that won’t go away is that of her death mask, a look almost of relief, with the grey eyes of the dead open and looking up.

The public always get to hear extensively about murderers – it seems to hold our fascination. But for me, I work in service of the victims. To see Lynel Murray, who could have gone on to have an amazing life, was taken by two people who saw no value in it except for their own consumption, is astonishing in the worst way. I am beyond having any appropriate words of condolence for every person Lynel Murray’s life touched while she was here and what a loss that is for them.

James Marlow and Cynthia Coffman were sentenced to death in the State of California in 1990. I cannot see any place else for them but incarceration – I don’t see rehabilitation in their futures to re-emerge productively back into society. Marlow and Coffman were a son and a daughter. They had brothers and sisters. Coffman was a mother herself. Tragedy in these cases is unrelenting.

In my mix of photos from over the years that are stuck in my head, I do have some from my medical photography days, too. One is of a baby, but this was no ordinary baby: it was documented while it lived through 2 torturous days of its life. Its shape was something more like a triangle, with no discernible limbs or sex. It did have eyes at the top of the triangle, something in the shape of a nose and an opening for a mouth. I don’t know the genetic background that created this baby. I do know the terrible grief the parents experienced watching its labored and short life.

I think on these things as I try to gently and sensitively go through my day’s work. Most people that know me don’t see me in this light, but these images are a guiding force that help me try to embrace and understand all of humanity and the struggles we go through just to exist.

As I’ve gotten further into my John Wayne Gacy investigation, the one quality I’ve found interesting is just how active Gacy was. He had a solidified modus operandi by 1972 that is well-documented in police reports. I know there are many more living victims of Gacy who are still around today but have never come forward. I would like to interview you. If you feel the strength to talk about your experiences, please go to the contact section of this website. Thank you in advance – your contribution could be very important to understanding what really went on. When I spoke with one of Gacy’s accomplices, he told me “80% of what we think we know about this case is wrong”. I believe him.

Some of the stories I cover, since I’ve been working the true crime beat for so long, have interesting coincidences. Earlier in my career, I also did some stringing work for the national news shows and one of those cases I’ll never forget.

I had been widowed just over a year before and was raising 3 children on my own. My kids were 22, 18 and 7, so were mainly able to care for themselves, in addition to a caregiver we had to take care of my 7-year old who has autism. The first production I went back onto in September of 2010 was My Strange Addiction for TLC, but one of the next assignments I got one dark, cold, snowy evening was from Good Morning America.

They wanted me to drive out to the small town of Hartford, Michigan from where I lived in Chicago to cover the story of a mother who was missing from her home where she had two small children. Her husband, James, had sounded alarm bells that resonated with the national media and soon Hartford would be overwhelmed with satellite trucks and hungry producers. But I was the first person to arrive on the scene at 10pm.

Driving through Michigan was death-defying: they grit their roads instead of salting them, so the ice doesn’t melt, it simply has more traction. Skidding all the way into town, I found myself driving in Hartford on gravel roads. The first location I went to was a neighbor. Her house was nicely apportioned and we talked over the kitchen table. She had no idea how her neighbor had disappeared. I asked if drugs were involved, since I knew a lot of small towns in the Midwest had issues with methamphetamine. You can usually tell by the quality of someone’s hair and teeth if they are using heavily (not to mention they seem insane…). That wasn’t an issue. This was a dedicated mother – all the more scary she hadn’t been home to pick up her young children from the school bus the day before. Good Morning America wanted to cover the story early the next morning, so I got as many details as I could and tried to get to sleep at a local hotel.

It was impossible. My phone kept ringing all night long. Both ABC in New York and Los Angeles wanted constant communication about what was going to be possible with the father and two children the next morning. When I finally headed to the family’s house at 7am, my head hurt.

When I arrived, other members of the media were already there and talking with the husband, James. My phone continued ringing: get an interview with him and the kids. They wanted a scoop. They were willing to pay. I looked at the photos of this family in happier times and saw the bereft husband in front of me and my heart stood still. I was reeling from the pain of my own loss and the thought that this man was going through something similar made me extremely cautious. I got to experience my craziest days in private. This family was being outed in public. I knew from experience that trying to mitigate the pain of a child losing a parent is almost impossible, especially when it’s fresh. As many calls as I got from ABC, I could not bring myself to ask the man to interview his children. I had no idea how the story was going to end up – I could not be sure she didn’t leave voluntarily – but through all of my experiences, things were not going to end well.

