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

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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.

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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 http://www.lisa-black.com/

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You can’t make this stuff up

I’m excited to welcome my friend and fellow ITW thriller author Lisa Black back to TKZ today. Lisa is stopping by on her virtual book tour to share some thoughts with us as she promotes her newest novel, TRAIL OF BLOOD. 

imageI am a certified latent print analyst and crime scene investigator for a local police department in Florida. Before that I worked at a coroner’s office in Cleveland Ohio. Moving to the police department—the front lines, as it were—has been quite an education, and this is what I’ve learned: people are strange.

A teenage burglar broke into a house and stole a TV—not a flat screen, an old-fashioned boxy thing—but since she didn’t have wheels, merely staggered up the sidewalk to get her booty home. There might be cities in the US where this would not look suspicious. Cape Coral is not one of them.

clip_image002I was dragged out of bed one night to process a break-in at a local sports bar where the burglar had ignored the cash register to stand on the bar and try to take the flat-screen mounted high on the wall. They always expect those things to just pop off like a picture frame. Anyway, the officers had also found a still half-frozen filet of fish behind the building and wondered if perhaps the guy had decided to pick up something for dinner after striking out with the TV. I went out to photograph it but a local cat had already decided that this particular piece of evidence wasn’t relevant to our investigation. I called out in protest, and the look that cat gave me left me with nightmares. Apparently the only reason I’m still alive is because he didn’t feel like licking the blood off his fur. Again.

Everyone lies. And many times they’re not lying to fool the police; they don’t really care what the police think. They’re lying because they need to come up with a story for their spouse, their parents, their boss. We had a guy who reported a carjacking at gunpoint. He was stopped for a light at one of the busiest intersections in town when a man jumped in with a gun and demanded the car. Instead of running into the McDonald’s, the gas station, the grocery store or any one of the fifty other businesses in the area, he runs twenty blocks to the house he shared with his girlfriend to call the police. The car was quickly located about one block from the intersection, covered with mud and crashed into a fence. The story unraveled shortly from that point: he had decided to go four-wheeling in his girlfriend’s two-wheel-drive four-cylinder sports car and slid the fender into a wall. Need I go into outraged taxpayer mode to point out that the entire police force was out looking for an armed carjacker (a scary crime in this sleepy burg) just because this bonehead didn’t have the guts to ‘fess up to his chick?

We had two 11-year-old girls call the police to say they had seen two men in a van (they’re always driving a van) kidnap their neighbor and classmate from her driveway. Police respond, alert goes out. The girl eventually arrives home…she and her family had been enjoying dinner at Applebees. At the same time we were dealing with a situation in which a mother had shot and killed her young son and then herself, and resources were diverted for two little girls’ flight of fantasy. I hope they were grounded for life.

We had to assist another town’s department by taking a look at the former home of a particular family. The house was still vacant and I accompanied a detective. Apparently there had been a cockroach problem. ‘Problem’ is putting it mildly. ‘Infestation’ would be putting it mildly. They were all dead (otherwise you wouldn’t have gotten me in the place) because someone had laid an inch of boric acid throughout and over every single surface in the place, so every room was this sea of white powder flecked with dead bugs. It looked like an indoor snowstorm of vanilla bean ice cream. If I tried to describe that in a novel, reviewers would say I was trying too hard for the gross-out factor.

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Speaking of gross, once I found a brain in the back seat. The victim had been shot, the body snatchers collected the body, a Cleveland fingerprint analyst was processing the car and all of a sudden he says, “Hey, do you want this brain?” Excuse me, brain? Apparently the gunshot had cleaved off the top of this guy’s head and it landed in the back seat. It sounds really gory but actually it wasn’t. It just sat there looking all pink and convoluted and really quite neat.

I swear I am not making it up!

