Thursday, February 24, 2011

Gestation of a True Crime Book

By Caitlin Rother

After five long years of research, driving to Orange County to attend three trials, and writing an incredibly long manuscript from which I had to cut 35,000 words, my sixth book, DEAD RECKONING, is finally on bookstore shelves.

How sweet it is.

I started the book, originally titled, UNDESERVED, in early 2005 when I was still working as an investigative reporter at The San Diego Union-Tribune. My first book, POISONED LOVE, about the Kristin Rossum case, was finished, but would not come out until May. And after being hampered by the ethical restrictions of covering that case for the paper, which kept me from simultaneously pursuing a book deal, I worked on this project in my spare time.

Skylar and Jennifer Deleon, dubbed the Bonnie and Clyde of the OC, were accused of scheming to murder Tom and Jackie Hawks by tying them to the anchor of their yacht, the “Well Deserved,” and throwing them overboard alive near Newport Beach. Three others were arrested in the murder conspiracy, the goal of which was to steal the Hawkses’ boat and pillage their bank accounts. Jennifer was not on the boat when the couple was killed, but authorities had collected mounds of forensic evidence implicating her in the scheme, including cell phone records showing that she and Skylar were in constant contact the day the Hawkses went missing.

This Orange County story also had some local angles that made it interesting to San Diego media: Tom Hawks graduated as “Best Looking” from San Dieguito High School, and went on to be a firefighter for the Carlsbad Fire Department and a restaurateur there; his brother, Jim, worked for years as a police officer in Carlsbad, ultimately retiring as police chief; and Tom’s son, Ryan, lived in the Mission Bay-front community of Crown Point.

In addition to the good vs. evil aspects of the story and the brutally heinous nature of the crime, the case had some other intriguing elements that soon drew the attention of the national media. Skylar was a former child actor who appeared on "Mighty Morphin Power Rangers"; he was later accused of killing a third victim in Mexico while out of jail for the day on work furlough; he tried to solicit hits on his father and cousin from behind bars; and, wait for it, this pathological liar not only told people he'd killed 35 people as a Force Recon sniper, but that he was a hermaphrodite as well. Turns out he killed the Hawkses in part to get money for a sex change operation.

I don't mean this to be insensitive to the victims or their families, but speaking strictly from a writer’s standpoint, this was the “perfect storm” of components of a bestseller. I immediately approached the Hawks family to let them know I was interested in writing a book about the case, and began doing interviews with key players in the case.

But I wasn’t fast enough. While I was putting my proposal together, so was another author, who got a deal with a publisher that puts out true crime books before trial. Personally, I like to wait until after a trial is completed because I get more access to information and can write a more comprehensive tale, but I wanted to see if I could tie up a deal in advance this time because the same thing had happened to me with the Rossum case. I was disappointed, but even more determined to write a better and more authoritative book, even though I knew that would mean waiting for ALL the trials to conclude. And that would take years.

So, as I’ve explained here before, the nature of what I do is to juggle, and juggle I did. Over the next few years, I quit my job at the paper, published four more books, and taught night classes at UCSD Extension, all the while driving up to Orange County to attend Jennifer’s, then Skylar’s and then John F. Kennedy’s trials. That’s a 90- to 120-minute drive each way, depending on traffic, and I no longer had an expense account to pay for gas, parking, or hotels. Thankfully, I have a couple of nice friends who let me camp out in their guest rooms, but it was definitely a physical and logistical challenge.

My publisher, Kensington/Pinnacle, requires a conviction in a case before it will give me a contract, so once Jennifer and Skylar were sent to prison, I knew I could write my proposal, but I wanted to wait for the end of JFK’s trial to begin writing the book. I worked all that out with my publisher, and got a two-book contract to write up this case as book #1. (The Chelsea King-Amber Dubois-John Gardner case would later become book #2.)

Although I'd been doing some interviews along the way, it had become a growing risk to spend so many years on a project like this without a contract in place. Let’s just say I had to have faith. I ran into plenty of roadblocks and rejections, and sometimes I almost gave up. But I didn’t get where I am by backing down, and I knew in my gut that this was a great story, so I kept going. Call me crazy, but I had to write this book, or go down trying.

Once I had the contract, I felt some relief, but I still had plenty of work to do. I did repeated interviews with Newport Beach police detectives, the prosecutor and defense attorneys, the victims’ family members, and collected more investigative materials and court documents than I can even begin to quantify. Boxes and boxes of paperwork, files and files on my computer, and photos galore -- enough material, frankly, to write two books. The challenge became what to leave out. Cutting all those words was painful, but it had to be done.

By the time I had finished and done a rewrite, the feeling of accomplishment was tremendous, and I’m very proud of my book. All the emails I’ve been getting from readers – and even the victims’ families -- telling me that they couldn’t put the book down and how much they appreciated how I’d treated their loved ones with such care, only reinforced my gut instinct that, in the end, my efforts would be worth every minute.

Thanks for reading this and I hope it inspires you to read my book. Now, if you’ll excuse me, I’ve got to get back to juggling.

Caitlin Rother, a Pulitzer-nominee who worked as a investigativer reporter for nearly 20 years, is the author of Body Parts, Twisted Triangle, Naked Addiction, and Poisoned Love, and is the co-author of Where Hope Begins and My Life, Deleted. Her latest book, Dead Reckoning, is available in bookstores now. She is currently working on a book about the John Gardner murder case, tentatively titled, The Makings of a Monster. For more information, please check out her Web site,