By Elaine Viets
Several years ago, when I was chosen for jury duty in St. Louis, we were asked if we’d ever had any connection to a murder: did we have a friend or relative who was a murder victim? Did we know someone who was convicted of murder?
I was astonished at how many people raised their hand – almost two-thirds of that massive jury room. Those who raised their hands seemed to be so-called solid citizens – well-dressed men and women, old and young, black and white. The last people you’d think would be involved with violent crime.
Including the grandmotherly woman next to me, who’d brought her knitting. She told me her brother was murdered. He was a kindhearted man who gave a co-worker a ride home on a dark, rainy night. The colleague’s husband shot and killed him. He was convinced his innocent wife was having an affair.
Murder seems to touch us all. When I thought about it, I realized I’d watched a murderer grow up in my city neighborhood. We lived on a shady street with big, old redbrick houses. One house, halfway down the block, was known as “the trouble house.” The police were there two or three times a week. The neighbors often called the cops on the boy, who I’ll call Billy, because that’s not his name. Billy broke windows, supposedly stole things out of yards, and may have tortured a stray cat.
The neighbors would call the cops, who would show up at the house and talk to Billy’s mother. Billy’s father was long gone. Soon after the complaint, there would be a fire in a trash can at the home of the person who complained – or a mysteriously broken garage window. After awhile, the neighbors quit complaining, but many lived in fear of the trouble house.
Then one morning, Billy was in the newspaper. He 18, and arrested for murdering a man in the neighborhood park. Supposedly, the man was gay and paid Billy for sex. Billy stabbed him to death.
Shortly after that, Billy’s mother sold the house to pay for her son’s legal bills, and moved away. Billy went to jail for murder.
In 2020, some 17,754 people were murdered in the USA. More than 40 people are murdered every day in the US. That statistic led to a jury room full of raised hands, and lives filled with sorrow and regret.
As mystery writers, we deal with murder professionally. But how many of us have dealt with murder personally? Tell us your story.
Late for His Own Funeral “ is a fascinating exploration of sex workers, high society, and the ways in which they feed off of one another.” — Kings River Life. Buy it here: https://www.amazon.com/Funeral-Angela-Richman-Investigator-mystery-ebook/dp/B09SM41TVJ
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Years ago, our next-door neighbors were a drug dealer and flight attendant. He was caught, convicted, and sent to Lompoc for several blissful years (that’s another story). After he got out, a friend of his arrived and lived with them for a couple of months. “Edgar” seemed rough around the edges but was friendly when we met on the sidewalk as I walked our dog while he walked the neighbors’ Irish Setter (appropriately named “Kilo”).
One day, Edgar disappeared never to be seen again. Later, we learned from another neighbor who was a lawyer that Edgar had been arrested after he attacked and tried to kill a woman. Turned out Edgar had been a longtime prisoner on California’s death row for murder but had been freed after the death penalty was overturned.
Brrr. That’s a novel, Debbie.
Years ago, someone took a hit out on me. A terrifying experience that I’d rather not relive. Long story short, I had a chance to the turn the tables and chose not to, and I’ve never regretted that decision. I will say, however, when you are faced with a life-or-death decision, it’s important to stay true to your inherent character (3rd dimension, if we’re speaking craft) and not let anger or fear fuel revenge.
Holy ****, Sue! That’s crazy! I’d say that’s a novel, too (like Debbie’s) but I wager it’s not one you’d care to fictionalize.
You’re right, Cyn. I wouldn’t. Maybe once he’s dead I’ll share the story. Never say never, right?
Definitely a scary story, Sue. I’d like to hear the long version of this.
I might be more apt to share it if the guy was in jail or dead. He’s not.
That makes your story even worse, Sue.
I’ve been fortunate in that the closest I’ve personally come to murder was avoiding being killed by a drunk driver in 2003. It was at night and I was returning home from visiting family when an old Ford Caravan blew through a side street stop and onto the highway I was driving on. I slammed on my brakes. Time appeared to slow and my car struck the side of the van. That stopped my 2000 Civic cold, but the huge van continued, knocking over a street light, smashing through a fence, being stopped only by a tree.
