It’s Dark in the Closet

I wrote a story about a double murder in a small Wisconsin town that went unsolved for more than two years because no one – not the investigators, not the victims’ families, not the townspeople who were keenly interested in the perpetrator’s identity because of the scary theories making the rounds – could believe what should have been obvious from day one, that a priest at the parish where one of the victims worshiped was the killer. The way the priest covered up the crime was clumsy and the motive was right there for everyone to see, but nobody wanted to look. At first I attributed that to the killer’s vocation. Who wants to believe a priest is a murderer? But it was way more complicated than that.

The killer became a priest because he was gay. In rural Wisconsin in the 1970s the priesthood was the only closet he could find, but the longer he hid the darker it got. The proximity of adolescent males and the confessor’s role he played proved too tempting when he tried to stifle his sexual urges. He assaulted several boys in their early teens and got away with it because they were ashamed, but the more he sinned the guiltier he felt, and the more false identities he assumed. By the time he committed murder he was pretending to be a virtual saint, living in imitation of Christ; a born-again church conservative on a mission to bring discarded rituals back to the mass; an outdoorsman who lived to hunt and fish; a heterosexual Lothario by nature, whose vows were the only thing between him and a career as a small town Don Juan; and a pedagogue with a calling to teach children about salvation and masturbation.

A cult formed around him, which should have been a clue, and there were many people who saw through him, yet he practically had to confess before it dawned on anyone that he was guilty of murder. The story is “The Hanged Priest” in The Family That Couldn’t Sleep at Night published by Calumet Editions.

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The Used Insurance Business

Pierre Collins, 33, faces murder charges in the death of his nine-year-old son Barway. Pierre was smart enough to buy insurance, but too dumb to disguise his intentions about collecting on it. He had $20,000 worth of life insurance on Barway as part of a family policy, but when his financial situation worsened he took out a separate policy for $30,000 on Barway alone. A day before the child disappeared he asked his agent about raising it to $50,000. According to investigators, he drowned his own son in the Mississippi river, evidently assuming that the insurance, and his inquiries about increasing it, wouldn’t raise suspicions. He was also smart enough to use a smartphone (no mean feat), but too dumb to realize that his whereabouts could be traced using his phone records, which place him at the scene of the crime. He is currently awaiting trial.

Leonard Richards was a pathological cheapskate who graduated from storefront church tax scams to what a friend of his described as “the used insurance business.” He got himself appointed legal guardian of his sickly half-sister May Wilson, then collected more than $700,000 on 50 different health insurance policies he took out in her name, most of which paid cash for lost income when she was hospitalized. When Wilson’s health improved he took out several million dollars worth of insurance on her life, named himself beneficiary and murdered her.

Richards was so skilled at routing ill-gained loot through bogus trusts and corporations that it took a long time for the law to catch up to him. His lawyer eventually realized that he was defending a guilty man, so Richards murdered him too. He represented himself in court and tied the system in knots for years, but he spent most of that time in custody, and when it was over he was sentenced to life in prison. When I wrote about him he was behind bars, still busy pursuing his real calling, forming corporations with weird names for purposes that ranged from fraudulent to incomprehensible. He had just finished incorporating the May Wilson Lectures In American Penology when I published my story.

A used insurance scam appeared to be behind a murder I wrote about in a story called The Key Man, but there was also evidence suggesting that it was a crime of a very unusual passion that had nothing to do with insurance. That tale is told in an anthology of my true crime stories, The Family That Couldn’t Sleep at Night, published by Calumet Editions. The saga of Leonard Richards and his used insurance business will be in an upcoming anthology.

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Bad Guys Make Good Sources

Cops, criminals and drug addicts are the best sources for crime stories. Especially addicts. They’re always on the hunt for drug money, and the way they slide into one easy dodge after another to get it puts them in the middle of everything illicit. I cultivated the acquaintance of addicts when I first started writing, but I got older and most of them didn’t. By the time I reached middle age they were all dead, and the younger ones scared me. That left cops and criminals.

The type of criminal who is all business will rarely serve as a source unless it suits some agenda of his. Ditto for cops, only more so. The kind of criminal who will give you information is the type that drifts from caper to scam to rip-off for the drama, and money is just a bonus. I knew a lot of them, still do. They love to talk. Sometimes they talk so much you have to use what they say judiciously, so they don’t get in jam.

It’s hit and miss with cops. An arson investigator who was all business once put me on to a story about an arsonist, because he had an agenda. The arsonist had recently been sentenced to prison, and the investigator wanted that sentence upheld on appeal. He gave me copies of police documents, and happily took me on a tour to show me scorch marks on dozens of homes the arsonist had tried but failed to set on fire.

Another kind of cop, a brutal, narrow-minded racist detective, gave me a solid tip. He had an agenda too. His partner had been shot to death in the line of duty, and he’d spent weeks pressuring every criminal he knew every way he could to find out who killed him. Some criminals – white guys who shared his values – were his buddies. He just put out the word to them. Others, gangsters in general, black gangsters in particular, were not his buddies. He hated them, not so much for what they did but for what they were, and he used various threats to find out what they knew, which turned out to be nothing.

Eventually one of his mob-connected pals, a gifted burglar who did 2nd story work for the Chicago Mafia, fingered the killer. A short time later the cop called me, and in effect fingered his informant. I was glad for the tip, but I could never figure out why he gave it to me. Years later a former prosecutor told me. “He didn’t want anybody he owed that big a favor around town, so he gave you his name, then told him (the tipster) that the press knew what he’d done, so he’d better leave. And it worked.”

The detective who gave me the tip is a central figure in a story titled “The Key Man” in my new anthology of crime stories, The Family That Couldn’t Sleep at Night, published by Calumet Editions.

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