Unsolved Crime: Dalton Mesarchik

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Sixteen years ago, Dalton Mesarchik waited on his front porch in Streator, Illinois, for a church van to pick him up for Bible school. The church van never arrived, and seven year old Dalton never came home.

The next day, Dalton’s body was found floating in the Vermilion River, less than three miles from his home.

When Dalton’s sister left that evening, Dalton was still waiting on the porch. When she returned, she asked, “Where’s Dalton?” Their mother contacted church officials, only to discover that the van had not made its usual rounds that night–their normal driver was gone due to an illness in the family. Dalton had not been picked up for Bible school.

K-9 units indicated that someone picked up Dalton that night. But who?

Early the next morning, people went out searching neighborhood after neighborhood. There were no sightings until a fisherman found Dalton’s body in the Vermilion River. He notified police immediately, and upon investigation, they determined it was a homicide. Shortly after the body’s discovery, the murder weapon was found: a Benchtop Pro three-pound hammer.

Dalton’s immediate family members were cleared, as was the fisherman who discovered the body. Church members were cleared, even the 30-some registered sex offenders in the town were cleared.

Local police, state police, and the county sheriff’s office were stymied. The state police even set up a headquarters at Streator’s National Guard Armory. Who would want to kill a seven year old boy–and why?

For a few years, Dalton’s mother said that police were getting closer to making an arrest and that they knew who the killer was. However, no arrests have ever been made nor any pronouncements of who the killer was.

Unsolved Crime: Robert Bee

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When kids run away from home, they often return shortly after: they realize that it’s not as fun on their own. However, when a child has a great deal of freedom, few rules, and a questionable home life, returning may not be a huge deal.
Such was the case with 13 year old Robert Bee.
One warm November day in 2016, Bee ran away from home–allegedly to avoid a truancy officer. Running away was not unusual for him (nor was avoiding the truancy officer), but this time, Bee did not return home.
In fact, he didn’t return home a week later or a month later. Instead, his remains were found eight months later, already decomposed after a long winter, already disturbed by animals in the rural area his bones were found.
So what happened to Robert Bee? We still don’t know.
Bee, from the small town of Pekin in central Illinois, had some behavioral issues. His mom readily admitted that she may have been too lax with him, allowing him too much freedom for his age. Others in the community said that while he was high energy, he was a kind-hearted boy.
When he went missing, multiple stories cropped up. Did he spend the night at a friend’s house? If so, why didn’t he take his bike? Why didn’t he take his cell phone? Both were left at home, and it didn’t appear he took any clothing to run away for an extended amount of time, either.
Of course, the first place the police must look is within the home, and that’s where the case became muddied. Lisa Bee, Robert’s mother, was not exactly mother of the year. Her social media alone made that clear. She was also involved with a man who was violent–and against whom she took out an order of protection a month before Bee’s disappearance. Then, not even a month after her son went missing, she moved out of her home and to a town about an hour south.
While Bee’s extended family was prominent in the search for the boy, his mother was noticeably absent. Multiple state agencies searched for him as well as a missing-persons search group, but no one had any luck.
About eight months after Bee went missing, his remains were found two miles from his home. By remains, I mean just that. The elements had helped decomposition along as well as animals roaming the wooded area where he was found.
The remains elicited no further leads on the case, aside from this: the property on which his remains were found belonged to a woman who lives nearby. She is related to someone “who is involved in the investigation,” according to Pekin police detective Seth Ranney.
Over two years later, the case remains unsolved and no one has been charged with any crime.

“Anomalies” Hits the Press

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Read my latest short story, “Anomalies,” in the inaugural issue of Black Works, an online journal by Underwood Press. “Anomalies” is the most recent installment of my series re-imagining H. H. Holmes’ childhood. If you like it, check out the others!

“Downright Devilish”

“Diabolical”

“Fiendish”

True Crime: Aileen Wuornos

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Fifth in a series on serial killers!

I have to admit, watching Charlize Theron play Aileen Wuornos in the movie Monster made me feel a strange sympathy for the serial killer. I felt something similar after reading about Henry Lee Lucas too. Maybe it’s a teacher’s job hazard to always see the hurt, traumatized child in the adult, for, as Dr. Phil would say, I don’t ask why Wuornos and Lucas killed, I ask why wouldn’t they, given their formative years? Wuornos was convicted of killing seven men between 1988 and 1989 at point-blank range. She claimed self-defense: the men she killed either attempted to rape her or did rape her while she was working as a prostitute.