Have you ever put something outrageous in your book that actually happened, only to have readers think it was hysterical/offensive/ridiculous and completely invented?

trailofblood_16 Lisa Black spent the five happiest years of her life in a morgue, working as a forensic scientist in the trace evidence lab until her husband dragged her to southwest Florida. Now she toils as a certified latent print analyst and CSI at the local police department by day and writes forensic suspense by night. Her fifth book, TRAIL OF BLOOD, involves the real-life Torso Killer, who terrorized Cleveland during the dark days of the Great Depression. For more information visit her website: www.lisa-black.com.

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The Coolest Place in the World. Seriously.

There is no longer an excuse for writer’s block, at least as far as inspiration is concerned. I found the remedy during a recent trip to Baton Rouge, Louisiana, when I walked into Pexcho’s American Dime Museum. Pexcho’s is tucked into a dark corner of the all-but-deserted Broadmoor Center Shopping Center on Florida Boulevard, a couple of blocks east of Airline Highway. If you need to have your polite view of the universe counterbalanced by the heady weight of dark reality, Pexcho’s is the place to go.

P. T. Barnum opened the first dime museum in 1841 as an entertainment and education center for the working class. Admission, by amazing coincidence, was a dime. The concept became extreme popular over the next several decades, with such establishments featuring bizarre exhibits, freak shows, magicians, and performers. Pexcho’s American Dime Museum is the last existing such establishment in the world. A great deal of its inventory was acquired from the gone, but not forgotten, Baltimore Dime Museum which closed in 2007.

So what is Pexcho’s American Dime Museum? The coolest place in the world, nothing more or less. When I toured the establishment, late on a Sunday evening in August, Proprietor Peter Excho was happily inking a tattoo in a parlor designed for such matters in the rear of the museum. Caila, Peter’s charming wife, expertly balanced an infant while showing me around the museum, which resembles nothing less than the home of your Uncle Indiana Jones. Two red velvet chairs which once sat proudly in a house of prostitution owned by former Louisiana Governor Huey Long sit quietly next to an aquarium which houses what is known as a “Pac-Man toad,” which flattens itself into a disc until dinner, in the form of a baby rat arrives. Indigenous to the South American rain forest, this little fellow has a mouth full of inverted teeth which makes it impossible for prey to escape its grasp. And yes, it will latch on to bare feet. Another aquarium houses a Florida Snapper Turtle, which, according to my host and hostess du jour, is used by body search teams in south Florida to locate waterlogged cadavers, since it regards decayed flesh as a delicacy. A clear plastic toy gun is safely and securely ensconced within a glass case.
This item was briefly marketed as a candy dispenser. The candy pellets were placed into the toy gun, and the user then put the barrel into their mouth and pulled the trigger. A shiver went down my back. And, against a far wall, a display devoted to the French entertainer Le Petomane and which includes vials which are reputed to contain sealed samples of his gaseous products. Verification was neither offered nor requested.

There are many, many more objects, loving displayed and wonderfully disarrayed. Peter, who spoke excitedly about forthcoming new exhibits while a young man reclined in a chair and watched his pectorals being pricked and inked with a stoic indifference, is awaiting the arrival of Abraham Lincoln’s last bowel movement, preserved from a chamber pot in Ford’s Theatre on that fateful night almost one hundred fifty years ago. That alone would be worth the return trip to Baton Rouge. You can visit online at www.pexchos.com , but you need to see the place in person to believe it. And when you get there, ask Caila to tell you the story behind the carving of the weeping pregnant woman. It is one of the saddest stories you will ever hear.

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On a personal note: I am not the photographer in our family as should be obvious by the pictures which accompany this installment. My wife Lisa is, and her talent is surpassed only by that of my alternate blogmate John Ramsey Miller. Lisa’s work recently graced the cover of Westerville Magazine and some of her award-winning photos can be seen at the magazine’s website at http://www.columbuscityscene.org/capturing_life039s_moments.html
As you scroll down, the pictures beginning with the dragonfly (which was the September/October cover for the magazine) through the girl reading with the statue (featuring our daughter Annalisa) are hers.

