Black Widow

Today I welcome back to TKZ my friend and fellow ITW member, Lisa Black. Lisa has one of the most unique day jobs, especially for a suspense writer. As she likes to describe it, she spent the five happiest years of her life in a morgue. She was a forensic scientist in the Cleveland coroner’s office where she analyzed gunshot residue on hands and clothing, hairs, fibers, paint, glass, DNA, blood and many other forms of trace evidence, as well as crime scenes. Now she’s a certified latent print examiner and CSI for the Cape Coral Police Department in Florida. Her books have been translated into six languages and one reached the New York Times mass market bestseller’s list.

I asked Lisa if any of her experience developed into a story and she related one of her first published works to me. She wouldn’t tell me where it was published, only that it was in one of those “sleazy true detective magazines” back in the day. Enjoy!
Joe Moore


Yet another case of a mild-mannered, suburban murdering mom

I wanted to write true crime before I even got into forensics. But since only the military had an internet back then, I had to find stories to Lisa-photo-smallwrite about the old-fashioned way, via the library and newspaper indexes and microfilm and this wonderful window at the Justice Center where they had to give you copies of the basic dispositions of court cases (public record, after all). And one of the first stories I chose was the mundane yet chilling tale of Terri Sramek.

One summer night Terri called the Middleburg Heights police to tell them that she had returned from church to find her husband, William Sramek, gone. There were no signs of disturbance and nothing missing from the house. She went on all four local channels to plead for information. A MHPD detective happened to catch the news and immediately sensed that something was off about Terri Sramek. She just didn’t add up.

The case had indeed been assigned to him, and he promptly received a call from an FBI agent who knew nothing about William Sramek but a lot about Terri. The detective tried to follow his monologue: In Billings, Montana, Terri worked as an executive secretary for an insurance company which handled, among other things, the Miss Montana beauty pageant. Funds turned up missing. Terri and her boss invented a robbery and then even a new ledger, except for the wrong year. She pled multiple personality disorder but couldn’t fool the court and got 10 years, while telling one boyfriend she was actually in LA attending flight attendant school.

After her release she went right back to work—her type of work—for a Salt Lake law firm and met William Sramek. When the firm discovered $65K missing the couple moved to Cleveland. Terri found a job with a financial services firm…which then, somehow, lost $40K.

The FBI caught up with her on behalf of Utah, and she promptly went into the hospital with heart palpitations, though her doctor failed to back her up. But she was also pregnant, so Utah delayed enforcement of their warrant.

Now the Middleburg Heights detective found that Terri had been trying to sell William’s coins and responding to other men’s personal ads.

That didn’t sound good.

Exactly a week after he was reported missing, a police SWAT team searched the city surrounding the Sramek home. Rangers, the law enforcement body of the Cleveland Metropark system, searched the park areas on foot and on horseback.

The hunt lasted all day. They found nothing.

But Terri Sramek was arrested again, for not informing the probation authorities of her arrests. She didn’t know it yet, but she had just enjoyed her last day of freedom for a long, long time.

Salt Lake City reinstated the charges.

Then, in the middle of August, a birdwatcher pursued a bundle of plumage into some tall grass and found a decomposing body. The skull had lost almost all its flesh and had bullet holes in its base and forehead.

Terri’s lawyer, accompanied by the victim’s family’s private investigator, went to see her in jail.

For reasons known only to herself, Terri Sramek told the two men that she had indeed shot her husband. When William suggested they go for a walk in the park, she slipped a new .38-caliber automatic into her purse, next to a bottle of baby formula. They strolled through the pretty parks and argued about money. Then, with their baby strapped to her chest, Terri shot her husband in the head and face and left him to the elements.

The baby did not cry, Terri insisted—an unusual reaction for an infant—and Terri set off to dispose of the murder weapon.

The PI told the MHPD about this confession and they told the Rangers. Their turf, their murder.

