Close Criminal Encounters

This was my question for Miss Demeanors this week. What they told me that can’t be published was astounding! But what can be put in print is pretty amazing too.

Michele:         We write about crime, we read about crime. But do we know criminals? Tell our readers about at least one criminal you have met, either professionally or personally (related to?), and whether that influenced your writing. If you haven’t encountered a criminal (seriously?) tell us about someone who doesn’t quite play by the rules. What my grandmother would call a rogue. I’ll go first.

I had to interview a man who was on trial for killing his wife in front of their three-year-old, who was in a crib. I sat alone with the accused in a small room with cinderblock walls at a small table. He hadn’t gone on trial yet and denied killing the wife. I was there on behalf of the child. There wasn’t an ounce of regret or contrition in his voice. He was arrogant and unfeeling. I was reminded why I didn’t practice criminal law (Keenan feels this way about family law). When I think of that interview, I wonder why I write crime. I don’t really like criminals.   

Keenan:    I was a criminal defense attorney for nearly ten years so I met lots of criminals. I was first chair in two murder cases, and assisted in a couple of others, defended a number of drug cases as well as two different cases involving Alaska Natives who were accused of violating federal fishing law. After I won the case for my Tlingit-Tsimshian client, I was adopted into both tribes.

Just the other day, someone called me about a murder case I did thirty years ago and suggested I write a book about it, then offered to come by in a year to pick up his piece of my advance for giving me the idea. Yeah, no. That’s not going to happen.

The scenes I described in my first book of visiting a client in jail was based on visiting my clients in the local prison.

And I’d much rather practice criminal defense than family law. I don’t have the temperament for it.

Michele:         Family Law = Love stories gone wrong. 

                        Criminal Law = Love stories gone wrong. 

Keenan:          LOL

Emilya:           Why yes, yes, I do know a criminal. A while back, my
husband worked with a detective who, several years later
went on to commit multiple burglaries with a gang. The
gang made over 6 million dollars and this guy used his
NYPD status and access to research victims, among other
unsavory acts. I met him and his wife socially. Our children
were born within a year of each other. We went to his
son’s first birthday.

I ended up using the details of his case as the source for
one of my detectives in Hide In Place.

I still don’t know why he did it. Detectives make an okay
salary. He lost everything.

Here’s the case

Alexia:                        I don’t really have any reason to spend time with criminals and I generally avoid situations where I’m likely to encounter them. I haven’t knowingly met any criminals, other than family members, who I won’t name. I will tell one funny story. We were at a family event and Mom said, “Hi, X, where have you been? We haven’t heard from you in a while.” X replied, deadpan, “Prison.”

On second thought, I have met formerly incarcerated individuals as part of church-sponsored programs designed to help them reintegrate into society. They were trying their best to live productive lives. There’s an excellent restaurant in Dallas, TX that provides former youth offenders with job training and life skills and a decent salary to try to keep them out of the adult prison system. Those youth were among some of the most well-mannered, competent people I’ve ever met. 

During rotations in the ER or on the wards, I encountered a few criminals, both alleged and actual, usually brought in by law enforcement. I made an effort not to interact with them any more than medically necessary. And I counted several ex-convicts among my primary care patients. Some had reformed, some I’m sure it was just a matter of time before some judge would remove the “ex” from in front of “convict.” 

Honestly, none of them influenced my writing. I can’t say I felt sorry for all of them or sympathized with all of them. Some of them were truly horrid people who deserved to be behind bars. Some made poor choices and paid their debt for those choices and deserved to be able to get on with their lives. But none of them made me go “Wow, what a story, that ought to be in a book.”

I’m far more interested in the outwardly upstanding, law-abiding citizen whose outward “nice” image is a mask for a twisted, evil soul. They don’t commit any acts that violate the law, yet they manage to make the lives of those around them hellacious. I have had the misfortune to come across several people who fit this description. They were all much more unpleasant than even the drunkest, profanity-spewing lout handcuffed to a stretcher in the ER. More than one of these toxic, malignant narcissists has been transformed into a murder victim in my novels. Revenge fiction is sweet.

I’m also interested in–fascinated by, in a dark way–the type of criminal who has no obvious or understandable reason to commit crimes (other than pure greed and selfishness) but does so anyway. Con artists like Anna Sorokin/Delvey and Billy McFarland who cheated people (who, frankly, it was tough to feel sorry for) not out of desperation but out of a desire for wealth and power. “Alleged” fraudsters like Elizabeth Holmes who convinced very smart people to give her billions despite alarms that screamed louder than a banshee. The rich asshole parents busted in the Varisty Blues scandal. (Spare me the bullshit about they were just trying to help their children. Their spoiled brat spawn already had all the advantages. They didn’t have to cheat.) Even the icky ones, like Chris Watts and Jeffrey Epstein and Ghislaine Maxwell, who could have had pretty much anything they wanted without hurting anyone but opted to end/ruin lives, just because they could. These people make me believe true evil exists. I don’t want to encounter this type of criminal and haven’t as far as I know, but I do want to write about them.

I did meet one person, who I adore, who has neither been tried nor convicted of any crime but who did some things to survive an upbringing in Siberia, and combat duty in the military, that are, er, best not talked about. He’s fascinating (and a true sweetheart, as long as you don’t get on his bad side) and would make the perfect model for the lead detective in a Cold War-era mystery set in the USSR. Imagine a big guy with a hush-hush past and a talent for getting around red tape who drinks his coffee from a mug with a kitty cat on it. (He loves cats.)

Susan:             I don’t think I’ve met any violent criminals, but I’ve met a lot of people with elastic morals. When I was a young reporter at Fortune, I remember interviewing a man who was the subject of an investigation, and did subsequently go to jail. He was very charming. He dressed very nicely, and I remember he had a complete set of leather-bound books by Winston Churchill that he’d never opened. He also served red wine with fish, and to my editor, who was a very urbane person, that was the ultimate sin. I remember thinking this criminal person was completely self-absorbed, which made him clueless, and I think when he was arrested, it was  because of some mistake he made. I made sure to not be alone with him. Even if he didn’t seem dangerous, I sensed that things could go wrong and I would be in trouble. Often in my writing I’ve been drawn to characters who are slightly vulnerable, slightly dangerous, and often likeable. 

Tracee:           I’ve had only peripheral contact with criminals, my youngest sister’s prom date turned out to be a forger once he arrived at college (apparently he made high quality product in his dorm room, which he passed at the local thoroughbred race track). Until he went to prison. And a few architects who ‘did things’ to get state contracts. Also went to prison. Essentially petty and greedy things not worth reflecting on. 

Connie:           After college I spent a year in NYC, rooming with two friends. One weekend we visited her aunt and uncle in New Jersey. Their son (around our age) had a very good-looking friend. The next weekend he called us and asked if he could come into the city to see us. Of course we said yes. Until the aunt and uncle called to warn us: the young man had just killed his mother and was on the loose. We called the police immediately, and they were able to intercept him.

Other than that, all the people I know are law-abiding.

Your turn, dear readers. What criminals have you encountered in your life?


  1. What great stories, ladies! I had contact for a weekend when we Quakers did an Alternatives to Violence workshop in a county prison with a group of men (not murderers) getting close to their release dates. One of them said the first time he met his father was when they were in prison together. Most came from violent, non-communicative, low-income families and neighborhoods. Most were worried about falling into old patterns when they got out.

    I also had a psychologically abusive narcissistic ex-husband. What a relief to get away from him!

  2. That’s a sad tale about the father and son, Edith.
    Now about ex-husbands! You have inspired my next blog post, so stay tuned. It could turn into a book, there’s so much material.

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