I left Hartford after receiving an email from ABC saying that CBS had gotten the scoop. They were furious. I asked if they wanted anything else and they said we were good to go. So I drove back to Chicago without knowing how things resolved.

That night, I read that the mother of these two young children had been kidnapped by the father’s cousin and taken into the woods, where she was shot mercilessly. Having been at her house, having seen her during happier times, after seeing her husband’s distress, I got what people in our field call vicarious trauma. I didn’t know them personally, but I related to them so much, it was as if I was suffering their loss.

Fast forward 8 years and I’m at my desk receiving an assignment from a production company I work for. It's the case of murderer Junior Beebe, Jr and his victim, Amy Henslee. I live in New York. I’m a world away from my life as a widowed, single mother. I’m remarried and settled. But I remember the names and the story like yesterday. So I call Amy's husband, James Henslee and let him know what he couldn’t have 8 years before: that I had been widowed and he was my first stringing assignment after my husband died. I related to him and his family and wanted to know how everyone was doing.

Eight years later almost to the day, James arrived in New York with his girlfriend for an on-camera interview with me. His young sons are now in high school and college. He has twin boys with his girlfriend. I was so happy for him and for me: we made it through the storm alive and sane.

Over two days we talked about what really happened. I read the police reports and saw the crime scene photos. What a catastrophe.

The man responsible, Junior Beebe, Jr. was sent to jail for the rest of his life. James and his sons will never be the same. Since the perpetrator was a cousin, James’ entire family had to do some major soul-searching. His late wife’s family is forever grieving the loss. The community will never forget it. Murder is a cruel, cruel thing on every level.

Part of the meaning I get from my job is if I can add value to a case by finding out something new. Often times, I review all the case files and during that review, something previously not considered comes to light. You might not believe how many cases haven’t been prosecuted properly or they’ve failed to arrive at a prosecution at all. It happens for a variety of reasons, many not malicious, but some very curious.

In addition to my day job on formatted series for true crimes shows, I have three cases that I’m currently working in my spare time with law enforcement to better understand anomalies within them. On one case, the original investigator believes what was deemed an accidental drowning was instead a murder and he’s provided evidence to that effect. The result may very well be the exhumation of the victim’s body to better discern what the victim’s injuries were – the first step in prosecuting a case that seemed to me to be white-washed.

In the case of a missing person, myself and another member of the media re-interviewed a person of interest only to have the original detective say she directly contradicted herself from two decades ago. He and the victim’s family are now seeking to re-open that case.

For the third project, over the past 8 years, I’ve delved into the case of serial murderer, John Wayne Gacy alongside journalist, Alison True, a retired Chicago police detective and an attorney who all brought new documentation to the case. Initially a review didn’t seem at all appealing: the sensationalism that surrounds Gacy, the fact that his case has been reviewed before and the complexity of the case – with so many victims – seemed daunting.

Alison True was the one who introduced me to the project and she said it wasn’t about Gacy per se: it was about corruption. After working with law enforcement on true crime programming for almost 20 years, it had never crossed my mind that a case this big could be politically motivated (although watching Roman Polanski’s Chinatown makes it obvious this isn’t a new scenario). Not long after my initial talk with Alison, all four of us dug in and found crucial elements of the Gacy case were manufactured and required the public’s suspension of disbelief – this was eased by a very obedient media in Chicago and a copy and paste attitude amongst other reporters. But there were a few who left bread crumbs. And then there’s the FOIA system.

Without a lot of personal time to spare, I would have stopped before 8 years had passed if I had gotten to the bottom of things. But I still haven’t.

Initially, we were introduced to the case of Michael Marino – Gacy’s purported victim #14 – whose mother Sherry felt his remains had been misidentified and were not his. Sherry and her lawyer, Steve Becker, were able to get a Cook County judge to sign a court order not just to exhume Michael Marino’s remains, but a few years later, to exhume the remains of victim #15 – Kenneth Parker, who isn’t even a relation – so DNA could be tested and compared. I can’t begin to explain how hard that is to provide proof – especially in Cook County – that a body should be exhumed. But the heavy lifting was worth it. Not only did Michael Marino’s DNA not match Sherry Marino’s, but in the course of uncovering documentation, no one had ever concluded who victim #15 was: in a formal autopsy, Kenneth Parker could have been one of seven people. The kicker: when asked, Parker’s family told Becker they NEVER provided any proof of who he was.

