|Oct/Nov 2007 Reviews & Interviews|
Anyone addicted to CSI owes it to themselves to read Strangler. --Dennis McDougal
A nonpracticing lawyer and computer geek as well as an author, Texas native Corey Mitchell has written five true-crime books. His latest, Strangler, was released September 4. Fellow true-crime author Sam Adams interviewed him recently via email.
SA You're a lawyer by education, a musician manager by inclination and a true-crime writer by trade. Do I have that about right?
CM You forgot full-time father of a 21-month-old daughter. While it's true I have a law degree and have run my own record label and artist management company, I am finally doing what I truly love to do which is write books and be a dad. My undergraduate degree from the University of Texas was in Radio-TV-Film and I had a focus on entertainment law and criminal law in law school. Writing true crime books combines everything I learned in college and law school. I have not, however, ever had the desire to practice law.
SA Why aren't you in a courtroom somewhere representing murderers instead of writing about them?
CM I would have never worked defense. I entertained the possibility of prosecution but the pay sucks and the politics are too important. I much prefer to work on my own and hopefully help people through my books rather than in a courtroom. Plus, as much as I loved arguing during mock trials in law school it always tore up my stomach due to stress. Of course, seeing the size of my private law school debt, I think my wife might want me to become a lawyer in the future.
SA I can see the obvious connection between law school and true-crime writing, but where does music management come in?
CM It's not all that different. Now, instead of having to count on musicians to be reliable for my success, I have to rely on myself. I much prefer having myself as a client. It's still very similar: I make my own deals, negotiate my contracts, research subjects for book proposals, research, write, promote, organize book tours, publicity, conduct interviews, deal with finances, stay on top of people, it never ends.
SA How did you jump from that to writing about serial killers?
CM The music business is not that much different from writing about murder. People get stabbed in the back, display multiple personalities, and will eat your mother just to get ahead in both areas.
SA Your first book was Hollywood Death Scenes, wasn't it? And that wasn't about serial killers at all?
CM Actually, there is an entire chapter on the subject wherein I wrote about some of the most notorious L.A.-based serial killers such as Randy Kraft, William Bonin, Patrick Kearney, Harvey Glatman, Douglas Clark, Carol Bundy, Robert Diaz Jr., Gerald Parker, Efren Saldivar, and Brandon Tholmer. It also has two separate chapters for Richard Ramirez AKA "The Night Stalker" and Angelo Buono and Kenneth Bianchi AKA "The Hillside Stranglers." I include addresses for all of the crime scenes and key locations for each of the cases so you can visit them firsthand if you so desire. There have actually been tours set up based on the book.
SA What made you decide to write it?
CM When I moved to L.A. in 1997 to expand my music business career, the first thing I did was take my own death scene tour of the "Helter Skelter" crime scenes. I had always been fascinated by Vincent Bugliosi and Curt Gentry's book on the case. When I saw the crime scenes for the first time, in full-blown color (unlike the black-and-white photos from the book), it brought a totally different perspective of the case for me. I could not envision how Manson, "Tex" Watson, and their followers could be inspired to kill in such a gorgeous environment. Fancy homes, beautiful mountainside hideaways, close access to the beach. None of this wealth was fully conveyed in the book so it was fascinating to see these places in person. One thing led to another and the next thing you know I had collected hundreds of crime scene addresses, I got sick of babysitting musicians, and I decided I was going to write a book on famous Hollywood crimes. The original incarnation of the book was entitled L.A. Murder Maps. The funny thing is I actually had a verbal agreement with Thomas Brothers Maps, the big L.A. guidebook that everyone uses to get around, to include their maps in my book. It wasn't until a new regime took over at their company that someone wised up and realized they might not want to be associated with a book about Hollywood murders!
SA That book was written when?
CM I wrote Hollywood Death Scenes in late 2000/early 2001. It was released on September 18, 2001. Not the best time for a book about visiting scenes of death. Actually, the book was not hurt by 9/11, just a shady publishing house.
SA Yet you're still doing a Halloween tour of those death scenes. In newspaper, we'd say that book had legs. Why is that? What do you think struck a chord with readers?
CM Unfortunately, I had to cancel my west coast tour this fall which included a HOLLYWOOD DEATH SCENES tour tie-in with a really cool company called Esotouric. They have a bus, full-scale narrated trip, lunch, the works. I was really sorry I could not make it out there to conduct the tour. Hopefully, sometime in the future I can make it happen.
