Saturday, October 9, 2010

Kristin Rossum and a reporter-turned-author's compulsions

By Caitlin Rother

After being a newspaper reporter for various Metro sections in California and Massachusetts for nearly 20 years, I now use my investigative and storytelling skills to research and write compelling tales in books, and my deadline experience to write them quickly.

When I left The San Diego Union-Tribune in September 2006, a year after my first book, Poisoned Love, was published about the Kristin Rossum murder case, I went through a bit of an identity dilemma. Just because I was now a full-time author, did that mean I wasn’t a reporter anymore? I still felt like a reporter inside, watching cable news and commentary on TV and reading the newspaper, with that “need to know everything right now” sensibility that made me good at my job all those years.

I also continued to follow the crime stories I was now writing in book length form as if I still worked for the newspaper, meaning I wanted there in person every time the accused murderer went to court because I didn’t want to miss anything.

The thing is, books aren’t just longer newspaper articles, and eventually, I had to accept that I needed to work differently. My job is now to write narrative non-fiction, which requires me to gather information in a different form, because I’m not explaining what happened as much as I am crafting dramatic scenes. I’m also not just covering local cases these days, so when a verdict is being announced in 20 minutes, but I’m two or more hours away, I have to recreate the scene by talking to folks who were there.

Nonetheless, every once in a while, that old instinct kicks in and I’ve JUST GOT TO KNOW what happened – even when I’ve already written a book about it.

This happened a couple of weeks ago, when Rossum’s federal appeal finally got some traction, eight years after she was sentenced to life in prison without parole for poisoning her husband with a cocktail of drugs she stole from the San Diego County Medical Examiner’s Office, where she’d worked as a toxicologist.

Now, at the time, I was already juggling a few balls: I was on deadline, trying to finish book #7, My Life Deleted, a memoir I’m co-authoring with a man who lost all 46 years of his long-term memory; I was working with a publicist to get ready for the February release of my next book, Dead Reckoning; and I was also gathering material for book #8, on the John Gardner case.
When I got a text message at 8 a.m. (I was still in bed) from a local lawyer asking me what I thought about the Rossum case, I had no idea what he was talking about, but I knew I needed to find out. Immediately.

Those old reporter instincts kicked in and I turned on the TV in my bedroom until I could find a newsbreak. Sure enough, I got a tidbit, but it wasn’t enough, so I went to my computer to learn more. I read news stories online, posted one on FaceBook and Twitter, sent out some emails, and finally got ahold of the court ruling so I could read it for myself. Because I had covered this case for several years for the paper before I wrote the authoritative book about it, people were asking me questions – Will she get a new trial? Is she about to go free? What’s your take? – and I needed to know what to say.

Once I finally figured it out, I posted a quick summary and analysis on FaceBook, which, honestly, left me wanting to write more, but here goes:

“Court says defendant’s argument of suicide by fentanyl was even more implausible than prosecution’s argument of death by fentanyl, because the medical evidence had too many inconsistencies, really, for either one. That said, the appeal is based on a claim of ineffective counsel – for not questioning the prosecution’s death by fentanyl argument and for not ordering tests on the autopsy samples for fentanyl metabolites, to see if Rossum’s husband had the drug in his system when he died, or if the samples were contaminated afterward. So, prejudice against Rossum can’t be determined without a test to prove/disprove whether samples were contaminated intentionally or unintentionally during the 36 hours they were left, unsecured, in the ME’s refrigerator before going to a private toxicology lab.

Appeals court says motive was there for intentional contamination – coworker’s jealousy and resentment against Rossum and her lover boss. (Seems like a stretch in a lab whose specific purpose is to help solve homicide cases.) So, the federal district court must now hold a hearing and allow Rossum’s new attorney to ask for the tests and then we’ll see. If you take fentanyl out of the equation for the cause of death, that would certainly change the case, but the state argues that even the absence of fentanyl should not exonerate her, because she still could have killed him other ways, i.e. the symbiotic mix of Clonazepam and Oxycodone that were also in his blood could have proved fatal, even though that was not the ME’s finding.

That aside, the prosecution’s fentanyl death argument was also bolstered with all kinds of other evidence, which this court ruling doesn’t discuss, because the appeal is focused on the ineffective counsel claim. So, once they have this hearing, and retest the autopsy samples, Rossum may or may not get a new trial. The thing is, she was a meth addict, meth addicts lie, and the prosecutor got Rossum to admit she lied on the stand for several days straight, and that had to contribute to the jury’s guilty verdict. Bottom line is that ultimately, meth is what did her in, Greg, her family, and his.”

A producer friend of mine at Dateline has since called me to say she is working on a story, so I plan to keep following this appeal online, on TV, and I’ll probably even attend the hearing because… I still don’t want to miss anything.

