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Sep 2

“True Crime” vs. True Crime

Category: Life,Opinions

So, my tv is pretty much always on, or music’s playing, whatever. I don’t like quiet. If it’s tv, I’m only maybe, thirty-percent paying attention, but it’s there. One of my channels of choice is ID, or as people who frequent my room call it, “the murder channel.” It’s all True Crime shows, female serial killers, American mass murders and so on. I often hear, “How can you watch all these sick murders? It’s all so disturbing!” I just don’t find it so. It’s bad actors doing re-enactments, it’s akin to watching horror movies. I know it’s about real people, factual events, but I can’t help only seeing B-actors wielding fake weapons spilling fake blood. It’s too easy to see it all as grim fiction. It’s almost completely divorced from “True Crime,” though I hadn’t really thought of it so clearly until I read a True Crime book, Green River, Running Red by Ann Rule.

Being into things macabre, I’ve known of Ann Rule forever. Rule was a close friend to a fellow who turned out to be one of America’s most devious serial killers, Ted Bundy. They worked side by side at a suicide prevention hotline, as co-workers and friends. Ted Bundy came across as kind, charismatic, a real charmer. He was good with his callers, people grasping for any tiny foothold in their lives, any reason to keep going. To Ann Rule. Being so close to a perfect killing machine without even the slightest notice, being so absolutely fooled would totally change her life. She’d join law-enforcement. She’d become a foremost expert on serial murder, giving lectures about her personal experiences. She’d also go on to write True Crime books, several books about serial killers, from their beginnings until their ends, about their victims who are all too often forgotten, and about the investigators who often spend years of their lives in pursuit of such monsters. Earlier I used the term “killing machine,” I think, after reading some of Ann Rule’s work, machine is the most apt term for describing a serial killer, it’s a term she uses in Green River, Running Red. They’re machines pretending to be human beings. Any display of kindness, compassion, is just calculated mimicry. They know what kindness looks like, they know that a well orchestrated smile can be just enough to draw a victim in for the kill. They know that fixing bikes for neighborhood kids is the wholesome sort of activity that makes people overlook odd or eccentric or even flat out suspicious behaviors. Serial killers blend in, they evade capture longer than anybody would hope.

Green River, Running Red is a book that was some twenty years in the making, as it’s Ann Rule’s policy to never start a book until the killer is caught AND convicted. In the summer of 1982 she clipped an unfortunate, but seemingly innocuos article from a local newspaper in Kent, Washington, totally unaware that it would be the start of a twenty year-long nightmare, and a book. The clipping was about the body of a young girl found snagged in some pilings under a bridge that crosses the Green River. Three more bodies would be found, again, young girls, two weighted and in the river, one on the bank, near the river’s edge, as if her killer hadn’t had the energy, or more likely, the time to dump her. Four bodies of four girls under the age of twenty found near each other in a short amount of time gave cops that feeling, a really bad feeling that the end of four lives was just the start of something dark that would only grow darker. The cops weren’t wrong, girls would keep disappearing, young prostitutes who worked the SeaTAC Strip, a stretch of road between Seattle and Tacoma, Washington. Between the summer of 1982 and late 1983 girls would continually go missing, sometimes two a night. He would continue to kill, albeit less frequently. He’d come to feel safe, even proud of himself for supposedly outsmarting people who were supposed to be much smarter than him. He thought “they” gave up, and many did, but not the core investigators. The few men and women who were there from the beginning, they never forgot, never gave up. It took twenty-years for science to unlock the truth hidden in the evidence that was collected and preserved for decades, but it happened. This particular killing machine would be dubbed The Green River Killer, though, aside from those first four girls, he’d never use the Green River as a “dump site” again. He’d use lots of dump sites, he’d go on to confess to killing at least 71 victims, but the world will probably never know just how many he really took. He, the Green River Killer, Gary Ridgway, may not even remember himself.

