by Annette Dashofy
The question of why I choose to write crime fiction has come up several times lately. When I started writing “novels” back in my early teens I wrote westerns and science fiction mostly. They were all crap. Trust me. I think my mother probably still has them hidden away somewhere as potential blackmail material. But at some point, I switched to a life of crime…writing, that is. And after giving it some thought, I think I’ve pinpointed exactly when that happened.
I’ve lived in rural Washington County, Pennsylvania all my life. Most of our crime is small potatoes, although lately, drug dealers have been moving out here from Pittsburgh. But back in the mid-seventies, it seemed like a pretty safe place to live. Then came November of 1976.
On November 25, 1976, Susan Rush, age 21, of Washington was found strangled in the trunk of her car. She’d left her job at Murphy’s in the Washington Mall shortly after 6PM the night before.
Mary Irene Gency, age 16 of North Charleroi disappeared on February 13, 1977 after leaving home to meet some friends after dinner. Her battered and raped body was found six days later in some secluded woods.
Seventeen-year-old Deborah Jeannette Capiola of Findlay never made it to her school bus stop on the morning of March 17, 1977. Her body was discovered ten days later, just over the Allegheny County line in Robinson. She had been raped and strangled.
And on May 18, 1977, Brenda Ritter, age 18 left her boyfriend’s house shortly after 10PM as he and his mother watched her drive away, making sure that her doors were locked. Girls in Washington County were getting jittery. Still, she never made it home. Her body was found the next morning, three-quarters of a mile from her abandoned car. She also had been raped and strangled.
Some say the string of murders ended there, as suddenly as it began. Further research reveals other similar murders in West Virginia and Ohio before and after these dates.
The Washington Strangler, as this “serial killer” was called, made quite an impression on me. I was a senior in high school at the time. The dead girls were close to my age. I frequented the Washington Mall and G.C. Murphy’s where Susan Rush had worked.
It was during that time period that I wrote my first crime fiction novel, inspired by the real life unsolved mysteries. I created two women cops, the female versions of Starsky and Hutch. (Shortly afterwards a new hit TV show premiered. Cagney and Lacey. I guess I was a little ahead of my time.) Like my westerns and science fiction efforts, my first crime novel sucked swamp water big time. But in that novel, my fictional cops solved the string of murders. Small comfort. Three of the four real ones remain unsolved. Deborah Capiola’s killer was arrested in December 2000 after advances in DNA connected him to the murder. It’s also cleared him of at least two of the others.
That potentially leaves at least one other crazed killer out there.
That string of murders left me rattled as a young female, suddenly aware that her rural home wasn’t the safe haven she’d previously believed. But it also sparked my interest in crime writing. In our fiction, we have control over the outcome. Our heroes find all the clues, connect all the dots. The bad guys get caught and justice is served. There is a strange sense of fulfillment in making things turn out “right” in the end. Thirty years later, there is still no satisfactory ending to the stories of Susan Rush, Mary Gency, or Brenda Ritter.