One of my favorite true crime authors is Corey Mitchell, author of such books as Hollywood Death Scenes and Strangler. He recently released a new book called, Pure Murder, which is excellent. It is the story of the murders of Jennifer Ertman and Elizabeth Pena in Texas. I was honored to be included in Corey’s Virtual Book Tour for Pure Murder.
1. What drew you to true crime and writing about true crime?
I was lucky to have parents who did not censor anything I read as a child. I was a voracious reader at an early age and was reading adult books early on. One of the most important books I read during this time period was Vincent Bugliosi and Curt Gentry’s Helter Skelter about the Charles Manson/Sharon Tate murders. I was only nine years old at the time. So much about that book fascinated me from the crimes to the victims to the killers to the police and legal teams who solved and fought the case. But that book went beyond the usual “3 C’s of True Crime” — Crime, Capture, Conviction. It took a look at every aspect of the cultures involved from Hollywood celebrity, to middle class America, to the so-called hippie culture. It was and is a fascinating book that works on so many different levels beyond the obvious.
In 1997, after I graduated from law school, I moved to Los Angeles to pursue a career in artist management and possibly entertainment law. One of the first things I did upon my arrival was to bring a couple of friends along for a Charles Manson tour. We hit all the key locations from Sharon Tate’s residence (or what was left of it) to the LaBiancas home to Gary Hinman’s house, plus Spahn Ranch and much more. The tour completely changed my perspective on the case and made me want to investigate more. I had no idea at the time, but that trip was the genesis for my first book, Hollywood Death Scenes: True Crime and Tragedy in Paradise, which is, in essence, a true crime travel guide for the City of Angels. Plus, I am proud that I was able to write about the Manson case in my very first book.
2. Your new book, Pure Murder, is a very heinous case in Texas, one that I have posted on myself. What made you choose this case to write about?
I was giving a speech at a political gathering outside of Houston in 2006 for the release of my newest book at the time, Evil Eyes. I was joined by one of the people involved in the story, Andy Kahan, whom I had written about in the book and with whom I have since become good friends. Andy works out of the City of Houston’s Mayor’s Office as a crime victims’ advocate and he let me know that the day before, a young man by the name of Derrick Sean O’Brien received a temporary stay of execution based on whether or not death by lethal injection is considered to be humane. Andy was livid about the news. That’s when he told me about the crimes he committed, along with five other boys, back in 1993. I was unaware of the case as I had been heavy duty into law school at the time, which basically is just another way of saying I was not one with the rest of the world for three years. I was fascinated by the story he told me from the murders to the backgrounds of the killers to the incredibly hellish legal ordeal the parents of the girls endured. I was sold and knew that I had to tell this story.
3. In writing about true crime, especially murder cases, what do you find to be the most challenging?
Staying disciplined. It is extremely difficult at this time as I also take care of my 2 ½ year-old daughter during the day and attempt to do my research and writing at night and on the weekends. Of course, I have already written three books and 100 pages on my next book while taking care of her so I guess I have figured out a way.
As for the actual writing of true crime, I do not find any of it hard. I love the genre and want to learn every aspect of every case I work on and tell the most accurate, compelling, and heart-wrenching tale I can so I look at it as a privilege and an honor.
As for the gruesome quotient of what I do, it comes with the job. I will never become completely hardened to what I see, hear, read, and write, however, I do not let it bother me while in the process. Usually once the manuscript is complete and turned into my editor, I take a nice long hot shower and shed a few tears for the people involved in yet another tragic tale.
4. How do you deal with or work with the victim’s families?
With as much care and compassion as I would want if I was in their shoes. Even though I lost my first wife unexpectedly when she was only 38, it did not come at the hands of violence. I can understand the pain and torment that accompanies a loved one’s sudden death, but not the attendant brutality that goes with death by murder, nor the excruciating legal process that will inevitably follow. All I can do is assure the families that I will do my best to tell the truth about their loved one’s life, and death, but that it will be honest and sometimes their scars of life may be on display.
5. How did you get into writing about true crime?
By 1999, I had “retired” from the music business and decided to pursue my idea for what became my first book, Hollywood Death Scenes. Simultaneously, I was lucky enough to work as a research assistant and photographer for author Dennis McDougal on his book on the Cary Stayner case, The Yosemite Murders. I got to sit back and watch one of my idols at work and was able to learn from the master. I am forever indebted to Dennis.