The sick irony is that while Gary Ridgway totally enjoyed killing people, troubled young girls, he himself was terrified of dying. Rather than face a trial that would absolutely end with a conviction that would probably carry the death penalty, Ridgway agreed to life in prison so long as he led detectives to the girls he confessed to killing who remained unfound. After being told of the stacks of physical evidence against him, DNA left on the girls he didn’t hide well enough, he willingly, almost eagerly, confessed to everything.  He didn’t want to be caught, but seeing as that was out, he simply didn’t want to die. He wanted something he didn’t think twice about taking from others.

Now, until I read Green River, Running Red, I didn’t really see how far from True Crime channels like ID really are, how fictional they feel. Reading about each victim’s life, then reading Gary Ridgway’s confessions, his almost gleeful descriptions of killing, I felt… appalled. Disgusted. Disturbed. Scared. I actually felt scared, scared because the girls were surely scared, scared that someone could take pleasure from ending life. The way he so casually described how he would pick a girl up, then let her go safely, knowing that he’d find her again the next night to finish what he started, it was chilling. The girls were scared, being cautious about their “dates.” He liked fooling them, making them trust him, laughing that they felt safe right up until he strangled the life out of them. You don’t realize how vile people like Gary Ridgway are through re-enactments.

I think it’s important to know that true evil exists. It’s not that getting into cars with strangers was safer fifty years ago, it’s that we didn’t have people studying crime patterns, publishing case studies. We need such knowledge, but it’s far less valuable when it’s diluted and sensationalized under the guise of “True Crime” tv. It’s important to know the difference between “True Crime” and True Crime, as the former is more akin to morbid entertainment, while the latter gives us true knowledge. Writers like Ann Rule give us the stories of monsters and those lost to these monsters, so that we might not be lost in the same way. Being wary of that stranger offering a ride just down the block, being wary of meeting someone charming offering a ride on their boat, these don’t mean a loss of innocence. Such innocence never existed. That “innocence” was a lack of awareness. Now we have the tools to be aware, the tools to be safe.

6 comments

6 Comments so far

  1. shipyardJay September 3rd, 2015 10:14 pm

    Hey man. Sorry it took so long to “comment” on this entry. 4 kids under 10 will do that to ya. I’m lucky if I have pants on as I walk out the door in the morning these days. It’s a grind. But I’ll tell ya one thing, my escape these days in no doubt books. True crime being my favorite genre no doubt. I also read and loved Ann Rule’s book on Ridgeway. Crazy huh? I never took that train of thought about how ironic it is that he was scared to die but had no problem putting another human being thru it. And in such a violent, mean, and terrifying way. Geez. I actually just read another book on Ridgeway only like a week ago. It was written by the lead investigator. I forget his name off the top of my head but the book is called “Chasing the Devil.” Very good. Rule’s was better, but this one was pretty good too. I am, and have always been scared shitless of serial killers! I went thru a little phase back in the day(when I wasn’t so good about handling my panic attacks/anxieties)when I scared myself silly posing the question of “why am I so intrigued by this stuff?” I was so terrified that I was going to become one! It’s funny now but at the time, in full panic-attack, not so much. I threw away a couple of books and a TimeLife Magazine special issue on serial murder I had. Please don’t take me for a loony. I was just struggling a lot back then with anxiety related stuff that took my a long time to realize, relax, and grow (almost) out of. Lol. (Sorry about the “lol”).
    So I’ve read about 90% of these dudes and I think that in my opinion, if you were to ask me who scares the day lights out of me picturing them like in my house in the middle of the night and I had to protect my family against, I have to say Dennis R. The BTK killer. The dude did the one thing that makes my hair stand on end. He used to break in when the person wasn’t home and frigin’ WAIT in the closet or whatever for them to go to bed. My God that is horrifying no.?! Plus all those public domain pics he used to take of himself dressed up in the womens clothes he’d murdered. Talk about scary. And I’m FORTY! My 10&8yr old boys will sometimes be scared at night and they think I’m “Superdad!” Of course I’m just as horrified if I hear a noise downstairs! I don’t let them know that tho. I wonder if my Father did the same shit with me? Funny. Alright man, thanx for listening. I’m new to this whole thing. I think this might only be the 2nd time I’ve written, but I’m hoping for more. We’ll see I guess. Take care of yourself man…..until next time. —Jay

  2. Ed Pohl September 5th, 2015 10:32 am

    Michael, great essay. I haven’t read any books by Ann Rule but, judging by the emotional impact her book had on you, she’s obviously very good at her craft.

