Caitlin Rother, one of my all-time favorite authors, returns to Colloquium today to further discuss the “shorts” she previewed when she was my guest earlier this year.
Caitlin is a New York Times best-selling author of ten true crime novels, including Lost Girls, Poisoned Love, Dead Reckoning (an updated version of which will be available in September 2016), and her most recent, Then No One Can Have Her. Additionally, she penned A Complicated Woman, the first of three entries in Greg Olson’s Notorious USA series. The two remaining volumes are now available and I will be reviewing both soon!
Quick True Crime Summer Reads
I was looking for a new challenge and a new way to reach readers, so I teamed up with New York Times best-selling true crime author Gregg Olsen to publish three Kindle e-book “shorts” on Amazon as part of his best-selling Notorious USA series.
He told me to pick three contiguous states, and said I could write about any murder cases that happened throughout history in that state. I chose South Carolina, Georgia and Florida. Each story I wrote is the length of an in-depth magazine feature article, and each “short” contains several stories.
What followed was a six-month period of total freedom as I searched through the years and years of murder cases, looking to see what information was available on historic and current cases that interested me and that I thought would interest my readers. Here are some I came up with, in case any of the killers sound familiar: Sue Logue, Donald “Pee Wee” Gaskins, Jr., Dylann Storm Roof, Jim Sullivan, Sean Trevor Doutre, Robert Spearman, Richard Savage, Kelly Gissendaner, Valessa Robinson, Courtney Schulhoff, Catherine Pileggi and Melissa Webb.
I’ll start with the cases I selected from Florida, the Sunshine state with a darker side than most. The mecca for wealthy retirees to enjoy their younger girlfriends, yachts and marble-floored mansions, where recreational drugs, sex and booze flow like the warm water that hugs the coast. Where teenage girls and their boyfriends kill their parents in the name of love, and women shoot their boyfriends then claim self-defense. The vacation destination that is home to Disney World and miles of beaches, yet also has more killers on its death row than any other state but California.
This compilation titled, Kill Him Some More, pairs two sets of cases with similar circumstances but very different outcomes. In the first story, former flight attendant Catherine Pileggi murders her multimillionaire boyfriend of eighteen years, Ronald Vinci, using a gun, a knife, a hammer (and possibly poisoned his gin as well), claiming he was abusive for years and put a loaded gun to her head. The cover features all the tools she used to end his life, an act she claimed was in self-defense.
In the second story, Melissa Webb, a woman with a history of violent, drug-addicted boyfriends, kills her latest lover after only a few weeks together, alleging that he forced a gun into her mouth in a drug-induced rage. I picked this case, which got almost no media attention, because Webb, unlike Pileggi, got life in prison without the chance for parole for killing a man she hardly knew. Once I looked into the evidence, I came to believe that the jury did not get to hear all of the pertinent facts before it convicted her.
In the third story, 15-year-old Valessa Robinson falls in love and wants to have a baby with a boyfriend who is four years older. Her mother, who wants to end the relationship, ends dead after being stabbed, choked, and injected with a syringe loaded with bleach.
And in the last story, 16-year-old Courtney Schulhoff and her 20-year-old boyfriend conspire to fatally bludgeon her disapproving father with a baseball bat. Part of the reason I picked these cases of teen matricide and patricide is because Courtney got life without the possibility of parole, while Valessa is already out of prison.
Next up is the compilation titled, Dead on Delivery, which includes the cases I picked from Georgia, where the all-mighty dollar trumps mercy and lawfulness on an all-too-regular basis. Where hit men can be hired for small sums and lovers can be manipulated into killing innocent people, all out of greed.
This cover features a bouquet of long-stemmed pink roses, just like the one that socialite Lita Sullivan was holding when the flower delivery man pulled out a gun and shot her in her foyer. At the time Lita was going through a divorce from her multimillionaire adulterous husband, Jim Sullivan, who hired the hitman to kill his wife so he didn’t have to pay her anything in their divorce battle. The shooter managed to evade authorities for more than a decade. Jim, told that he would be arrested next, took off for parts unknown and became an international fugitive. When the FBI and local police finally captured him in Thailand, he and his fourth were living in a nice condo near the beach. He spent more than a year in a Thai prison, where he developed gout in both feet, and could not wear shoes. After losing his extradition fight, the FBI flew him back to Atlanta, and when he stepped off the plane, he was wearing only one open-toed sandal.
In the second story, a crooked businessman trying to go straight is shot in his driveway by a hitman, Sean Trevor Doutre, who is wearing a ski mask and camouflage gear. This is one in a nationwide series of contract-for-hire murders that were advertised in the classified-ad pages of Soldier of Fortune magazine. The series of killings also included the murder of Anita Spearman by her cheating husband Robert in Florida.