My car was totaled and I suffered a fracture in my right hand from the airbag going off. But if I hadn’t braked right when I did, there’s a very good chance the van would have struck my car on the driver’s side and I wouldn’t be here.
Fortunately, I am still alive and kicking and grateful for every day.
The van driver passed out after impacting the street lamp, having a blood alcohol level twice the legal limit (initial test indicated even higher amounts).
So glad you were quick-witted enough to slam on the brakes, Dale.
Dale, I’m glad you’re “still alive and kicking.” That was one of my father’s favorite phrases.
Years ago I was in a Phoenix law office with my business partner, setting up a corporation for a new consulting firm. As we waited for some task to complete, an office worker came in with news that our chief competitor had just been shot dead by a computer programmer employee over a payroll dispute. It was in the news because the victim was the nephew of a famous movie actor. We were all shaken by the event.
Fast forward a few weeks, and I got a call. The man forthrightly identified himself as the shootist, said he was out on bail and awaiting trial. He asked if I could hire him until he went up for murder. I told him I couldn’t put our other employees at risk of reputation or association. He said he understood, but he had to try, and that was that.
I was never in any danger myself, but it was the subject of dark jokes for years afterward. “They shoot vice presidents, you know. Ha-ha.”
Probably a story in there, but not one I care to repeat.
I have had multiple experiences with murder…which seems crazy to say. I’ll share the one where we sold our home and some land to a couple when we moved to another place on the opposite side of town. A few months later he came to our office and brought us the piece of the doorframe where we had marked our kids heights as they were growing up. He said they were remodeling and thought we’d like to have it. It was such a sweet and unexpected thing for him to do. Then about a year later he killed a man over a disputed car title…which not a sweet thing to do. It just confirms for us as writers that people really are complicated. And few are either all good or all bad.
Good point, Lori. We need to make our characters multi-dimensional.
You handled that well, Dan. Thanks for stopping by.
Sorry to be so late to comment, Elaine. I couldn’t get on earlier.
The closest encounter with murder, for me, was losing a patient when I was in residency in Columbus. I returned from a weekend off to discover that one of my patients in the ICU had disappeared. Early in the morning on Saturday or Sunday, the patient’s son had entered the room and shot his father. It got my attention and made me think about the danger of dealing with angry family members.
That is frightening, Steve.
I’m fortunate that I don’t have any family, friends, or neighbors who’ve been involved in a murder.
I’m interested, though, in whether you served on that jury, Elaine. Has anyone else served on the jury in a murder trial?
Yes, I served on the Warren trial in Torrance, CA. Warren claimed that, during an altercation, the victim grabbed a knife from the kitchen counter and tried to stab him. He got control of the knife and stabbed her 13 times, killing her. The flaky defense lawyer claimed Warren, a vet, had “Complex PTSD” and she attacked the State’s expert witness’s credentials because his CV listed no graduate PhD courses. He explained that the Psychology PhD had no set courses, just practicums assigned by an advisor.
“It’s not like law school,” he said, “assuming you went to law school.” The court exploded in laughter. I looked at the prosecutor; he was looking right at me and trying not to laugh. And failing.
Fortunately, I was Juror No. 14 and didn’t take part in deliberations. No. 13 and I played chess in the waiting room, instead. Mr. Warren is serving a 23 year sentence.
Glad he went to jail. Thanks for a fascinating story.
I didn’t serve on that jury, Kay, but I did serve on one for a robbery. It resulted in a hung jury.
We, too, had a “trouble house,” complete with alcoholic mother and sociopathic son, who put ant paste in his little sister’s Rice Crispies, set fires to construction, was expelled from kindergarten, and killed cats. I’ll spare you the rest.
I believe we each have a Guardienne, an autonomous entity in our brain that takes over in emergencies. Alcohol is a poison and triggers the Guardienne if enough is ingested. Once triggered, it has no conscience, which could interfere with its operation. “Dr. Jekyll & Mr. Hyde” was based on an actual person. Some people inherit a large Guardienne and should not drink. No surprise that they seem like another person when drunk or provoked. More on Researchgate.