Stay tuned. There’s more where that came from.

True crime is a very rough beat at times. Almost all my interviewees have been through some form of hell and the interviews are tremendously emotional as people are reliving the worst day of their lives – be it families, friends or law enforcement. What you see edited into a convenient bite-sized program is often the result of several, if not tens of hours of filming.

On January 6, 2019, a program in the series, Evil Lives Here aired on Investigation Discovery with a young man I’d grown to know and love in the maternal sense by the name of Joshua Hudnall.

When I first read his back story before I contacted him, I thought it would be a miracle if he talked to me. Joshua had lived through a fairly traumatic childhood with a mother who displayed signs of narcissistic personality disorder. To escape his domestic travails, he signed up for the service and was inducted into the US Army to serve in Iraq. He became part of the 3rd Army Cavalry Regiment, Class A. He fought in some of the most treacherous areas imaginable and watched many around him die.

Close to the end of his mission, he received word from relatives that his father had died. Then he received an update that his father was murdered. Then he found out his mother and sister killed him with a pick ax in a complex plan to steal his social security income. His sister was 18. He also had a younger sister who was 14. His mother and 18-year old sister were arrested and sentenced to 40 years in prison. His younger sister was sent to live with relatives. Joshua was on his own, except for the comfort of an aunt and uncle in New Orleans, and his paternal grandfather down the road.

I first sent Joshua a letter to what I thought was his home address. No response. Fearing I may have had the wrong address, I looked him up more thoroughly. I could see his email address and I wrote him in late February 2018. He wrote me back right away. He was interested in appearing in the series and wanted to talk about his experiences.

After everything he’d been through, he was a wonderful conversationalist and very bright. I kept encouraging him, over the months we spoke, to take up writing about his life. He was working as a truck driver and I’d catch him on hauls all over the Eastern US. I could tell he was keeping up a tidy wall around the crazy shit he described to me – just enough distance so it didn’t hurt him so much. He would call me “Hon” and I’d call him “Dear”.

Not long before our interview date, Joshua’s paternal grandfather died suddenly. Joshua was devastated. We talked about how his grandfather was the last person who really “got” Joshua. I wanted to be there anyway I could and I sat and listened with empathy.

The time came when I met Joshua for his interview in the middle of July 2018. He traveled to New Jersey for the shoot and had never stayed in such “a nice hotel”. He both expressed wonderment and some discomfort that he was out of his element. I joked with him about having long fingernails and looking like Grizzly Adams. He thought I was too posh. We went shopping at Target because he had forgotten some toiletries and his socks. We kept teasing each other and joking around as we perused the aisles. I loved it. And he seemed at ease.

We had dinner at his hotel and both got burgers. We talked about religion and politics, both of which we were on opposite ends of the spectrum for but both were open-minded to respecting the other’s point of view. When I left him in the lobby, he looked exhausted. I’m sure he slept well.

I spoke with Joshua in front of the camera for the next days, but our most important connections were on a back porch, where we could relax in the sun. We talked about life and what it was like for him. We talked about truck driving and smoking cigarettes and pot and dating. We talked about PTSD and the service.

At one point during the interview, Joshua teared up and that made him angry. He looked at me and said, “You finally got me.”. That wasn’t the intention. But it would only have been normal to cry under the circumstances. What a mixed up world to have the people you trust betray you and kill the one person on earth who you see as your best friend.

Joshua left New Jersey and I tried to call and text over the next few months during 2018, but got no response. I thought maybe he felt I had manipulated him. My only goal was to talk him through his personal narrative.

After the show aired on January 6, 2019, Joshua’s friends wrote in to say he had died of “liver failure in his sleep” in early August 2018 - just a month after our interview in New Jersey. I don’t know exactly what happened but it yanked the heart right out of me. When asked, his friends told us the show provided him with closure. That meant a lot to me. He was a special person who won’t be forgotten.

This is not the outcome I would ever desire. I’m open to people coming in to their interview, taking a giant emotional shit and flushing it with me so they can take a load off. I’m involved, to the degree I’m allowed, with every single person I interview. I only want what’s best.

Do me a favor? Watch the show if you can. I’d love to know what you think. It made me weep: https://www.investigationdiscovery.com/tv-shows/evil-lives-here/full-episodes/let-her-rot

My shows about murder are what go in between the commercials to sell trash bags and tampons…cynical but true, so think about that when you are watching true crime.