    Oddly, not long ago a True Crime book was written about a couple I knew ( http://www.amazon.com/Love-Her-Death-William-Phelps/dp/0786035331 ). This wasn’t a serial killer case, though. The killer was a very callous and self-centered guy who had everything a man could ask for in life, but then murdered his wife (and the mother of his four young children), after becoming infatuated with another woman. I sold the married couple a fence that surrounded their back yard (which was the scene of the crime), finishing the installation just 3 weeks before the murder.

    Still, I think that you and Jay, who posted above, need to keep things in perspective. The chances of the average person ever meeting a serial killer, much less falling prey to one, are infinitesimal (especially if you’re not a prostitute or a druggie). Naturally, one should exercise common sense in one’s dealings with strangers, but I think you’ll miss out on a lot of wonderful experiences if you view every stranger as a potential threat.

  3. michael September 5th, 2015 12:48 pm

    Ed: I’m not saying to be paranoid or untrusting, but we know enough today to know that it’s just not smart to put your life in the hands of a total stranger. I mean, sure, just to throw out a number, let’s say that it’s 100 to 1 shot that getting on some dude’s boat will end with you getting tossed overboard alive with cinderblocks tied to your neck. Odds are it’ll never happen… That’s probably exactly what the mom and her two daughters thought when they met Oba Chandler right here in Tampa: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Oba_Chandler#Murder_victims

    There are necessary risks to leading a full life, driving in cars, hopping airplanes… Then the risks where you say to yourself, “If I happen to die doing this thing, that’s cool, I know what I’m getting into, and it’s worth it,” SCUBA diving, white water rafting, climbing Everest.

    Thinking it’s safe enough to do X with someone you don’t know is unwise, we have too much data to think otherwise.

    Also, “average people” are more targeted by serial killers. Even Ridgway killed a few “average people.”

    ALSO, I had a nurse who turned out to be a serial killer, Bobbie Sue Dudley: http://murderpedia.org/female.T/t/terrell-bobbie-sue.htm
    Nothing’s impossible… 😉

    Jay: Most dads TRY to be Super Dad. 😉

  4. Ed Pohl September 6th, 2015 8:41 pm

    Michael, your revelation that your former nurse was a serial killer made me remember something. One of my former employees, a college student who worked for me during his summer breaks, used to travel to New Jersey each year to attend a family event commemorating the life of his cousin. His cousin was the youngest known victim of Charles Cullen, a murderous nurse who, according to Wikipedia, may be the most prolific serial killer in American history.

    Some of Cullen’s victim’s were murdered at a nursing home just a few blocks from where I grew up in Allentown, PA, and in several Allentown area hospitals where my parents, siblings, and many relatives and friends have been in-patients. Maybe the chances of encountering one of these monsters are not so small after all. May God protect us and deliver us from evil.

  5. michael September 7th, 2015 2:05 am

    Ed: See, ANYTHING’s possible.

  6. Donna Muller November 27th, 2015 3:51 pm

    Michael,
    I am very impressed with your blog. Thanks for persuading me to upgrade to El Capitan, which I have been afraid to do. On the topic of True Crime, I completely agree with you. I also have sound going at all times because of buzzsaw-loud tinnitus, so in addition to Netflix and other streaming services and music, podcasts are a big part of what’s in my earbuds. You might enjoy “Criminal” but with a huge bank of episodes to draw from is “True Murder,” during which real True Crime authors are interviewed. It’s available on iTunes but other places as well.

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