As for the book having legs, that's ironic because the original publishing house that released the book went bankrupt six months after the release. Another publisher picked up some of the first publisher's titles including Hollywood Death Scenes and proceeded to sit on the book. Nice tax write-off I guess. Meanwhile, the book became this rare out-of-print collectible that usually fetches between $100-$200 online.
As far as striking a chord, nothing beats stories about Hollywood and murder. I believe the fact that I went beyond the usual Hollywood celebrity murders is what made the book stand out. I also wrote about serial killers, mass murderers, police corruption, whodunits, drug abusers, O.J. Simpson, the Charles Manson case, and so much more. Plus, there are more than 100 cases discussed, over 500 photos, and well over 200 addresses to various crime scenes.
I also appeared on E! Television Network's special 20 Most Horrifying Hollywood Murders in 2006 and was recently interviewed by TV Land for a six-part miniseries entitled Myths and Legends that is tentatively scheduled to air in either January or February 2008.
SA Evil Eyes, which came out last year, is about a man you say is the most prolific serial killer in American history, yet I would venture to say that people who haven't read the book have never heard of Coral Watts. Why is that?
CM That requires a very complex answer. First of all, Watts is African-American. Media and criminal profilers tend to focus their attention on white males when it comes to serial killers. In the book I talk about how the percentage of serial killers that are black male (22%) is actually much higher that the percentage of black men (5%) in the United States. You would never know that it all you did was watch televised news or read print journalism.
In addition to his skin color, Watts was a unique killer in that he rarely killed within his race, he did not have sexual issues, he didn't seek to become famous, and he did not have mommy issues. These traits all go against the grain of the so-called "profiling characteristics" that have been dangerously tossed about by profilers.
Watts also killed predominately in two states nearly 1,500 miles apart and in the late 1970s/early 1980s before the uprising of the 24-hour cable news networks. Had he been around in the mid-1990s, everyone would have heard about him.
The fact that he was almost released back out on the streets last year should have gotten some media attention, but apparently there were more important issues to discuss such as Paris Hilton's latest escapades.
SA Being a new true crime author, I've heard all these crazy "rules" about true crime--the case can only be four or five years old, cold cases don't fly, and perhaps silliest of all, no books about African American killers. Evil Eyes broke all of those rules. How did you get it published?
CM Except for Dead and Buried, all of my books have gone against the so-called "rules" you mentioned. My current book, Strangler, has three victims that are Hispanic, another publishing no-no. I find all of these rules arbitrary and ridiculous. I simply look for the best story that goes beyond just the murder or murders involved. Evil Eyes offers that up in multiples from the African-American serial killer angle, to the lack of multiple murders as a count for the death penalty, to the crusade of a grandmother to keep a killer behind bars, to the insanity of the prosecution striking a deal with a serial killer, to the lack of media coverage over possibly the worst serial killer in our country's history, to the fact that the state of Texas almost set him free. I say screw the rules. Find a story that you are meant to tell and stick to your guns.
SA I've just started reading your new book, Strangler. Is it going to break some rules, too? Or can you tell me without revealing the ending?
CM Contrary to popular Hollywood portrayals, most serial killers are ignorant, lucky sons-of-bitches. They are far from the cunning, brilliant masterminds such as Hannibal Lecter or Dexter. Tony Shore, on the other hand, is truly one of the most brilliant serial killers ever. Top-notch assistant district attorney Kelly Siegler said he was easily the smartest person in the entire Harris County courthouse. But his intelligence did not provide him with the proper tools to curb a sex addiction, refrain from molesting his daughters, or raping and killing at least four young girls.
I wouldn't say that there are too many rules broken with Strangler besides the aforementioned Hispanic victims. I just found Shore to be a fascinating individual who seemed like a good guy but was truly insidious. I guess another rule-breaker is that I pressed to include extremely graphic crime scene photos in the book in addition to my very explicit descriptions of the murders. There is a PC trend to go soft when describing murder scenes or including photos which I think is utter nonsense. We are not writing love scenes here. These are some of the most brutal, vicious, unthinkable acts that one human being can commit upon another. I don't think it should be candy-coated or spoke about only in hushed tones in any way. I want everyone out there to know that Tony Shore is not someone you want to be buddies with. He is not this funny, smooth, charismatic individual that you'd love to jam with. He is an incestuous child-molesting sadistic killer who likes to rape and strangle little girls.