The ranger looked at Terri Sramek and felt no sympathy for someone who could put her kid in a baby carrier and then kill the little girl’s father, leaving him where he lay so that weeks later the cops would have to spoon through his bodily fluids just to recover his teeth. The ice in her veins reminded him of the movie Black Widow, in which the character played by Theresa Russell researched and wooed rich men in order to kill them, carefully covering her tracks each time. She mates, then she kills.

In an interview the Montana detective also mentioned the movie, though it hadn’t even been made when he knew her.

In jail, tearfully, hesitantly, delicately, Terri Sramek promised to cooperate. She told them that she had thrown the gun in the water while walking along the lake shoreline somewhere around Huron.

But meanwhile, yet another suburb’s PD conducted a diver training exercise. They began at a beach but weather conditions were so ideal that they moved to the Rocky River, where what looked like a human hand startled one of the divers. It turned out to be a rubber glove containing a .38 caliber revolver. Zebra mussels, the scourge of the Great Lakes, had not yet attached themselves to its surface. They sent out a “gun found” teletype, which neither MHPD nor the Rangers received, but the head diver had read about the Ranger’s search for a gun in the paper; he told a Cleveland homicide cop who happened to be a friend of the ranger. Almost simultaneously both men called the ranger. The dive team then found more bullets, and Ohio BCI recovered the scraped-off serial number. It led to a gun store and a receipt made out to Terri Sramek.

Huron, incidentally, sits on Lake Erie about fifty miles to the west of the rivers of Rocky River. Even her confession came out half lies.

Terri skated on the embezzlement charges, cut her losses and pled, getting fifteen years to life.

She is still in jail.

When we invent villains for our books, we usually make them ingeniously clever, meticulous planners. They cross every t, dot every i, are voraciously ruthless. But the scariest killers are the real ones, the ones who aren’t criminal masterminds but making it up as they go along, the ones who have jobs and children and do dishes. The ones who seem as ordinary as white bread and yet feel entitled to take what isn’t theirs—including someone else’s life.

They’re the really scary ones.


Lisa Black’s latest thriller is CLOSE TO THE BONE, a story that hits forensic scientist Theresa MacLean where it hurts, bringing death and destruction to the one place where she should feel the most safe—the medical examiner’s office in Cleveland, Ohio, where close to the bone 1she has worked for the past fifteen years of her life. Theresa returns in the wee hours after working a routine crime scene, only to find the body of one of her deskmen slowly cooling with the word “Confess” written in his blood. His partner is missing and presumed guilty, but Theresa isn’t so sure. The body count begins to rise but for once these victims aren’t strangers—they are Theresa’s friends and colleagues, and everyone in the building, herself included, has a place on the hit list. Visit

Have Gun? Won’t Travel.

Films and TV shows have been getting grittier and more nuanced in the last decade. Even superhero films like The Dark Knight have taken the plunge. Campiness is over. We want to feel like what we’re watching could really happen. However, in many of these stories, there are plot holes both minor and major that are glossed over by viewers and critics alike. I understand what a challenge it can be to balance the realism with storytelling momentum. The question is, when does it reaching the breaking point?

I don’t have a problem with unlikely events or million-to-one chance occurrences. Those can actually happen. Just look at Captain Sullenberger’s miracle landing on the Hudson. I’m talking about more mundane and prosaic details that don’t fit in the real world as we understand it. As an author I spend a lot of time thinking how important it is to maintain realism in thrillers.

Adhering to realism may be less a problem if you’re writing a mystery or police procedural. I don’t think Michael Connelly has any trouble keeping the story elements close to what detectives actually do for their jobs. But I write big adventures with huge action set pieces and world-threatening stakes. I strive to keep my plots in the realm of plausibility, though the combination of events would be extremely unlikely. To me, that’s what makes a story worth telling: a scenario that would almost never happen.

Yet I still want to believe the story—that if these people were thrust into this situation, it might actually turn out the way the story is told. That’s true whether I’m the creator or consumer of the tale. It should feel real.

