Shadow Boxing

A blog that probes the mind's dark secrets

Never Take Candy From Strangers

A journalist’s most difficult task is to write about the murder of children.

One of my favorite forensic books is Steve Jackson’s No Stone Unturned. It features the difficult cases undertaken by a unique team, NecroSearch International. It’s a volunteer organization of victim advocates comprised of highly trained professionals, including biologists, geologists, chemists, anthropologists and other specialists. They use the most advanced technology from their fields to locate bodies in places difficult to search, such as underwater or in the mountains. Their “finds” are remarkable.

So, I looked forward to another book from this journalist.

Jackson, an award-winning New York Times bestselling true crime author, also writes fiction with former New York ADA Robert K. Tanenbaum. Jackson likes to write true crime as a police procedural, so his response was no surprise when I asked what had attracted him to the subject of his most recent true crime book, Bogeyman.

The title alone conjures up creepy figures grabbing our foot from under the bed or jumping out of a closet. Just imagine being a little girl when some strange man walks up and offers you candy. Then he whisks you away from everything you know, into a world of fear and pain. Yes, the bogeyman in this book is a serial child killer, David Elliot Penton.

Jackson was working on a story about a case in Texas solved by Detective Gary Sweet when he heard about the story. “I asked him if he had any other good cases,” Jackson told me, “and he said that the one he was most proud of was Penton.”

The investigation had profoundly affected Sweet, and while Jackson would normally steer clear of child murder cases, he spotted a story arc about four detectives who pulled the pieces together. “As I started talking to some of the other detectives involved," he stated, "I saw a pattern.”

Jackson not only captures their persistence in tracking down elusive leads but also documents the psychological toll it took, and the ripple effect on their families.

There was nothing easy about solving these cases, and it required officers willing to go above and beyond what’s expected. Often, they worked on their own time. Through Sweet, we see how painstaking cold case investigations can be, and how difficult it is to extract important clues from someone’s anguished account. TV makes it look simple; it's not.

Readers will see not only the work of good detectives, but in contrast, the poor efforts of some of their colleagues. A child killer slipped through the cracks, thanks to cops who didn’t take the time to follow leads. That’s why Penton targeted what he called “throwaway kids.” He’d calculated that the effort to find him would be minimal. But he didn’t know about these four cops. That’s the story here. This is where the suspense and satisfaction play out.

The sordid tale begins in Mesquite, Texas, in January 1985, when Linda Meeks reported her missing 5-year-old daughter, Christi. The girl had been with her brother and a friend outside the apartment complex when a white male with longish dark hair and blue eyes asked if they wanted cookies. Christi got into his car.

It was three months before fishermen found her body in Lake Texoma. They identified her from her “Color Me the Rainbow” T-shirt. The trusting child had walked right into the hands of the bogeyman. And she wasn’t the last one.

Christie Proctor, a fourth-grader, was walking from her North Dallas apartment in February 1986 when she vanished. It was two years before her body was found in a south Plano field.

Roxann Reyes was playing with a friend outside her mother’s apartment in Garland, Texas, in November 1987, when she was snatched. The killer had unsuccessfully chased down the older girl and returned to find 3-year-old Roxann standing by his car, waiting for her “candy.”

All three girls were sexually assaulted and strangled. The cases seemed linked but clues were difficult to find. Witnesses had offered descriptions of the man, but no one knew who he was.

There are true crime books that just lay out the facts, and there are true crime books that pull you deeply into a world. Jackson writes deeply. That’s because he sticks with the cops who lived with the cases, who were haunted by dead-ends, and who kept the investigations alive.

Penton was caught in Ohio in 1991 for the murder of another little girl. In prison, he started to brag. He talked about the three Texas girls and had a scrapbook with pictures and codes. He annoyed other inmates, and some were willing to inform. Slowly, a terrible picture emerged of a true-life bogeyman.

Penton had killed his own two-month-old son in a rage. As he awaited trial, he abducted the Texas girls before fleeing. He has bragged about raping and killing at least 50 little girls. Authorities suspect him in over 20 cases.

It’s all in Bogeyman, a fascinating, well-paced read about the lows and highs of cold case investigations.

The book is published by Wild Blue Press, a venture that Jackson has launched in response to the chaos we've seen in traditional publishing houses since the advent of e-books and the ease of self-publishing. He’s gathered several bestselling authors into a consortium.

“Instead of waiting on the whims of traditional publishing,” the website states, “our authors decide what they want to publish and when, then we take it from there.”

With Jackson’s solid record and the group of authors he’s assembled, this innovative approach should produce some much-needed quality work in the arena of true crime.  

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

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