As a writer of true crime, it’s all about the research. It doesn’t matter if I’m writing a book or a three thousand word article it’s always about the official record. It begins and ends with the record. Of course, if you’re lucky, you’ll have living witnesses to interview, but even here everything gets filtered through the record. Not that the official record is infallible, mind you, because it’s not. But the better you know the case, the easier it is to spot the common mistakes humans make as they’re recording events that will become the permanent record. And, of course, once you have said record, the “memory” of that record never fades. And long after all participants are gone, the record is all one will have to seek out additional truths, or perhaps, confirm or refute “evidence” discovered at a later date.
What exactly is the official record, you might be asking? The official record is the entire written record of a case, containing police reports, autopsy reports, witness statements, maps, photographs, diagrams, and just about anything pertaining to the victims, their killers, and of course, if there’s been a trial, the court transcripts. Depending on the case, however, there could be relatively little paperwork to go through, but for many of the high profile murders, the case evidence may fill an entire room: a daunting task to tackle for any true crime writer, to be sure, but well worth it in the end.
And very often, in the midst of this voluminous material, out will pop a box labeled real evidence. Whenever this happens, I always lean back in my chair and take a deep breath, as I know I’ll be seeing objects directly connected to the homicide, and for me, it’s like a mini trip into the past. And unlike the reams of paperwork which makes up the bulk of any murder case, real evidence always has a different feel to it, and it’s not for the squeamish or the easily disturbed.
In the case of the real evidence I viewed while researching my book, Vampire: The Richard Chase Murders, it was far more than even I expected to see. As I opened this particular box (number 13 of 14 boxes total), I could see it contained items of real evidence. Some of this evidence was rather routine as in the .22 caliber brass shell casings found in the street in front of the Ambrose Griffin residence (Chase killed Griffin in a drive-by shooting). And then the not so routine, as in the mangled bullet removed from Ambrose Griffin’s body during his autopsy; just a tiny piece of lead really, but it took away all of his tomorrows and produced an incalculable grief for the family. I remember how odd it felt holding that small bullet in my hand, and what an impact it had on me a little later as I wrote the chapter on Mr. Griffin’s demise.
There were other oddities, of course, as in the yogurt cup Chase used to drink human blood at the scene of the Teresa Wallin murder; and the wallet of James Meredith, who was killed because he was simply in the wrong place at the wrong time. There was also the box of .22 shells, taken from Chase after his arrest. Surprisingly, it looked almost new, yet it’s been in police storage for (at the time) almost thirty-four years.
But perhaps the most unnerving item of the lot was discovered in a small bag. It was another mangled bullet, but this time with dark female hair intertwined with it. The bullet, of course, had entered the head of this unfortunate at a high velocity, impacted the hair first, and both the projectile and the hair entered the victim’s skull and was retrieved at autopsy. Shaking my own head, I quickly placed it back in the box, feeling a bit of repulsion just handling it. Indeed, I almost felt like an intruder, peering into something not meant for any eyes beyond the autopsy room.
As you might suspect, I’ve seen many things during my years writing true crime, including crime scene pictures too horrific to ever be released to the public. I even wrote my book, The Bundy Murders: A Comprehensive History, because I had Ted Bundy’s murder kit in my possession for a time. But viewing this particular artifact left me wishing I’d missed it.
I know, it’s just a human emotion, and one we true crime writers should jettison the moment we experience it, but that’s the way it is sometimes handling real evidence.