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What I am reading: TRAIL OF BLOOD by Lisa Black. A grisly discovery puts police forensic scientist Theresa MacLean in the middle of one of Cleveland’s oldest and most bizarre unsolved mysteries. You don’t want to be between me and the pages of this book until I finish it. Honestly.

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Forensic Files

I’m proud to welcome my friend and fellow ITW thriller author Lisa Black to TKZ today. Lisa claims to have spent the happiest five years of her life in a morgue. Strange, perhaps, but true. In her job as a forensic scientist 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 works as a latent print examiner and crime scene analyst for a police department in Florida. EVIDENCE OF MURDER is her fourth published thriller.

evidence-murder I do not make a habit of taking my plots from real-live cases—it always sounded like a good way to get sued to me—but the germ of an idea for Evidence of Murder did come from a case I worked with the coroner’s office in Cleveland, Ohio. A woman who worked as an escort—quite legitimately, through an agency that could be looked up in the phone book—disappeared from the face of the earth after one final date.  She had a steady live-in boyfriend and an eight year old daughter. The story stuck in my mind for two reasons.

black-lisa

One, escorting (if that’s what it’s called) seemed like an odd way to make a living—at least to me, having been married long enough that spending every night with a different man sounds like an agonizing amount of work. Certain readers may be disappointed, but very little of the book refers to the victim’s job. For the most part it is mentioned only to point out that every person she encountered wrote her off as a brainless bimbo, including—at first—my main character, Theresa MacLean.

Two, it was one of those cases where the cops were positive they knew whodunit, but could not prove it. One huge disservice that the television shows do to the field of forensics is to insist that you can always find more evidence if you just look harder. Yeah, right. That’s like saying doctors could cure cancer if they really tried and obese people would be thin if they’d only eat less. Sometimes a clue (or a cure, or a solution) simply isn’t there. Sometimes cool things are there but may not be clues. I have a mental list of my real-life cool clues that never went anywhere. In one high-profile case where a mother of three was abducted from the parking lot of the local mall and later found assaulted and shot to death in her own van, I kept finding rabbit hairs dyed a brilliant cherry red. The family had only just bought the van and gave me every set of hairs, every coat, every piece of clothing they thought might have been in it. I asked the detectives to keep an eye out for some fun fur trim or a lucky rabbit’s foot (though those had fallen out of style by 1996). It never turned up. By the time we caught the killers, a year had passed. No red rabbit fur. Another time I was examining the raincoat of a murdered prostitute under ultraviolet light, looking for semen or fluorescing fibers. At one spot on this plastic raincoat a pattern leapt up—a crystal-clear design of stylized daisies, something that would have been popular during my childhood in the late 60’s or early 70’s. Obviously the raincoat had been up against something with fluorescent properties and, for some obscure chemical reasons I couldn’t begin to guess, transferred to the vinyl. In regular light, the pattern became invisible. I described it to the detectives but again, no bells rung. In forensics, contrary to what you see on TV, you have to make your peace with not knowing everything.

Sometimes clues are there but can’t tell you enough. Finding the hair of the victim in, say, the trunk of the suspect’s car might be very incriminating—if he says he never met the woman, it might be enough to convict him. If he happens to live with the woman, it means exactly nothing, since her hair is likely to be all over the apartment and easily transferred to items he might put in the trunk. Or she might have dropped it there while leaning over to take out the groceries. Or it might have fallen out when he transported her body to the dump site. There’s no way to tell. So I wanted to explore what happens when every physical clue Theresa finds simply leads her to a brick wall instead of some helpful revelation.

Do you use problems in your character’s workplace to further the plot, and how? After all, when your character’s profession relates to their process of detection, it’s more interesting when the day job doesn’t go as planned.

Visit Lisa Black on the web at http://www.lisa-black.com/

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