And in the third story, a Gulf War veteran and father of three is kidnapped, beaten and stabbed by the lover of his on-and-off-again wife, Kelly Gissendaner, who wants to collect life insurance benefits and pay off her house. The lover makes a deal for a life sentence and a chance at parole, while Gissendaner gets the death penalty. She becomes the second woman ever to be executed in Georgia, even after the Pope, other faith-based advocates and two of her children fight for her clemency, citing her dramatic repentance and rehabilitation through religion.
Finally, in the compilation titled, A Complicated Woman, I offer you three cases from South Carolina, the former Confederate state where racial strife and righteous, heavily-armed indignation leads to murder. I’ve written about this compilation on this blog before, but just to review, this one includes one current and two historic cases.
Featured on the cover is a 70-year-old prison booking photo of Sue Logue, the first woman in South Carolina to go to the electric chair after hiring a hitman to kill her neighbor in a feud over a dead calf. She has one last tryst with her old lover, the late U. S. Senator Strom Thurmond, on her way to the death house. (This was before he was elected to Congress.)
This “short” also tells the story of prolific serial killer Donald “Pee Wee” Gaskins, Jr., who killed at least 14 people—including the inmate he blew up in the cell next to him on death row—using explosives he managed to have smuggled into prison.
The third story is about alleged church killer Dylann Storm Roof, the young white man accused of trying to incite a race war by fatally shooting nine African-Americans during Bible study in a historic church in Charleston. Roof, who is still awaiting trial in both the state and federal courts, said he’d intended to plead guilty to the murders until prosecutors announced they were seeking the death penalty.
This was my first time writing about historic cases, and it proved to be quite enjoyable – and quite educational as well – as I discovered new sources of information, such as the death penalty archives in South Carolina, and called on some tried and true sources to help me tell these stories.
It was also fun to offer ideas for cover images and to see them come to life, not to mention the immediate gratification of posting the image and the e-pub file online, and watching it go on sale within a matter of hours. It’s been quite addictive.
If you decide you want to buy all 10 stories from the three states at once, they are available in a box set collection titled, Love Gone Wrong, which is almost the length of a regular book. All you have to do is go to my page on Amazon and download one or all of them onto your Kindle or with your Kindle app on another device.
If you would like an autographed hard copy, please email me at firstname.lastname@example.org and I will get one to you once they are published. They won’t be available in bookstores.
Thanks again to Janie for the invitation to talk about what I’m working on, and to all of you, happy reading!
Caitlin Rother was an only child who entertained herself “by reading stacks upon stacks of books and using my mind as a stage where characters talked to each other.” She holds a Bachelor’s degree in psychology from the University of California, Berkeley and earned her master’s degree from the Medill School of Journalism at Northwestern University. In high school and college, she explored journalism, but opted for a career in public relations with a San Francisco cruise line. Eventually, though, she was compelled to choose the “balance and objectivity of newspapers over the positive spin world of PR, marketing and advertising, . . . ”
It was not until the late 1980s that she joined a writing workshop in Northampton, Massachusetts, in her quest to write more in-depth, creative stories while toiling as a reporter with the Springfield Union-News. The series of short stories produced in that workshop eventually evolved into her first novel, Naked Addiction.
As an investigative journalist, Caitlin was drawn to “complex and dramatic stories – the most bizarre or tragic deaths and the public figures whose questionable actions evoked my investigative curiosity.” She wrote about Michael Jackson’s original molestation charges and addiction to painkillers, the lifestyle of the Heaven’s Gate cult and strippers’ laundered political contributions to San Diego City Council members, and developed expertise in addiction (alcohol and methamphetamine, suicide, mental illness and the family dynamics and pharmacology involved).
She expanded a series of news stories about the Kristin Rossum murder case into what would become her first book, Poisoned Love. In 2006, she contracted to draft her second non-fiction book and in a risky leap of faith, left the security of her position with The San Diego Union-Tribune behind.
In 1998, Caitlin was nominated for a Pulitzer Prize by the Union-Tribune. Her story about a depressed teenager who died after lighting himself on fire behind a WalMart won three awards in the annual Best of the West contest. Her journalistic honors also include a Best Feature award from the Associated Press News Executives Council and Best News-Feature award from the Los Angeles Press Club.
Caitlin is a sought-after speaker who also helps aspiring authors as a book doctor and writing/research/promotions coach and consultant. She teaches narrative non-fiction, digital journalism, and author branding/promotions at the University of California, San Diego Extension and San Diego Writers, Ink.
Her other books include Deadly Devotion/Where Hope Begins; My Life, Deleted; Body Parts; Twisted Triangle; and I’ll Take Care of You, the story behind the love triangle murder of Newport Beach multimillionaire inventor Bill McLaughlin by his fiancee, Nanette Packard, and her NFL-playing lover, Eric Naposki.