Realism for its own sake, however, can be super boring. Shows like CSI, NCIS, and Castle would take forever if the police had to wait for DNA testing to come back in the amount of time it takes in the real world (months) instead of TV time (hours). On TV, captains get impatient if it takes more than two days to bring in the killer, but in the real world it can take weeks or months to gather enough evidence to make an arrest, if they ever do. And the DNA evidence on TV is always exact and decisive, to the point that actual prosecutors now have to routinely remind juries that such evidence is rarely definitive. Many viewers don’t understand that we simply accept these unrealistic accelerated timetables so that we can get to the good parts of the story.

The blockbuster action-adventure movies seem to get away with bigger plot hand-waving. You won’t find a bigger James Bond fan than I am, but I’m perplexed that for fifty years Bond has flown around the world with his trusty Walther PPK pistol. How? It’s never explained why he can breeze through airport security carrying a loaded weapon in his luggage. Is it plastic? Does he have diplomatic immunity? Does he pay off the TSA agents? Never mind that he’s a member of the British Secret Service who tells just about everyone he meets what his real name is. The real secret is how he isn’t nabbed by authorities the minute he gets off the plane.

In The Dark Knight,the Joker stuffs two ferries with hundreds of drums of explosives. When did he find time for that? How did the crew overlook them? And how does the Joker roam around Gotham City with that hideous makeup on and no one ever notices him?

In Mission: Impossible—Ghost Protocol, Tom Cruise’s Ethan Hunt finds a large cache of weapons and technology in a railcar outside of Moscow. Every law enforcement agency on the planet is looking for him and his team for blowing up the Kremlin, yet he shows up in Dubai a day later with the full load of guns and ammo in a hotel suite. The audience is just expected to accept that Hunt has a way to smuggle all of that contraband thousands of miles while on the run from the authorities.

I wonder whether novels are held to a higher standard than other media when it comes to suspension of disbelief. I don’t think a novelist could get away with those kinds of plot holes without being called on them by readers. I think the difference is in how the media are consumed. When you’re watching a movie, it doesn’t give you time to think about the plot holes until it’s finished, and by then you’ve already formed your opinion about whether or not you liked it. But it takes six to ten hours or more to read a book, sometimes over the course of weeks. The reader has plenty of time to think about potential plot holes, and if they’re glaring they may even make the reader put the book down for good. On the other hand, a movie has to be pretty bad for me to stop watching halfway through (I’m looking at you, Batman and Robin).

The acceptance of plot holes may also have to do with how we use our imaginations in the different media. With TV and movies, the visuals and sounds are supplied for you in a constant stream, and we accept them as the reality of the story. However, with novels we generate all of the sights, sounds, smells, and tastes in our minds. Creating all of them from scratch requires effort on our part, and if they don’t fit into the logic of the story, it becomes much more noticeable. Would Raiders of the Lost Ark have been able to convince readers that Indiana Jones rode on top of a submarine for two days to that island where the Ark was taken if it were a book? In the movie we see a diving montage and a map sequence showing a 500-mile trip, but due to selective editing Indy is ready to beat up Nazis as soon as they come into port—starvation, thirst, and hypothermia be damned (not to mention holding his breath for two days).

Without those quick cuts in a novel, readers would have the time and imagination to realize Indy isn’t Aquaman. That’s why I put plenty of thought into potential plot holes. I may not eliminate all of them, but I try to make them as tiny as possible. The process takes up a good chunk of my writing time, and my beta readers still bring many to my attention. So if you’re a writer, I highly recommend that you have a few people read through your book as a logic consultant. You may be surprised at how many plot holes they find that you thought you’d plugged.

CSI vs. The Reality

by Michelle Gagnon

I had lunch recently with a friend in the DA’s office, who was bemoaning the “CSI Effect” on a case she was prosecuting. For those unfamiliar with the term, it refers to how the popularity of shows like CSI have caused jurors to expect high tech evidence to be presented in every case. And absent that evidence, there’s a tendency to assume that the police didn’t do their job.

Which, of course, isn’t necessarily the case. DNA evidence, even when it is collected, faces a huge processing backlog. Plus, there’s the simple cost/benefit analysis. All of those fancy tests are expensive, so law enforcement needs to pick and choose which cases merit that kind of expense. And sadly, with most, they just can’t afford to put that fancy equipment (most of which is several generations behind what you see on TV) to use.

