Thursday, November 30, 2006

The Stories That Haunt Us

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?

13 comments:

Gina said...

The Baumhammers case caught my attention, too. The guy was a lawyer -- he has since been disbarred. He belonged to the Allegheny County Bar Association, of which I am also a member. This was shocking because, contrary to popular belief, lawyers as a group are highly ethical people and the ACBA actively supports diversity and opposes discrimination. Believer me, I know. I serve on the Gender Bias Subcommittee. So when this guy -- one of our own -- went on a racist rampage, it was really a shock. Lawyers should know better!

Anonymous said...

At the time this rampage happened, I was a fairly frequent customer of the Indian food store that was hit.

We tend to want to believe that these horrific things only happen somewhere else, not here, not to people and places we know. And when it does, it puts a real damper on our little illusion of being safe and sheltered from the wickedness of the world.

I think we writers like to keep all the crime between the pages of our books. We're as shaken as anyone by the real thing.

Joyce said...

We had a triple homicide in Shaler a few years ago. We don't have very many homicides here. The actor was a dispatcher for McCandless township, and he went to his ex-girlfriend's house and shot her, her new boyfriend and her sister. When they were dating, the dept. had been called to domestics at the house, but nothing bad enough to indicate that he was going to snap.

Another case here which was horrible was a woman who was supposed to be taking care of her paralyzed, incapacitated brother and let him starve to death. When the cops were called to the house after his death, they couldn't believe the condition of the deceased's bedroom. I won't describe it here--I don't want to make anyone ill.

The most facinating cases are those in which we just can't imagine what is in the mind of the perpetrator.

Nancy said...

I was in 7th grade when a girl my age in a neighboring town was raped and murdered by her math teacher. That was a biggie.

I was at IKEA the day of the Baumhammers tragedy. Got stuck in a huge traffic jam & didn't know why until we got home to watch the news. I found myself sympthasizing with the victims, of course, but also his parents.

I think it's hard for an amateur psychologist to imagine what goes on in the mind of a schizophrenic or even someone who suffers from less debilitating mental illness. It's one of the reasons, I think, I'm often turned off by poorly researched "thrillers." It's great to have a resource like Tory among us!

Meryl Neiman said...

When I was in high school, a friend of mine's brother was murdered by his roommate at a sleepaway camp. The boy who killed him was the son of a well respected African American author and the grandson (I believe) of the camp's owner. They knew that the kid was troubled, but sent him to camp anyway.

My friend's family's life changed overnight. It became consumed by obtaining justice for their son.

Kristine said...

I also believe that we as writers of crime fiction have a responsibility to portray crime accurately, which means trying to understand the root of the evil that consumes people to commit these criminal acts.

Tory said...

Kristine, how riveting! On the one hand, I want to say, "I'm so sorry you had to sit there, not three feet away from him." On the other hand, the curious side of me is sort of jealous.

I do feel like I have a pretty good sense of what goes on in the heads of people with schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, and personality disorders, so I can sympathize with some of the crazy things they do. I can, at some level, understand crimes of passion. I know what it's like to be enraged, even it has never made me physically violent.

On the other hand, with pure psychopaths (I don't know if Baumhammers was one, I don't know the case well enough) I'm not sure it's about understanding what goes on in their heads as what DOESN'T go on in their heads. How can someone be born without any morals or desire for human connection? THAT I find difficult to imagine. Or maybe I just don't want to go there?

Tory said...

That should be, "I know what it's like to be enraged, even THOUGH it has never made me physically violent."

Kristine said...

Tory, a part of me felt extremely uncomfortable being in the same room as him, yet the other part of me--the writer--was hoping I would make it as a juror in his trial.

Sadly, we were just used as a test run.

Tory said...

Kristine: Do you know, did they decide to give him a jury trial?

Kristine said...

Tory: Yes, I believe they did.

Kristine

Cathy said...

Strange case and I always felt such sympathy for the victims and their families. An arbitrary blotting out of life, despite the racial connection. I've always been intensely curious about this man and his killing spree, what motivated him, what made it all happen.

Your connection with it all is amazing, Kristine.

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