Shadow Boxing

A blog that probes the mind's dark secrets

Forensic Pathologist's Crime Quartet

Ann Rule publishes Cyril Wecht’s crime “shorts,” adding autopsy grit.

Back in September, I invited Dr. Cyril Wecht, one of the world’s most renowned forensic pathologists, to speak at my university about the JFK assassination. It’s one of his lifelong passions. While we were together, he mentioned that Ann Rule had started a true crime ebook publishing business (Planet Ann Rule), which was about to publish his latest book, Final Exams.

I looked forward to it. I’ve always enjoyed Dr. Wecht’s writing. Between his expertise from some 18,000 autopsies and the considerable research ability of his co-writer, Dawna Kaufmann, I know I can expect an absorbing narrative. “For as many death cases as I’ve investigated,” Wecht says, “I’m still seeing new combinations of fatal elements that astound me.”

Now, here it is.

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I’m familiar with true crime shorts, as I’ve written six for CrimeScape. They’re a nice length for a couple of hours’ reading. But don’t let this label make you think you’ll be short-changed. As I read each of the four crime cases that Dr. Wecht chose from his bulging files, it’s clear that every important detail is included – and then some. With each one, it felt as if I were reading nearly book-length tales. You’ll get your money’s worth!

What’s great about this set of narratives is that each tale is so different from the others, and each includes Dr. Wecht’s autopsy notes, behind-the scenes privileged access, and expert perspective. You feel as if you’re seeing the cases unfold through his eyes – especially when things go wrong.

We have “twisty tales” about a child killer, a murder set-up, a lunatic stalker whose need for control victimizes everyone in her path, and an extremely weird suicide. Each one has it’s own challenges, strategies and outcomes, and things certainly aren’t as neat as cop TV tells us. Far from it.

Jessica Lunford’s terrible abduction and murder in Florida made headlines, especially after it became clear that law enforcement missed the boat on potentially finding her alive. You, the reader, will feel this misstep keenly. Then, be prepared to be outraged over the aftermath. What looked simple became dishearteningly complicated.

Similarly, with the 2006 murder of a dentist in PA, John Yelenic, who was stabbed repeatedly but also had his head forced through a window pane in his home, where it slashed his neck. It was difficult for me to read about this case, because I live in the state where it happened, and I had to accept the unprofessional behavior of state troopers who did nothing to stop the man who clearly was bent on murder – because he was one of their own! The red flags were all there for a solid threat assessment.

It’s almost hard to believe that the case of Dr. Andrew Bagby is nonfiction. The bizarre developments are truly stunning, involving two countries and laxities in two legal systems. Even worse, the killer was aided by a psychiatrist who help pay her bond! As a result, justice was thwarted every step of the way. This one is really infuriating!

But my favorite case in this collection is the first one, “The Willing Victim,” because it truly does prove that truth is stranger than fiction. Motivational speaker Jeffrey B. Locker got himself into a jam. His solution is unsettling enough, but the others involved in his demise, and their reasons, would make this situation comic if it weren’t so sad. Locker supposedly wanted to die. He supposedly wanted help. He had a convoluted plan. He looked for someone to carry it out. Kenneth Minor happened along at the wrong time, apparently on the day he left his moral compass at home. As a result, he got a lot more than he bargained for, in all the wrong ways.

These cases have been covered in the media, but such stories go only so far. Wecht and Kaufmann carry the case through not just the forensics and autopsy but also the legal channels and beyond, stopping only when there’s nothing else to be known.

Wecht knows how to speak about highly technical (and grisly) issues in a way that the average reader can understand. He also radiates compassion. These tales are story telling, not just analysis. You meet people (including both authors), learn their backgrounds, and experience them as full-blooded individuals. You feel for those who suffer and care about how things turn out. The victims are not stick figures. You get a powerful sense of what their murders mean, in terms of a loss well beyond just the tight circles of friends and relatives.

The four murder narratives were selected not just for their twists and turns but also for the larger themes they convey. Dr. Wecht and Dawna Kaufmann take you on an evocative and compelling trip into the world of a forensic pathologist who cares about his cases and wants truth and justice to prevail.

Katherine Ramsland, Ph.D., an expert on murder and other shadow themes, teaches forensic psychology and has published 46 books.

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