The Fascinating Stories Behind Famous True-Crime Books

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Earlier this week, JSTOR Daily published a fascinating essay about the history of true crime dating back to the 16th century. The public’s fascinating with the true-crime genre is still going strong thanks to the popularity of podcasts like Serial and Netflix’s Making a Murderer — which we’ve continued to watch develop in recent headlines. But behind every true crime tale is another story about the authors and their experiences or relationships with their grisly subjects. Here are just a few of those stories.

The Last Victim: A True-Life Journey into the Mind of the Serial Killer by author Jason Moss details the author’s fascination and correspondence with multiple American serial killers, including John Wayne Gacy, Richard Ramirez, Henry Lee Lucas, Jeffrey Dahmer, and Charles Manson. Moss became close with Gacy in particular and believes he was Gacy’s final victim after a face-to-face meeting with the killer. The book was a bestseller. Sadly, Moss committed suicide in 2006. Eerily enough, his death occurred on June 6, 2006, which has become a source of speculation since Moss explored Satanism to prep for his meetings with some of the murderers.

Brooklyn-born writer Philip Carlo spent three years getting inside the head of serial killer Richard Ramirez for his true-crime classic The Night Stalker. Ramirez terrorized suburban California in the spring and summer of 1985, leaving 13 people dead. Despite his status as one of America’s most vicious serial killers, Ramirez gathered a female fan following. After Carlo published his book, thousands of women from all over the world contacted the author, begging to be put in touch with the serial killer. Carlo wound up interviewing some of those women to find out why they were so drawn to a murderer.

Two Yale college students bicycled across America in 1977, stopping at a campsite in Oregon. It was there that a man brutally attacked the women after running over them with his pick-up truck and assaulting them with an ax. Both women survived, and one, Terri Jentz, wrote a book about the horrific incident. Strange Piece of Paradise details Junta’s account of the attempted murder, and her journey back to the small town where it happened to try to solve the crime.

What makes Ann Rule’s The Stranger Beside Me particularly terrifying isn’t necessarily the details about serial killer Ted Bundy’s crimes, but that the author knew Bundy personally. They both volunteered for a suicide hotline in Seattle. Rule viewed Bundy as an empathetic person and doubted his guilt, but eventually came to terms with his status as a killer and called the police when she recognized a police composite sketch that resembled Bundy.

Why does Ann Rule have a connection to so many serial killers? It’s beyond us. But the author also wrote about Gary Ridgeway, the “Green River Killer,” who was convicted of 49 murders, but confessed to more and is thought to be responsible for over 90 brutal deaths. Rule writes about how some of the murders happened in her own southwest Seattle neighborhood.

Vincent Bugliosi, the attorney famous for prosecuting Charles Manson and writing the bestselling book about it called Helter Skelter, has some interesting stories about the trial of the hippie cult leader who was behind the killing of actress Sharon Tate and several other innocents. From Time:

I was honored that the DA had enough confidence to assign a case of that magnitude and complexity to me. I worked on it around the clock, seven days a week, sometimes 80 or 90 hours. The trial was almost as bizarre as the murders themselves. One day, Manson got a hold of a sharp pencil and, from a standing position, he leaps over the counsel table and starts to approach the judge, and of course the bailiffs immediately tackle him, and he shouted out to the judge, ‘In the name of Christian justice, I want to chop off your head.’ The judge started carrying a .38-caliber revolver under his robe in court. One of the defense attorneys vanished from the face of the earth during the trial and turned up dead.

And:

He took the stand, but it was outside the presence of the jury. If you want to call it testimony, he was under oath and for an hour or so kind of mesmerized everyone. He just rambled on discursively. When it came time for cross-examination, I asked him a couple of sarcastic questions. Afterwards, the judge asked me why I didn’t cross-examine Manson, and I said, ‘Judge, the jury was upstairs. I don’t want to give him a dry run.’