A few snippets from Wuornos’ early life:

  • Her mom was 14 when she married her dad, who was 16. They had a boy a year later, and then Aileen, a year after that.
  • Her mom, aged 16, filed for divorce when Aileen was barely 2 months old.
  • She never met her father, as he was jailed when she was born and committed suicide in prison.
  • Her father was diagnosed with schizophrenia and charged with sex crimes against children.
  • Her mother abandoned Aileen and her brother when Aileen was just 4. Their maternal grandparents took them in.
  • Her grandfather was an alcoholic who beat and sexually abused Aileen. He made her take her clothes off before a beating.
  • She engaged in sexual behavior with her brother.
  • By age 11, she was performing sexual acts at school in exchange for food, drugs, and cigarettes. Age 11. Age 11!
  • At 14, she became pregnant and gave the child up for adoption. The father? One of her grandfather’s friends.
  • Shortly after the birth of the child, her grandmother died and Aileen dropped out of school.
  • At 15, her grandfather kicked her out of the house. She began prostituting and living in the woods.

Mix together and bake for 20 years. What would we expect from her?

Wuornos appealed her conviction, but stopped all attempts in 2001, saying, “I killed those men…robbed them as cold as ice. And I’d do it again, too.”

Well, then. At least she’s honest. She continued:

“I have hate crawling through my system…I am so sick of hearing this ‘she’s crazy’ stuff. I’ve been evaluated so many times. I’m competent, sane, and…one who seriously hates human life.”

Can you blame her, considering what her first fifteen years of life were like?

She was found sane, but over the course of the next year, became increasingly erratic in her behavior. She was executed in 2002. Her last words were “I would just like to say I’m sailing with the rock, and I’ll be back, like Independence Day, with Jesus. June 6, like the movie. Big mothership and all, I’ll be back. I’ll be back.”

I’m no psychiatrist, but that would make me question her sanity.

Why is it that some people can be exposed to horrific early-life trauma and come out on the other side, but others, like Wuornos and Lucas, can not? Let me know your thoughts after you read up on Ed Gein, Henry Lee Lucas, Belle Gunness, and Robert Hansen.

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True Crime: Belle Gunness

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Third in a series on serial killers! Did you miss number one on Ed Gein? How about number two on Henry Lee Lucas?

It used to surprise me that serial killers existed in the 1800s. H. H. Holmes, for example, shocked me with his continual insurance fraud. Apparently, it was all the rage. One of his contemporaries in Chicago, Belle Gunness, also discovered the lucrative business of insurance fraud, and used it repeatedly–on her husbands and even her own children. Read on, and you, too, will start thinking that Holmes and Gunness would have made a perfect pair.

In the 1800s, Norwegian immigrant Belle found her way to the Windy City. In 1893 (the year of the World’s Fair in Chicago), she and her husband, Mads Sorenson, opened a candy store. It would seem as though Belle and Mads had a run of bad luck, with a business and their home burning down and two children dying. It was luck, alright, devised by Belle to cash in on insurance policies. Yes, conventional wisdom says she administered strychnine to her own children.

Later on, Mads died. Surely the fact that he died on the day two insurance policies overlapped was mere coincidence. Surely.

Now a woman of some means, Belle took her remaining children to the small town of LaPorte, Indiana. There, she bought a 42 acre farm. Part of it burned down. I don’t need to tell you it was insured…

By 1902, she found a new beau, Peter Gunness. Gunness, who had two children already, sent one to live with relatives after the other mysteriously died in Belle’s care. It wasn’t long before Peter, too, was dead. There was some concern that Peter showed signs of strychnine poisoning, but the doctor ruled it heart failure.

Belle’s life was like that of Shakespeare’s Macbeth: her greed overtook her ambition. Rather than being content with the cash she already had, she continued on her murder-for-money spree. Now, however, she unknowingly borrowed from H. H. Holmes’ playbook: set up potential lovers. Belle’s version was to get men to “buy” shares of her farm. Once she had the money, the men disappeared. Rumor has it she burned them, buried them, and fed them to her pigs. Handy, those hog farms.

Belle’s fast-track train came to an end in 1908. A relative of one of her “investors” was suspicious and told Belle he was going to come check things out. Soon, the entire farm burned down. In it, Belle’s remaining three children perished, as did Belle.

Or so it seemed.

The missing man’s relative insisted they do a complete search. Eleven bodies were discovered on the farm property. The adult female body discovered in the fire? It likely wasn’t Belle.

Her farmhand, Ray Lamphere, was a prime suspect for arson and murder–that is, until he confessed that she faked her death. The woman’s body in the fire did not match up to Belle’s size.