Here’s a personal example. A few years ago, my father’s car was stolen. The police came, took the report…and somewhat miraculously, found the car (an old Volvo station wagon, on its last legs) abandoned in a bad section of town. When my dad picked the car up, he noticed a discarded cigarette box in the rear passenger footwell. Being an aficionado of crime shows, he knew exactly what to do. Carefully using a pair of tweezers, he picked up the box, placed it in a baggie, and trotted down to the station with his evidence.

“What do you expect us to do with this?” The duty cop asked.

“Dust it for prints,” my dad said.

“But you got the car back, right?”

“Sure, but don’t you think maybe it might have been used in a another crime? It’s not an expensive car, they probably used it to haul something…from a burglary, maybe.” (On a side note, clearly the apple didn’t fall far from the tree. When he told me this story, I immediately envisaged all sorts of terrible crimes being committed with the help of Bessie the Volvo).

“Yeah, maybe,” the cop said. “Hand it over.”

On his way out the door, my dad turned back and saw the cop toss it in the trash can.

Now, I’m not bashing law enforcement here. It’s likely that the local department simply didn’t have the resources to pursue the case. I watched a show last week where an entire unit spent weeks trying to solve the disappearance of a prostitute in a major city, using all sorts of high tech toys to assist them in their search. And that rarely happens. While researching BONEYARD, I stumbled across the term, “the Missing Missing.” When certain people- prostitutes, runaways, illegal immigrants- fall off the grid, the cases are rarely pursued. But if a twenty year-old honors student vanishes, chances are it will be a constant news loop for at least a few days. In reality law enforcement resources aren’t always applied equally or fairly- there isn’t enough money invested for it to be. So if you’re serving on a jury for a burglary, chances are you won’t see 3-D renditions of the crime scene and a slew of DNA evidence entered against the defendant. Luckily, as my cops friends always say, most criminals are stupid. They’re caught literally holding a smoking gun in their hands.

My favorite example from the local crime blotter this week. Mind you, I didn’t insert the “duh,” that was a nice touch by the SFPD:

On July 15th at 5:20 pm, The Plainclothes Team was patrolling in the
area of 3rd and Quesada when they came upon a group of subjects walking
down the street. The cops recognized some of the members of the group as
active members of a local violent street gang. One of the subjects
recognized the officers as well and alerted his associates. They
immediately split up into smaller clusters. One of the groups ducked
down behind the parked cars at the curb and continued to walk in this
crouched manner to avoid detection. Duh, they were unable to avoid
detection and were stopped. There was a good reason for all the
crouching and hiding nonsense. The officers located a loaded .9mm
handgun, along with a full box of ammunition, that was tossed by one of
the subjects into a driveway. This incident resulted in the arrest of
three individuals on gun and gang charges.

Chalk up another win, thanks to good old fashioned police work, no high tech toys required.

Can you really be desensitized to violence?

by Michelle Gagnon

During the Left Coast Crime Conference a few weeks ago, I attended, “Forensic Science Day.” We were images-5.jpgpromised that the “California Forensic Science Institute (CFSI) and the Crime Lab Project (CLP) would provide expert speakers and programming.”

And let me tell you, they weren’t kidding.

The eight hour event included a tour of the Hertzberg-Davis Forensic Science Center on the CSU Los Angeles campus, a lab which serves the LAPD and the LA Sheriff’s Department.

It kicked off with Don Johnson (not the one of Miami Vice fame-although he was wearing a pastel shirt) from the school of Criminal Justice and Criminalistics walking us through a quadruple homicide as it was initially encountered by the CSI team. Which meant dozens of photos of the victims as they were found, in addition to the trail of carnage through their house which gave you an extremely clear picture of the attack and how it proceeded. It wasn’t pleasant.