6. Since you have written a few books on murder, do you find that there are a lot of similarities, maybe with the murderers?
On the contrary, I believe it is almost impossible to narrow down a group of people into little charts that say, “If he does this, he will become a killer.” In almost every one of my books, I take criminal “profilers” to task. With the exception of the real licensed, authorized profilers of the F.B.I., such as Roy Hazelwood and Robert Ressler, profiling is worthless. There has never been a single murderer captured based on a so-called profile. It’s because people want to ascribe a certain number of set traits and mannerisms to killers and it just can’t be done. Killers come from all walks of life, cover the entire economic stratum, vary in size, shape, and sex and can be the girl next door just as easily as the pervy looking middle-aged man down the street.
As a result, each of the killers I have written about is vastly different from one another. Maybe it is a subconscious choice on my part to avoid repetition or boredom, I don’t know. But that is also one of the things that make writing true crime exciting and rewarding. The ability to go in and potentially dissect a human mind and try to determine what makes him or her tick.
My patented line is I am a proud liberal Texan who supports the death penalty. As for the murder of Jennifer Ertman and Elizabeth Pena, I believe this is a textbook example of why we have and should continue to have the death penalty. As you said earlier, the heinousness of the crime, the callousness displayed by the killers as they bragged about having the “blood of a virgin” on their underpants, to the complete lack of remorse from the killers all these years later. If you saw the full-on crime scene photos from the case, not just the glimpses I provided in the book, you would be completely mortified and marching in the streets to make sure each one of these young men get executed.
8. What are your feelings on the Jose Medellin situation? How did the victims’ families feel?
The Supreme Court of the United States’s recent decision to deny Medellin’s alleged lack of consular representation was absolutely the correct call. It is a very complex matter involving international treaties, states’ rights, and interference from President Bush that could take months to properly explain. Suffice to say, even if Medellin had consulate representation from the Mexican government, the outcome of his case would have remained the same and he probably would have been executed five years ago.
The families of the girls were happy, but hesitant. Adolph Pena has been down this road before when he thought the others were going to be executed. Two of the boys had their sentences changed to life in prison based on their age at the time of the crime. They had been scheduled to die and SCOTUS knocked down their sentences literally months before their judgment days. Also, the aforementioned O’Brien’s delayed execution made Pena a bit gun shy.
Medellin is scheduled to die on August 5th, however, not many people are certain it will happen on that day. Once he takes his final breath, only then will Mr. Pena feel confident. That is, until Peter Cantu’s case finally comes out of appeals.
9. Have you spoken with any of the defendants?
Unfortunately, no. I wrote letters to the five living defendants (O’Brien had been executed before I decided to pursue this story) and none of them called me or returned my correspondence.
I don’t mind though because most killers are liars. I have spoken extensively with some of the killers I have written about, but I have a very difficult time believing anything they say. Always take what a killer tells you with a grain of salt.
10. What is next for you?
As usual, way too much.
I am currently in the midst of this Virtual Book Tour for Pure Murder. That will be followed by an underground radio tour and finally, a ten-city book tour in August to revolve around Jose Medellin’s execution.
Later that month, I will be starring in a television series on TV Land entitled Myths and Legends wherein I discuss famous and infamous Hollywood legends. It is a seven-part series that is scheduled to run through October.
During that timeframe I will be doing weekend book signings throughout Texas for the majority of 2008.
I am currently 100 pages into my next book on Bart Whitaker, a young man who hired his best friends to kill his family during his Christmas vacation. That book will be released in 2009. After that, I have another book deal with Kensington for a 2010 release.
Meanwhile, I will continue to contribute to the Investigation Discovery website as part of the Discovery Channel, oversee my various blogs, Blood of the Scribe and Corey Mitchell’s True Crime Book Updates, hold contests on my MySpace, and enjoy the success of another blog I founded, In Cold Blog.
Oh yeah, and I also contribute to a great heavy metal blog, MetalSucks. That means I will be heading to OzzFest in Dallas this August!
The “Word of the Day” is MYSTICAL.
Be sure to catch Corey Mitchell tomorrow at Blood of the Scribe (http://coreymitchellbots.blogspot.com) where he will sit down with friends and fans.
Be sure to read the other interviews in the PURE MURDER Virtural Book Tour. Each one is very interesting. And be sure to look for the word of the day. He is holding a contest, which you can get the details about and also the links for the other interviews at In Cold Blog (which is one of my favorite true crime blogs).