Twenty years later, in 1931, a woman named Esther Carlson in California was tried for poisoning a man. In her possessions were photographs of children–children who looked very similar to Belle’s.

We know very little about Belle’s childhood. She grew up in a very poor town in Norway, but as to what trauma may have caused her willingness to kill, we’re left to our own devices to make suppositions. Or, perhaps worse, there was no trauma. Perhaps she, like Holmes, was likely born that way.

True Crime: Henry Lee Lucas

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Second in a series on serial killers! Did you miss number one on Ed Gein? Click here!

Henry Lee Lucas is often billed as the most prolific serial killer in the United States, but there is a reason he’s also known as the “Confession Killer.” Investigators have little doubt he killed, but they do doubt he was the prolific killer the media made him out to be. They also don’t doubt that Lucas contributed to that media frenzy.

Henry Lee Lucas killed for the first time at either 14 or 15 years old. His victim was a girl who fought back while he was trying to rape her–he says. For the next several years, he was in and out of prison on burglary charges. He then killed his own mother in an argument. Later, Lucas confessed to killing Becky Powell, a girl who had been his lover (allegedly consensual, but she was barely a teenager when they met). While people were still looking for Becky Powell, Lucas convinced another woman, Kate Rich, to help him search, and he killed her too. Both of the bodies were found with his help, so we know these two, coupled with his mother, are the three deaths we can attribute with certainty to Lucas.

However, to make things more difficult, Henry Lee Lucas hung out with, worked with, and lived with another killer, Ottis Toole (the uncle of Becky Powell). Whether or not they were in on these deeds together is unknown. Both confessed to numerous murders alone and together. (I’m not going to go into some of the things that Lucas did–just like with Ed Gein, if you really want to know, Google him, but don’t say I didn’t warn you.)

A television program interviewed Lucas years after he was imprisoned and retracted his confessions. He said that all of the media attention was “like being a movie star…they make you out that you’re the worst serial killer in the history of the United States, and that’s what I did.” Did Lucas confess simply for the attention and adoration (yes, adoration) he received?

Potentially.

The nature versus nurture argument is never more significant than when discussing mentally disturbed and traumatized individuals, and Henry Lee Lucas is a stellar example. He grew up with an alcoholic father who couldn’t work and made moonshine instead. They lived in a one room cabin with no heat and no running water. His mother, also an alcoholic, prostituted herself and made a young Henry watch, and at least one older sibling forced him into an incestuous relationship. His mother also made him dress up as a girl and send him to school with his hair curled.

But that was just the beginning.

While Lucas had to endure abuse from his father, his mother was much, much worse. He was beaten so badly on the head that he was comatose for three days. He also had an injured eye that went untreated. It became infected and had to be removed. His mother shot and killed a mule that an uncle gave to Lucas, and, once, when he accepted a teddy bear from a teacher at school, he was beaten for it upon his return home. All of this while Lucas was still in grade school.

That fight he got in with his mother before he killed her? It was because she was demanding he return home (as an adult) to care for her in her old age.

Given what kind of life he had as a child, I’m not surprised at all he became a killer, but he did recognize he had an issue. In fact, he even said this: “I have tried to get help for so long and no one will believe me. I have killed for the past ten years and no one will believe me. I cannot go on doing this. I also killed the only girl I ever loved.”

To suffer the physical, mental, and sexual abuse he did as a young child, well, that’s going to impact brain development. But why would he confess to crimes he didn’t commit? For once in his life, he was getting attention. Attention that didn’t hurt him physically or sexually. Attention that came while he was in a warm environment with adequate clothing, food, and water. Attention that meant he could travel from state to state with police to show him where he may have disposed of bodies, eating cheeseburgers and drinking milkshakes along the way. In short, Henry Lee Lucas’ life in prison was a thousand times better than it was on the outside.

Want to learn more about Henry Lee Lucas? Take a look at The Confessions of Henry Lee Lucas by Mike Cox and Henry Lee Lucas: The Shocking True Story of America’s Most Notorious Serial Killer by J. Norris.

Stay tuned for part three in the series: Belle Gunness.

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True Crime: Ed Gein

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First in a series about serial killers!

Stranger than fiction: there are definitely some true crime stories that are just so outlandish they’re barely believable. Such is the story of Ed Gein.

A student taught me all about Ed Gein after the culmination of American Horror Story. We were talking about H. H. Holmes’ portrayal as Mr. March in the Hotel series, and he said, “kind of like Ed Gein and Psycho.” 

“Like who?” I asked.