Now, I watch a lot of procedural shows on television-not CSI, because frankly I think it’s just silly. But the Law and Order franchise, The Closer, Southland, and in the past The Wire and The Shield. I’m no stranger to graphic depictions of violence. And what we were seeing was still photos, not video. images-4.jpg

Yet what really struck me was how when it comes down to it, there is a difference between a fictionalized vs. a real crime scene. I had expected to be somewhat desensitized, but somehow knowing that what we were seeing had really happened, that these were real victims who weren’t going to get up and walk away, made it almost too much to stomach. It didn’t help that two of the victims were an elderly disabled woman and a four year-old girl. During their close-ups, I almost had to leave the room.

images-3.jpgIn the course of researching serial killers a few years ago, I experienced something similar. It doesn’t matter how many times you’ve sat through “Silence of the Lambs,” or movies of that ilk. When I read about some of the things that serial killers had actually done to their victims, it was a gut punch. Some of the stories were so horrible it took weeks to get them out of my head. There were things I encountered that honestly I wish I’d never seen- and those of you who have read my books know that I don’t shy away from violent crime. So it surprised me to have such a strong reaction.

Since Columbine there’s been a lot of discussion regarding whether the violence on TV, in movies, and in video games has desensitized kids to a point where they’re more liable to commit violence in real life. I himages-2.jpgave to wonder, based on my reaction to that quadruple homicide scene. Is it true that for some people, the line between truth and fiction has become blurred? Or would a kid hooked on Grand Theft Auto have the same reaction I did to images from a real crime scene? I suspect that for the most part, they would. What do you think?

On a side note, the rest of the day was very cool. A trace evidence specialist led us through the Phil images-1.jpg Spector case (which, oddly enough, wasn’t nearly as disturbing. But then, what happened to Lana Clarkson wasn’t as terrible as what was done to that little girl). We also had a fantastic presentation from a “Questioned Documents” examiner who explained exactly how easy it is to forge a signature, and what to do to combat that (sign your name over itself 2-3 times) and we toured the labs, including the rooms that hold stainless steel water tanks where guns are fired to match ballistics from crime scenes. Very cool. More information on the lab and the Crime Lab project is available here.

Ten Stupid Things Cops in Books Do

Robin Burcell .2008.Today The Kill Zone is thrilled to host Robin Burcell, despite the fact that her credentials make some of us feel horribly inferior in comparison. For more than two decades Robin has worked in law enforcement as a police officer, detective, hostage negotiator, and FBI-trained forensic artist. As if that wasn’t enough, she’s won an Anthony Award for her Kate Gillespie series. We especially appreciate her post since it addresses cliches that can be terribly vexing for crime fiction fans. One lucky commentor will receive a signed edition of her latest book. Read on to find out more…

Let’s say you’re writing a book (or perhaps reading one) and you want to verify that the cop stuff is correct. Where do you turn for accurate info?

The secret is… watch CSI

Just kidding. The real secret is to ply me or any other current or ex cop at mystery conventions with alcoholic FaceofaKiller mm c beverages, then remind us of whatever promises we made in our drunken state to answer questions you might have on your work in progress. But what’s a writer to do if they can’t get to those conventions and bribe us with free drinks? I thought I’d compose a Top Ten Stupid Cop Things in books to help you guide your way until you can meet us in the bar.

10. Getting the jargon/slang wrong for a particular department or part of the country. It’s more than the age-old discussion on perps versus suspects. I’m talking the everyday lingo. It’s the difference that tells me which generation of cop is talking. Saturday Night Live could have done a whole skit on some of the double entendres of this stuff. Typical phrase heard on the radio: "Put your unit at the back door." For years I resisted, instead calling my or anyone else’s "unit" by the more recognizable name of "patrol car." We won’t even go into the whole "back door" thing. And I also resisted calling the detective bureau the "dick squad." I don’t think I was the only generational upstart who started reshaping the language in a department.

9. Really dumb radio transmissions no cop would ever make. Short transmissions are a must. In real life, if you have a long transmission, you “break," for any emergencies that might arise while you’re hogging the mike. So if your characters are busy saying anything longer than one or two short sentences on the radio, have them pick up the phone instead. Radio transmissions vary by region. Some talk in "ten" code, some in "nine,” and many are moving to "plain English," because who the helllpd car remembers the damn codes when the $#!+ hits the fan?