Caitlin Rother, a Pulitzer-nominee who worked as a investigative newspaper reporter for nearly 20 years, is the author of six books, Body Parts, Twisted Triangle, Naked Addiction, and Poisoned Love, and is the co-author of Where Hope Begins. Her next book, Dead Reckoning, the story behind the murder of Tom and Jackie Hawks by Skylar Deleon and his clan of outlaws, including his wife, Jennifer, will be out in February 2011. She has two more books in the pipeline. For more information, check out her Web site,


Ann said...

Hi Caitlin,

Thanks for the update on the case. I read Poisoned Love a few years back and really loved it. As a result of your work, I am still following the case as well. You're a very talented author and reporter. Thanks!

Caitlin Rother said...

Hi Ann,
Thanks very much for the kind words. I wasn't expecting to see this appeal get some traction after all these years, but the wheels of the justice system work verrrrry slowly sometimes. I'll be following this case closely as well. It looks like we haven't seen the last of Kristin Rossum!


Sharon Vanderlip, DVM said...


I've enjoyed your books so much!
I can't wait for the newest one to be released!

Melanie said...

Hi Caitlin,

Interesting update. I read your book on Rossum recently after seeing her story on 'Snapped' - very well written - and googled her name to see if anything new came up. What can I say, it's a compelling story. The wheels of justice are slow indeed, but if she's truly innocent, then she has that much going for her. If not, she'll stay where she is.

cjg1971 said...

Hi Caitlin,

This case wasn't in the news here in the UK so I only became aware of it in early 2009 through watching the 'Women Who Kill' TV programme. The severity of the sentence handed to Kristin Rossum compared to the two other ladies shown in the programme led me to purchase Poisoned Love, a book which I found to be very well written, thorough and unbiased.

Something about the case just doesn't sit right in my mind. Perhaps the bungled police investigation ignoring vital evidence at the scene on the night of Greg De Villiers death. Perhaps the prosecution's absolute insistence of a conspiracy between Kristin and Michael Robertson even though eight years after Kristin's trial there's still been no effort to bring Robertson to justice. Perhaps the procedural errors that led to Greg's body being held at the same Medical Examiners Office where his wife worked, and where the drugs allegedly used to kill him originated from. I could go on.

So many question marks hang over this messy and unprofessional prosecution that news of an appeal seem appropriate if not a little overdue. I feel strongly that Kristin Rossum was convicted of murder on the basis that she wasn't an angel rather than on the circumstantial evidence presented to the court. That's my opinion anyway. Thank you Caitlin for publicising this case.

Caitlin Rother said...

To Melanie, Sharon and CJG from the UK,
Thanks for the nice compliments, everyone!

@CJG, I'm not trying to take sides, but from knowing so much information about how this case came together behind the scenes, I'm not sure it was the prosecution that was messy or unprofessional, but rather the events, the relationships between people within and outside the ME's office, and also certain aspects of the investigation before it even reached the SDPD that complicated the prosecution's job. But you're right, there were many such factors. That said, the prosecution had to work with the evidence and witnesses it was given. In the end, the jury simply didn't believe Kristin and/or her parents' version of what happened because it didn't make sense, and that's what the defense had to work with!

Chris said...

Thank you for replying Caitlin, and so quickly! Your knowledge of this case and superb communication skills shine through again!

Coming from a culture without capital punishment and where LWOP sentences are very rare and usually only given in cases of multiple killings, I guess that I'm troubled that such an absolute sentence has apparently been passed without absolute proof of guilt (as far as I can see).

Like yourself I'm not trying to take sides, and if I'd attended the trial and talked to many of the involved parties (as you did on both counts) maybe I'd think differently. However, I'd feel a lot happier if the sentence in Kristin's case offered the chance of freedom at some point in the future (as was the case with the other two ladies in the 'Women who kill' programme I saw). Where there is the possibility for doubt, there must logically also be the possibility of innocence.

Perhaps living in an age of DNA and forensic evidence with the increased levels of proof that such technology offers has encouraged untrained amateur sleuths like myself to expect black and white results in all trials, even ones with largely circumstantial evidence.

Thank you again for replying to my comment, I'm sure I could pick your superior knowledge of this case for many hours in order to improve my understanding of it!

Pearl Mason said...

Poisoned love was a masterpiece, Caitlin. You've made that transition from reporter to story teller with spell-binding narratives and clever story development.

The Hawks story is of equal high drama. There, instead of the after-the-fact rose pedals, you have the calculated murder told in real time, so cold hearted, it took my breath away.

A polished writer, you're also a hard-working one, evidenced by your gathering output since moving away from newspapers.

Because you're located in California, most of your books are centered there. However, an equal number of even more fantastic stories are taking place right here in Florida to which no one but you could infuse them with the heart, body and soul they deserve: Murders going down on 911 calls protected by the thin blue line; Murders in Guardianship to take all the money; theft of hundreds of millions through the double-wammy of Guardianship and Bankruptcy with attempted murder.

I've often told you, if I had your skill and genius, I'd be writing those stories.

Bob Sherin
Miami, Florida

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