The “trouble house” in our neighborhood was four doors to the east. We never walked in that direction without considerable thought and rarely spoke to the mother, except to complain about her son. One Christmas time, just after my father died, the mother came and talked to our mom for over an hour. Mom never said a word of what they talked about. I suspect she was making amends.
That is a very scary family.
The daughter got married long after we’d moved away. Her husband died about a month later. We never heard the details. There were worse devils on our block, believe it or not.
A 34 year old woman was murdered in her home by a 19 year old male. The victim lived across a busy street from the boarding stable where we kept our horse. When we saw the crime scene tape around the house, we asked the stable owner what happened. At 8:30am, in the middle of rush hour with thousands of cars streaming by, the killer tried to con his way into the victim’s home. When that failed, he pushed inside and stabbed and shot the victim. The stable owner’s wife heard the shots. She was close friends with the victim. He husband phoned the police. By the time they arrived, the killer was gone. The victim was still alive. She died a few hours later at the hospital. A police dog tracked the killer the couple blocks to his house where he was arrested with the victim’s blood still on him.
What really struck me was the impact this had on the stable owner and his wife. His wife refused to leave the property for a week. When she finally made a store trip on her own, she got caught in traffic and didn’t arrive back until after dark. She was so terrified that she screamed as she ran from the car to the house door. They immediately bought a professionally trained guard dog and had a contractor install security lights everywhere. These folks were born and raised on their property, and they’d raised their children there, too. We moved our horse soon after and never saw them again. I always wondered whether they ended up selling the place and whether the wife ever recovered. I’m sure that if I were to serve on the jury of a murder trial, I would be thinking about the horrible consequences that go far beyond the original victim and punish accordingly.
Sounds like there were many collateral victims to this murder, KS.
Police Dogs are amazing!
My mother testified against a man who murdered his girl friend on the street below us. One of the deputies* told my mother to buy a gun.
* possibly Det. Sgt. Ray Hopkinson, the head of the Sheriff’s homicide squad.
Brrr. When the police tell you to get a gun, you know it’s dangerous. Kudos to your mom for her courage.
It strikes me that these personal stories sound so chilling! And yet none of them are anything different than what most of us write about. That difference is intriguing.
I wish I could say I’ve never been touched by this, but, no.
A close cousin was shot dead by her estranged husband, who then shot himself. Left a toddler without parents.
A college acquaintance living in the same city as myself and my spouse murdered both of his roommates one night. He attempted to maintain correspondence with several of us after his incarceration but our subsequent moves to different cities and even states cut that short. It unsettles me to think that his thirty-year sentence should be nearly done by now.
It’s one thing to read about murder — or create an imaginary one, Cyn. But real life has emotions and dangers we have trouble imagining.
The closest I have to a story is my oldest brother. He was the Head Chef at a successful restaurant in Guatemala. A friend alerted him that another restaurant owned by the Cartel had a hit on him, so he left immediately for the States. This was when he was a young man. He is now 70 years old and living in Colombia South America.
Figures I am a day late.
Best friend murdered in July, 1979. I have largely worked out the revenge. Largely.
Cook working for me in my pre-pizza days murdered three people over a cab fare.
Two customers murdered in the 30 or less for their pizza to arrive. Two different addresses.
Man killed his wife for the insurance money. I never told the new owners of the house why it was $50,000 cheaper than anything else in the subdivision.
Two men killed their sister’s husband. THAT ended the wife beating.
Estranged husband killed his wife and her friend in front of her children. They were on their way to a fish fry. Closed a major street in the delivery area most of the night. Husband then died in a traffic chase.
Oldest child has 12 high school classmates who have died from violence. Class of 2020.
A classmate of the youngest child committed suicide on their 18th birthday. Another classmate was killed the same day. That was last week.
What a sad and terrible account, Alan. Especially your oldest child who had 12 high school classmates who died from violence.