“Ed Gein.” He stared at me expectantly.

“Who?” I asked again.

“You don’t know who Ed Gein is?”

Nope. Sure didn’t. (Just one of many examples where my students teach me.)

Ed Gein, born in the early 1900s, lived in Plainfield, Wisconsin, and is the basis for Psycho’s Norman Bates. Norman, eerily brought back to life as of late by Freddie Highmore in Bates Motelhad a, shall we say, fixation, on his mother, just like Gein. When she died, Gein began robbing the graves of women who he thought resembled his mother. He created seat covers from their skin and bowls from their skulls–and those are not the most gruesome items he kept or manufactured. (Google if you are so inclined, but don’t say I didn’t warn you.) He committed numerous crimes before he was caught. He was found guilty of murdering Bernice Worden and was sentenced to life in a mental institution. Gein was also the “inspiration” behind Leatherface from Texas Chainsaw Massacre, Dr. Thredson from American Horror Story, and Buffalo Bill from The Silence of the Lambs.

My morbid fascination with serial killers is not because of the death and destruction, but the why behind it all. I fully acknowledge that some people are just born damaged. For some, no matter what interventions took place, they would be the psycho- or sociopaths they are. However, the psychology of the early years, the imprint caregivers have on an infant, the indelible marks parents leave on children, those have always been of never-ending interest to me.

Ed Gein, well, I believe he falls into the latter category. Raised on a remote farm by an alcoholic father who was a poor provider, and indoctrinated by a mother who taught him all women were evil and prostitutes (and punished him when he tried to make friends), Ed Gein’s upbringing was a perfect storm of isolationism and conditioning with a dash of mommy and daddy issues.

Want to learn more about Ed Gein? Take a look at Harold Schlecter’s book Deviant and Paul Anthony Woods’ Psycho!

Stay tuned for part two in the series: Henry Lee Lucas.

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Top Five Things This Writer Is Thankful For

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‘Tis the season for giving thanks, and here are my top five things (in no particular order) that I’m thankful for this November–related to writing, of course!

Bloggers and twitter followers

Without the continued chatter among bloggers and tweeters, where would we writers be? Writing can be so isolating, and for those of us who live out in the middle of nowhere, that isolation is amplified. I love connecting with others this way when in-person meetings aren’t possible.

Sisters in Crime and Mystery Writers of America

I spent last weekend in Chicago to attend functions put on by Sisters in Crime (the Chicagoland chapter) and Mystery Writers of America (the Midwest chapter). It was my first experience in-person with both groups, and the camaraderie was something to behold. Members are at various stages in the writing journey, from just starting out to published authors many times over. The best part? The genuine friendliness and willingness to help each other out. I walked away from both events feeling encouraged and revived.

NaNoWriMo regional group

I’ve long complained about the lack of formal writing groups in my area–I’m three hours from Chicago–but I joined up with our regional NaNoWriMo group, and wow. Just wow. They are some really cool people whose goals are as varied as are our genres. Writing is such a solitary endeavor, and it’s so nice to be in the company of like-minded people who help me remember to keep writing!

NaNoWriMo student group

This year, I started an after-school NaNoWriMo group for students at the high school where I teach. We had a Harry Potter-themed kick-off party and regular write-ins, and though it’s caused me to miss a lot of my “grown-up” regional write-ins, it’s a good trade-off. Seeing my students confer with one another about what the next best plot point is and sharing their work with their peers (and even me!) makes me smile. My favorite moment thus far was when it was pitch black save for the battery-operated candles hanging from the ceiling a la Hogwarts, and all you could hear was the clicking of keys. Every single one of us was engrossed in our own writing, yet we were doing it all together. Magical.

Early readers

Our school’s librarian was an English teacher in the early days of her career. She has become a good friend to me, personally and professionally. When I gathered the courage to tell her I was thinking of writing, she showered me with encouragement. She was an early reader for everything I wrote, and when The Devil Inside Me became more than a notion, she beta-read, discovering plot points and typos, offering suggestions and honest criticism. Without her enthusiasm, I doubt I would have ever finished the novel, let alone submitted it to agents and publishers.

What are you thankful for?

 

The Devil Inside Me–snippet #3

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When I asked a few weeks back what YOU would like to see on this blog, some kind souls requested more from my work-in-progress, The Devil Inside Me. Allow me to introduce you to one of my favorite suspects, Elyse Baxter. Enjoy!


    “And your name?” Davis, lost in thought, had barely looked up when the next person walked up to him.

    “Elyse Baxter.”

