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Murder, They Wrote

Some investigations have used fiction to assist with a conviction.

K. Ramsland
Source: K. Ramsland

Just how separable fiction is from its author is an endless debate, but some literary expressions might be inadvertent autobiographical leaks. Still, should such peeks into an author's life become legal evidence?

David Grann describes such a case in The Devil and Sherlock Holmes. Commissar Jacek Wroblewski, a detective in Poland, spotted a link between the unsolved torture murder of Dariusz Janiszewski in 2000 and an intellectual named Krystian Bala: Janiszewski’s missing cellphone. Janiszewski had been scooped out of a river near Wroclaw, his wrists bound behind his back and tied to a noose around his neck. Soon after he'd gone missing, Bala had sold the phone online.

Wroblewski learned that Bala had published a sadistic pornographic novel, Amok, which hinted at the murder of a man and included the murder of a woman that had some similarities to Janiszewski. Bala’s former wife, Stasia, acknowledged that Bala had used facts from their relationship in his novel and that she’d once dated the victim, which had upset him. This suggested that Amok had autobiographical leaks. The main character was “Chris” and Bala had used this name for his own emails and online transactions.

Maybe there was more to these parallels than some blurred lines.

Under arrest, Bala protested that he’d merely used news reports for the plot. However, his character obsessed over the same philosophical themes as he did, had been similarly abandoned by his wife, had a similar run-in with police, had the same drinking problem, had gone through bankruptcy, and had Bala's narcissistic sense of superiority. Bala had known about his wife's date with the victim, and soon thereafter Janiszewski had disappeared. Then Bala had published the novel. A phone card held further incriminating evidence.

During the trial, there was heated resistance to the idea that fiction could be used as evidence, no matter how realistically it depicted an actual person or event. Bala had vehemently argued that the author stands apart from his work. Still, he'd sometimes talked about his character as if Chris were him.

The court heard witness reports that Bala was a control freak, "pathologically jealous" of his wife and inclined toward sadism. A psychological assessment confirmed his "sadistic tendencies" and his need to demonstrate his superiority – just like Chris. The behavioral evidence, including the novel, spun the circumstantial evidence against Bala. He was convicted.

The idea of autobiographical leaks becoming maps to murder also showed up in the case of serial lust killer Gerard Schaefer. A former deputy sheriff in Florida, he peld guilty to the assault of two teenage girls in 1972 and was soon linked to the murders of two more. When police confiscated items associated with missing and murdered women from his room, he became a suspect in other murders. In addition, he’d written and illustrated a manuscript about hangings from a killer’s point of view that seemed to mirror what he'd done. Had more convictions been pursued, the manuscript might have become key evidence.

Even more clearly tied to a crime was an arson investigator’s novel. The case began with a fire that leveled a store in 1987 in Bakersfield, CA. Arson investigators found a time-delay incendiary device made from matches and a cigarette. When two nearby craft stores burned down in the same manner, officials believed they had a serial arsonist. Plotting other recent fires along a map, they discovered that most had been set near interstates.

The roster of a conference for fire officials in the area included participants who’d traveled through the fire zones. Yet the investigation went cold until several deliberate fires occurred near another such convention. Ten participants had attended both. Advanced technology on a fingerprint linked it to John Orr, one of the ten on the suspect list. An experienced arson investigator, he’d been seen at most of the fires. This suggested he might be getting a sexual thrill from setting fires.

When Orr was arrested and charged, investigators found an extensive collection of home videos of the fires, as well as a draft of a novel he’d written, Points of Origin, about a serial arsonist named Aaron Stiles, who was a firefighter. Orr had aspired to become a bestselling writer and the manuscript mirrored many of the actual fires. This helped to build a case and Orr was found guilty of three counts of arson. He pled guilty to three additional counts and was sentenced to 30 years.

But more serious charges were also filed. In 1984, an Ole’s Department Store had burned to the ground, fed by polyurethane foam inside the building. Four people had died, including a two-year-old boy and his grandmother. In Orr’s novel, he’d described an identical fire in a store called Cal’s, including the death of a fictional grandmother and her young grandson – a boy with the same name as the actual victim. Defense attorneys scoffed at the idea that evidence for a murder case could be found in a work of fiction, but Orr was nevertheless convicted of murder.

Mark Twitchell also aspired to be a best-selling writer. Inspired by the TV series, Dexter, he’d lured two men, one at a time, to his amateur film studio in Edmonton, CA. He pressured them to participate in his feature about a sword-wielding serial killer. One man escaped, but the second targeted victim was not so lucky. Twitchell killed and dismembered him in the way he’d seen on the TV show. Soon, he was arrested.

A key piece of evidence presented for first-degree murder was a document from his laptop called SK Confessions. It opened with: "This story is based on true events. The names and events were altered slightly to protect the guilty. This is the story of my progression into becoming a serial killer."

Well, others have written fiction in first-person, posing as some type of homicidal offender, but Twitchell’s manuscript details closely matched the evidence from his studio and the witness report. It described his failed attempt just as the escapee told it. He had indeed used fake dating profiles to lure his victims and had treated one just as he describes it.

Twitchell admitted to the killing but claimed it had been self-defense. He’d used the incident in the novel, he said, but had changed the facts to make it a more compelling read. He challenged his accusers to sort out fiction from fact. Apparently, his alternative version was unconvincing. In 2011, the jury convicted him.

Although plenty of authors write dark fiction that has no connection to their actual lives or feelings, there are times when autobiographical leaks match criminal evidence sufficiently to help make a case. Investigators would be remiss to ignore it.

More from Katherine Ramsland Ph.D.
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