8. Not knowing the elements of the crime, or what constitutes a crime. A cop looks up, sees a young lady falling to the ground, sees a man running away, and thinks: Purse snatch, a felony. He and his partner jump out, chase after the suspect. One problem. No one saw the crime. They assumed. At least have your cops stop and ask the victim before they get in a foot chase, tackle the suspect and cuff him for a crime they think he committed–because when those officers get to court, the defense is going to rip them apart.

7. The clichéd loner, alcoholic cop with the rumpled raincoat, whose wife and kids were murdered by the serial killer while he was out eating donuts. Wcoffee-bagelshy doesn’t this scenario work? Because the whole donut eating thing is so passé. Let’s pause for history. Donut shops were the only thing open on graveyard shifts where the coffee could be found. That cliché would never work in California. There’s a Starbucks on every corner, and a bagel shop two doors down. And who buys their bagels from Starbucks, when you can get really good ones from Noah’s

6. Having cops hired/fired on a whim. Unless a cop resigns on his own, it’s almost an act of congress to hire or fire one. But an even bigger pet peeve is the shoddy hiring background investigations I’ve seen in some really Big Name novels. Backgrounds that allowed, say, the FBI to hire someone who had an arsonist serial killer for a father, but the father’s guilt (and the suspect’s identity) are questionable, and so we should be surprised when our agent turns out to be the real killer. And if they do pass the background, are you saying these arsonist/serial killers are going to pass the psych? There’s a reason why it takes months to complete the background investigation. It almost takes that long just to fill out the background application, which is longer than the average book contract.

5. Evil or stupid police supervisors. Repeat after me: Only some of the bosses are evil or stupid (and no, they didn’t all work for my department). There are actually some pretty decent supervisors still out there. The standing joke is that to get promoted to Sergeant, you have to first have a lobotomy. To make it to Lieutenant and Captain, you have to have your spine removed. True in all cases? No. But some…

4. The hated, despised Internal Affairs cop, who is usually evil or stupid. See # 7 above (which is not to say that if you’re the one being investigated, you don’t tend to think of the IA cops that way, but that’s a different story).

3. Dirty cops planting phony evidence in that overdone bad cop cliché manner. If you’re going to write this, do it better than anyone else. One of the best scenes I saw in a movie was where a dirty cop was seen committing a crime on a surveillance video which was booked into evidence and was going to nail him. The dirty cop set up a “window smash” of a business—with a highly magnetic device used to shatter the window. It in turn was booked into evidence right next to the surveillance tape, which it then demagnetized and was rendered useless. Such a scenario would be difficult to accomplish in this digital age, but back then it was way cool.

howdunit_lofland2. Stupid blunders at crime scenes. Being aware of what can contaminate a crime scene takes more than simply watching the latest episode of CSI. Just knowing the basics can help, everything from keeping a crime scene log to what constitutes trace evidence and cross-contamination. Keep this in mind next time your sleuth picks up a phone at the scene of the murder, tromping across a carpet, leaving fiber evidence.

And the top ten pet peeve, in my opinion?

1. Bad officer safety. This is equal to the sleuth investigating a noise outside, when she knows the killer is lurking around somewhere. Cop-wise, I’m talking things like cops showing up at a suspect’s house without backup. These guys are assigned partners for a reason. Safety is one of them, but so, too, is having a second set of eyes and ears for investigative purposes, as well as for testifying later in court. I hate it when writers shove the TSTL syndrome (too stupid to live) on their characters to foster an exciting climax.

So, aside from the age-old "safety on a Glock", what are your stupid cop (or amateur sleuth) pet peeves in books?

Robin Burcell, a veteran cop of twenty-something years, dutifully avoids all the above pet peeves in her latest novel, FACE OF A KILLER, about an FBI forensic artist. You can verify this fact by reading the first chapter on her website