    He looked more closely once the silky voice hit his ears and saw a young woman with long, dark chestnut hair and fair skin, devoid of make-up, sitting down across from him. In Davis’ mind, she didn’t need the make-up. She didn’t need much of anything.

    “And Ms. Baxter, what is it you do at the museum?”

    “I’m a preparator. I’m the preparator for the Holmes’ exhibit.” Davis raised his head again when Ms. Baxter emphasized her “the.”

    “What does that entail?”

    “I handle and prepare all manner of artifacts for our exhibits. I coordinate with others to ensure proper and timely installation of our exhibits. And I was the lead preparator and project manager for this exhibit.”

    “So you’re responsible for this display?”

    “This exhibit,” she corrected. “Yes.”

    “Uh huh.” Davis made a few scratches on his notepad. The preparator smoothed her knee-length skirt and uncrossed, then re-crossed, her legs.

    “How long have you been working here?”

    “I’ve been with the museum for three years now. Prior to that I worked at the Boston Museum of Science.”

    “Are you from Boston?”

    “Not too far from it.”

    Davis looked up from his notes, waiting for her to explain. She didn’t.

    “Where?”

    “Pennsylvania.”

    Again, Davis paused, scratching at his two day scruff, allowing for further detail. She said nothing.

    “Can you be more specific?”

    Elyse Baxter sighed. “Philadelphia.”

    “So you’re responsible for this display–how so? Start to finish?”

    “While it is unusual, yes–I was responsible for the design and implementation for this–exhibit–from start to finish. I presented my concept drawing to Mr. Panetti two years ago, before the television hype and the movie deal. He sat on it for a year until he realized there was more than just a cult following.”

    “There’s a movie deal?”

    “Yes. Leonardo DiCaprio will be playing H. H. Holmes?” she asked with the same incredulity of Chapman.

    Davis continued scratching down notes.

    “So then what? He agreed?”

    “Yes. I had two other designers who worked with me to build the concept model, and–” She waved her hand with a flourish. “This is the result.”

    “And when did you last see the disp–exhibit?”

    “About thirty minutes ago, when the docent explained what was going on.”

    “Where were you prior to that?”

    “I was working in our creative space–it’s on the lower level, where my office is.”

    “And prior to that, when was the last time you saw the exhibit?”

    “This morning, at 6am. I was giving everything one more look.”

    “One more look?”

    “Today was the opening day for this exhibit. Surely you heard it advertised, Detective. It’s on the side of eight CTA buses. This is a central piece to our museum, to Chicago.”

    He nodded. She continued.

    “It’s also our first PG-13 rated exhibit. That generated even more of an interest from the public.”

    “So you were giving everything a once-over before it opened up?”

    “Yes. I was responsible for its execution, so I had to ensure everything was perfect.”

    Interesting choice of words, thought Davis.

    “I don’t mean to be cold and unfeeling, Detective, but do you have any idea how long this…scene…will keep my exhibit closed? So many people were looking forward to it.”

The Murderous Mystery Tour…

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The Murderous Mystery Tour is coming to take you away… (My apologies to Paul and John. I couldn’t help myself.)

If you’re simultaneously creeped out and fascinated by the likes of H.H. Holmes, take a trip to Chicago for two well-done tours of the good, er, bad doctor’s stomping grounds.

Weird Chicago’s bus tour takes you “on a journey back in time to not only the places where Holmes sought out and dispatched his victims, but also to take a look at the remnants of the spectacular fair” of 1893. I went on this tour in the summer of 2017, and it was phenomenal–and one of the reasons I began writing The Devil Inside Me. The tour guide was super animated and knowledgeable about all things Holmes. At the time I’m writing this, tickets are $35. Weird Chicago has other tours as well, including the Roaring 20s Speakeasy Tour (21 and up only!) and the Blood, Guns, and Valentine’s Tour.

Adam Selzer, author of H.H. Holmes: The True History of the White City Devil, runs a walking tour in the Windy City. Selzer’s tour differs from Weird Chicago’s in that he focuses on the not-so-known locations that Holmes would have visited. I took this tour in the fall of 2017, and it too was phenomenal. Selzer is not theatrical as the other tour’s guide was; rather, he provides the details of Holmes’ life that often get lost in the legend–and he distinguishes fact from the fiction that history tends to create. Tickets are currently $20 (for his other tours as well). Selzer runs the Mysterious Chicago podcast and website, and he was a consulting producer on the History channel’s series about Holmes, American Ripper.

If you’re in the Windy City, you don’t want to miss these tours. Let me know what your experiences are!