SA How did you get onto this case?
CM I am very interested in solving the infamous I-45 killings in Houston, Texas. I have now written about two serial killers who probably contributed to that body count in Coral Watts and Tony Shore. I was also intrigued by the fact that Shore went to a rival high school of mine and was only three years older than me. Finally, I wanted to write about someone who was truly gifted and intelligent. I still cannot understand why he threw everything away.
SA One of the criticisms I hear about true crime books is that, "There's no mystery. You know who did it from the beginning." How do you respond to that?
CM That's a silly criticism. That's like saying I don't want to see Titanic because I know how it ends. If readers want to read a mystery, go out and buy a book by Jay Brandon, Norman Partridge, or Rick Riordan. Trust me, you can't win with true crime. All you have to do is look at the front book cover, read the back cover, or flip to the inside of the book and you will find out who the killer is. We are beholden to the facts of the case. Sometimes they lend themselves to potential mystery writing beats, but more often than not, there is not a whole lot of mystery involved. My third book, Murdered Innocents, fits the "mystery" bill because the murders of four young girls went unsolved for eight years. My most recent book, Pure Murder (Kensington, 2008), does not fit the mold because the killers were captured four days after the murders of two girls. You cannot please all the readers all the time.
SA You're not only an author, you're also the founder of a pretty special Internet project. Clue us in about it.
CM In Cold Blog launched on June 1, 2007, and contains a plethora of some of the biggest names in true crime writing such as Carlton Stowers, Dennis McDougal, and Gregg Olsen. There are several new faces such as yourself, Simon Read, and Vanessa Leggett. In addition to the true crime authors we also have a state assistant attorney general, a forensic sketch artist, a criminal profiler, a Texas deputy, a crime victims' advocate, a serial killer's victim's mother and brother, a key trial witness who helped put away a notorious serial killer, and even a death metal musician.
It's an entertaining forum where a new contributor posts every day. You never know what the topic will be from day to day and the comments have been coming in fast and furious.
SA Authors are bad enough, but we journalists are renowned for our strong personalities, and by that I mean big egos. What has it been like for you working with that many authors who are also journalists?
CM Cake. Don't forget, I worked with musicians for over a decade. Working with authors and journalists is fun in comparison. Plus, I am very low-key about how I run the blog. This is not about me, it's about getting the best writers and voices out to the public. You won't see my picture plastered all over the site. It is more about the collective of quality contributors as opposed to my own ego.
SA There have been some rough moments, too. In particular, there was the Killitary controversy back in July. Tell me about it.
CM I posted an article about the rather large numbers of serial killers and mass murderers who have a military background. I discussed how the military has changed it methods of training to create more efficient massacring machines, by their own admission, since World War II. I also talked about how if the military does not provide more quality aftercare that many men and women are going to return home and not know how to cope with what they have been taught and what they have seen.
Some right-wing bloggers got a hold of the piece and branded me a military-hating nutjob. Ironically, I received several death threats from alleged former military members who said that the military does not train killers. Go figure. I also received numerous words of support and praise from military personnel who agreed with everything I said and were glad I had the courage to talk about this touchy subject.
Most people who criticized the piece apparently failed to read the entire article. As you pointed out the following week in your post entitled "Vindication," a presidential panel led by retired soldier and Republican Bob Dole reached the same conclusion that I had five days earlier: our military trains its soldiers to kill, sends them off to kill, and then dumps them off back home and fails to provide adequate counseling. By the time that came out, the furor had died down. Of course, none of the bloggers who threatened to kill me wrote me back to apologize.
SA Has it been worth the headaches?
Absolutely. I have enjoyed almost every minute of it. I am not the every-day blogging kind of writer. I tend to take my time, research like a madman, and then piece it all together. I am not an off-the-cuff reporter type. So, the multiple-contributor blog works out great for me. I get to help promote other authors I appreciate and I have created a place for people fascinated by true crime to come in and sample as many different voices pertaining to true crime as they'd like.
Plus, I get to read a new piece from one of my favorite authors of all time every morning when I fire up the computer.
The other big bonus has been the creation of new business relationships as well as friendships with people whose work and opinions I admire.