For the past decade, I’ve spent my days knee deep in the stories of people who have died violently. I have to imagine what went on for them so I can tell their stories properly. Some have been beaten to death. Some have been shot. Some have been dismembered. My goal is to tell an accurate, truthful story that allows victim’s loved ones to feel witnessed and to ensure there is documentation that reminds people why murderers are in jail.

My first true crime documentary was with the family of Michael Peterson, a man accused of murdering his wife on a staircase in Raleigh Durham, North Carolina. It was for the series, American Justice, hosted by Bill Kurtis on A&E. Once I was commissioned to produce the show, I wrote to Mr. Peterson in jail. We wrote back and forth a few times before he told me he knew the series was prosecution-based and I would have to convince his girlfriend of my merits as someone sympathetic to his case.

Strangely enough, Mr. Peterson’s girlfriend turned out to be my father-in-law’s ex-girlfriend from 1960s Greenwich Village. The coincidence was spooky and enough to get me access to the entire Peterson family at the time. I filmed in California where his kids lived and then flew across the country in the middle of the night to film his lawyer in Raleigh-Durham, Mr. Peterson in prison and then the relatives of his adopted daughters.

When the show was finally put together, Bill Kurtis had a good swipe at the end about some of the more far-fetched theories surrounding Peterson’s case. It was a little more heavy-handed than I would have done, but that was down to our series producer, not myself.

You would think the story should end there, but it didn’t.

A few years later, I was teaching at Columbia College Chicago. As I was taking roll call, I found myself in the same room with Michael Peterson’s adopted daughter, who I’d interviewed several years before and who was now my student. We were both shocked and had to evolve our relationship so it could be safe for both of us. We continue to be friends to this day.

Karma is an interesting reminder that what goes around might very well come around again.

From years of experience in this field, I have empathy for perpetrators and their families, but if you murder, you have to be removed from society. I no longer feel that poverty or mental illness can be a mitigating circumstance for murder. It may provide an explanation, but there is always an alternative to taking someone’s life. The permanence of death is excruciating for those left behind.

On the other hand, in very few cases do you find a murderer is well-provided for and well-adjusted. Some have been raised witnessing and being subjected to unspeakable things that have traumatized them. Some have been put in compromised positions where it’s unclear what their options to murder might have been. I get that.

Our prisons are lined with people who have mental illness and need support. They are over-crowded by impoverished people who couldn’t defend themselves properly, many being wrongly accused. The fact that some towns sustain themselves through prisons, that prisons are monetized, is a travesty. We should all keep in mind that we’re merely steps away from committing a crime. Our grass is only greener, I’ve found, through luck and definitely not by design.

Working as a producer in non-fiction television, I’m often in a position where I can ask people questions about the most intimate aspects of their lives and get an honest response. It is one of the biggest privileges I can think of.

I’ve interviewed people in jail, in their homes, in hotel rooms, at their offices, on sets and in cars.

One of my favorite interviews was with the veterans of D-Day on the beaches of Normandy, France. I could imagine the boats coming up as a wave of bullets flew out into the bay. One of my interviewees had his face sliced open this way and he’d been given a vial of morphine by the Army to help him soothe the pain in the field. Problem was, he had to get to a place where he could take the morphine without bullets whizzing past his head. The struggle he went through to survive was so well illustrated, I can return to it in my mind anytime and still marvel at it.

One of my saddest interviews was in Missouri, at the home of a young girl who went missing and was never found. Her brother was beside himself with grief. I had just lost my husband, Jeff Felshman, to an aortic aneurysm and related to every word the young boy said. I was speechless. I’m thankful my cameraman redirected us both.

My funniest interview was with a judge who wanted to joke at length about farting (this was after he told me about the case of a man who had body parts strewn throughout his house) and my most thoughtful was interviewing Jon Bon Jovi in his home studio (he had just gotten off an interview with Rolling Stone magazine that he hated and told me he would interview with me as long as I didn’t look at my notes. An hour and a half later, when I finally looked at my notes, we talked on a human level and I realized what a sensitive, sensible person he was).

I continue to produce television and hope to post more stories as I move through each production. In addition, I have an extraordinary personal life that takes me to distance places (I’m writing this from Chonburi, Thailand), introduces me to intriguing people and often blows my mind with topics I had no idea even existed. I’m hoping to share those as well.

Thank you for reading and I welcome any questions you have about my posts. Know they are strictly my opinions and anecdotal experiences.