by Kristine Coblitz
My new favorite TV show is “Murder By The Book™” on Court TV. This one-hour show features bestselling crime writers as they talk about the real life crimes that have influenced their writing careers. Watching this show got me thinking about the crimes that have influenced my own crime writing career. For me, one story in particular continues to haunt me and no doubt influences my fiction writing.
In April 2000, Richard Baumhammers went on a racist shooting rampage starting in Mount Lebanon. The office in Scott Township where I used to work was within walking distance to a synagogue where he opened fire and across the street from the shopping plaza where he killed a man at an Indian grocery store. He covered 20 miles in 72 minutes and left five people dead, one person wounded, and two synagogues damaged. Witnesses to the crime remarked that Baumhammers showed no panic or anguish.
My co-workers and I followed the chaos that was happening outside of our office building by watching the local news sites online.
The real kicker came a year later in March 2001, when I was called to serve for jury duty. I spent most of the day sitting in a stuffy room reading a book among other people who looked just about as bored as I felt. But then everything changed. The media filtered into the room, and I had the unsettling suspicion that something huge was about to happen. A few minutes later, Richard Baumhammers was escorted into the room. Everyone around me gasped.
I was part of the mock jury selection for his trial. We were to help determine if this man, accused of being responsible for one of the worst hate crimes in Pittsburgh’s history, was capable of having a trial judged by an impartial jury. The judge asked us questions about our knowledge of the case. The entire process took about fifteen minutes, but it made a lasting impression on me as a person and also a writer.
Looking back, what struck me the most about Richard Baumhammers was his size. He towered over everyone in the room. He wore a plain button down shirt, jeans and glasses. He had no expression on his face. As I sat about three feet away from this man, I wondered what made him snap that day. I also wondered what demons were inside his head to make him do something so sinister and full of rage.
Even now, as I dig into the minds of my fictional villains, I try to think about Richard Baumhammers, as well as the many other real-life criminals who commit these hateful acts. I may never get an answer to why these people do what they do, but the unanswered questions are what make crime fiction so interesting...and so important.
So that’s my story. What crime stories have hit close to home for you?