Friday, May 18, 2012

Interviewing Killers For a Living

Nanette Packard
Eric Naposki

By Caitlin Rother

I interviewed my first accused killer in June 1994, when I’d been a newspaper reporter for about seven years and was covering mental illness in California jails and prisons. It was long before I knew as much as I do now about the criminal justice system, mental illness and how the criminal mind works.

It was so long ago that I’d forgotten his name and just had to look up the story I wrote about him for The San Diego Union-Tribune – it was Juan Galvan. But I still remember how he looked in the fluorescent light of the George F. Bailey Detention Center in Otay Mesa, and a few details about his case: This guy was paranoid schizophrenic, and he’d been sent home on a bus from state prison to his Spanish-speaking parents’ house in the Golden Hill area of San Diego with a vial of prescription meds, which he, not surprisingly, lost on the bus.

When I talked with him, Galvan was awaiting trial on charges that he’d attacked and murdered a number of people in his neighborhood park. Uneducated and with limited English-language skills, his parents didn’t seem to understand mental illness and didn’t know what to do when their son sat on the sofa chain-smoking through a blowhole between his pulled-down hat and turned-up collar, or why he didn’t know who they were. Or, when he locked himself in the boiler room and made it up to look like a solitary prison cell, he played sad Mexican songs, or talked to the birds in the back yard. I remember quite clearly that his skin had a green cast in the light of the county jail, and that I wasn’t sure if it was a side effect from his medication or if it was just the artificial lighting.

Galvan, who didn’t believe he was mentally ill, told me he was “confident, optimistic” about his case because he did not commit the crimes. “I know everything’s going to be all right,” he said.

His parents believed in his innocence as well, that it was a conspiracy by law enforcement to blame their son for the murders. “If he was guilty we would know it,” his father told me. “He lived here and never did anything to us.”

Fast forward to 2012. I’m no longer a daily newspaper reporter, but a New York Times bestselling author, working on my seventh true crime book with my newest book, LOST GIRLS, coming out in July about the rape and murder of Chelsea King and Amber Dubois by sexual predator John Gardner. But some things  haven’t changed: Even the convicted killers are still telling me that they’re innocent.

Today, I’m heading up for a sentencing hearing in Orange County scheduled for Nanette Packard and Eric Naposki, two former lovers who were convicted of conspiring to kill Nanette’s multimillionaire boyfriend Bill McLaughlin back in 1994, the same year, coincidentally, that I interviewed Galvan. I’ve interviewed Naposki twice now for more than seven hours and he is a charming, friendly guy. A real talker. A former linebacker in the NFL and also the World Football League, Naposki is a really big guy, who joked with me and flexed his enormous Popeye-esque biceps to prove that he doesn’t need steroids to be big.

When he wasn’t regaling me with stories of his winning tryout for the New England Patriots, his career in security, and how much he loved the kids from his two failed marriages, he was explaining to me how Packard had hired a hit man to kill McLaughlin – and it wasn’t Naposki, who was named the shooter by police, prosecutors, and then a jury last July.

Naposki’s lawyers have spent months putting together a motion asking for a new trial, saying his first one wasn’t fair because evidence that would have proven his innocence has long been destroyed and key witnesses have died. So, he likely won’t be sentenced today, to give the prosecution time to respond to the motion.

Unlike several other convicted killers I’ve written books about, Naposki isn’t mentally ill. The case against him is murder for financial gain. And he has changed his story multiple times. But what people need to understand – and why they can learn from reading my books – is that killers, whether they’ve been convicted or not, don’t have a big sign on their forehead or a greenish hue to their skin.

But like all three of these men I’ve interviewed since April 2009 -- Eric Naposki, John Gardner and Skylar Deleon – killers can seem quite charming. They are manipulative by nature. Two of them have sung to me during our interviews. They have tried to play me and persuade me that they are good people as I ask them probing questions and try to uncover their secrets so they unknowingly reveal who they really are. My author friend Laurel Corona, a fellow SDWW member, says I’m brave, but frankly, I just find it fascinating.

My writing students at UCSD Extension asked me if I confront these men and called them on their lies, and I said no, not always. As Naposki put it, I play devil’s advocate, point out when they contradict themselves or say things that don’t make sense, but I know that if I become too confrontational they will shut down and the interview will be over. Or they just won’t let their true colors show. So I let them say what they want, then I come around and ask what I want.  

It’s a subtle exercise of psychological gamesmanship, which I always find interesting. My goal is to show readers a three-dimensional picture of these people, and I’ll let my readers decide if I come away with the winning stuff.

New York Times bestselling author Caitlin Rother, a Pulitzer-nominee who worked as a investigativer reporter for nearly 20 years, has written or co-authored eight books: Poisoned LoveDeadly Devotion/Where Hope BeginsMy Life, Deleted, Body Parts, Twisted TriangleNaked Addiction, and Dead Reckoning. Out on July 3 is Lost Girls about the murder of innocents Chelsea King and Amber Dubois by sexual predator John Gardner. For more information, please check her website,


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