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What people ask me....

I just finished filling in some upcoming events on my calendar, and I've been doing phone-in discussions with book clubs. It's a lot of fun for me and, I believe, for the club members. I get to hear their theories on the true crime cases I cover and the plots and characters in my mysteries; the readers ask questions and hear the stories behind the books. So it's a win-win situation, at least from my perspective.

Over the years, I've found that when I talk to groups there are some questions that nearly always get asked. One is: What's it like to interview someone who's committed a brutal murder?

Well, I've been doing that for a very long time. I started out visiting prisons when I worked for magazines in the Eighties and Nineties. In fact, I have a Rolling Stone article out on Kindle right now called Blues & Bad Blood. The cost is a whopping $0.99. At 6,000 words, it's always been one of my favorite magazine pieces. I think it's the mix of music and murder that makes the case so fascinating.

When I worked on that particular case, I traveled Texas over a period of two weeks interviewing four men convicted of two horrible murders,that of Texas folksinger John Vandiver and his girlfriend, Debbie Davis.

Now, it was a rough couple of weeks, that I'll admit. First, the prisons were spread out and in small towns, long drives. Second, it's unnerving walking into a prison. You have to leave all your possessions in a locker before entering the prison proper, even car keys. All I can bring in for the interviews is a tape-recorder, tapes, pens and a pad of paper. But what really gets to me is the sound of those steel doors clamping shut behind me. I know that at the end of the interview, I'll walk out, but it's still unnerving.

Sometimes the inmates are behind thick glass, other times just across the table. Their moods vary. I remember interviewing Cecil Covington, one of the killers in the Vandiver case, and watching him jump about on his chair behind the glass. He looked hopped up on something, I have no idea what, but I have no doubt that his nerves weren't just fueled by adrenaline.

The others involved in Vandiver's and Davis's murders were considerably calmer, but it was tough listening to them describe in detail how they took the lives of two basically good human beings.

Sometimes the killers are repentant, saying they've come to understand the harm they've done. Other times, they continue to blame the victim. I can't tell you how many times I've heard: "Well, if he/she hadn't provoked me...."

There are, of course, innocent people in prisons. So I do keep that in mind. But in this case, all four of the men I interviewed readily admitted taking part in Davis's and Vandiver's murders, describing in detail what they thought and felt as they pulled the trigger and slashed with a Samurai sword.

There were many times when I felt repulsed, but I couldn't show it or risk that they'd stop talking. There were so many times I wanted to ask, How could you have done that? At the end I did, but none of them could explain. They all blamed it on the drugs and on Tom Mathes, the ringleader. They smiled, and I looked into the eyes of these men and wondered what Davis and Vandiver saw as their lives ended.

After the interviews, I came home and wrote the piece, transferring all they'd told me onto the pages. When the article ran in March of 1988, I remember feeling a sense of relief. I'd delved inside the minds of four men who'd committed horrible crimes, and I was glad that it was over.
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