Tuesday, August 22, 2017

Prison Visits: Guest post by Kathryn Casey

Kathryn Casey is the author of fourteen books, her most recent POSSESSED: The Infamous Texas Stiletto Murder. In Plain Sight, on the Kaufman County prosecutor murders, is scheduled for publication by HarperCollins in early 2018. Ann Rule called Casey “one of the best in the true crime genre.”

Kathryn Casey:
Prison Visits

The door opens, and suddenly he’s there. Minutes later, he grins, his excitement palpable, as he describes the murders of four women. A crime writer’s life can take strange turns. 

I started covering sensational cases for magazines in the eighties, and it stuck. In the mid-nineties, I began writing true crime books. Eleven books later, I traveled Texas interviewing folks for Deliver Us (Harper, 2015), investigating more than two dozen unsolved murders that unfolded between 1971 and 1997 near Interstate 45, south of Houston.

I’d considered writing this particular book for some time. The cases haunted me. Over the years, I’d collected Houston Chronicle articles on the killings in a folder I kept in my desk drawer. At times, I took it out, reread them, and wondered. The murders were, after all, the ultimate mysteries, and I felt compelled to find out what happened to so many young women.

In many ways, true crime isn’t an easy life. I do an incredible amount of research, spend long weeks even months on stiff-backed wooden courthouse benches during trials, and over the years I’ve had to get used to pretty strong reactions from people I approach asking for interviews. It comes with the territory. For the most part, those involved agree to talk to me. Some, however, aren’t happy to see me when they open their doors.

As I dug into the I-45 murders, I realized that although the cases remained unsolved, there were suspects. The majority of the killings appeared to fall into three groups, divided by decades and linked by proximity. I always try to interview everyone involved, so I journeyed between five Texas prisons, where the main suspects are inmates serving long sentences for unrelated crimes. Most of the men denied they’d murdered anyone.

One glaring exception: Mark Roland Stallings.

Tall, muscular, bald, edgy, Stallings is suspected in one of the murders tied to the notorious Texas Killing Field. Between 1983 and 1991, four sets of remains were recovered from under trees in what was an overgrown oil patch, a mile from the highway. The victims included: a 23-year-old waitress, Heide Fye, a high school student, Laura Miller, and two unidentified women, Jane and Janet Doe.

While all the bodies were found in the same area, the fourth killing differed from the first three, suggesting two killers. Stallings was the prime suspect in the death of the final victim, Janet Doe.

That day I walked into the prison, I felt a familiar knot in my chest when the metal prison doors clanked shut behind me. The place was grim. Prisons pretty much all are. A special building reserved for high-risk inmates, that section of the Gib Lewis Unit struck me as even more suffocating than most. Moments after I arrived, a guard brought Stallings out and locked him in a metal cage opposite me. I felt a surge of gratitude for the thick window that separated us, as Stallings picked up the phone on his side of the Plexiglas to talk to me.

In truth, I’d assumed Stallings would claim innocence, like most of the others I’d interviewed. To my surprise, he instead recounted in vivid detail how he strangled Janet Doe and his involvement in the murders of three other women.

The experience was more than unsettling.

Most of the killers I’d interviewed in the past and since acted for some form of personal gain, money or possessions, for revenge, many to dispose of significant others who became inconvenient. While tragic, the killings had some twisted logic.

Mark Stallings murdered for a more primal reason: he enjoyed it.

I’m not new at this. I’ve heard and seen a lot over the years, but it’s hard to interact with someone like Stallings. He talked with a detached delight about his years in the Texas Killing Fields. And he didn’t blame himself or hold himself accountable for his crimes. Instead, he felt justified. The women were at fault. They were troubled. They were disposable.

Why write a book on men who commit such horrific crimes? For one reason: to understand.

More than any other aspect, I’ve always been interested in the psychology of the cases I cover, and as we talked, Stallings recounted a common history for serial killers, one involving childhood sexual abuse and early experiences that mixed sex and violence.

While his history didn’t in any way mitigate his abhorrent crimes, perhaps it explained some of the volcanic rage that consumed him.


Patti Phillips said...

Fascinating journey. I understand Ms. Casey's interest in the psychology behind the crimes, but does she ever have nightmares? How does she deal with the intensity of the information she uncovers?

Kathryn Casey said...

It's hard sometimes, Patti. Never as hard as while I researched and wrote DELIVER US, however. The crimes were so brutal and senseless, so random. I don't usually have nightmares, but I did while I worked on that particular book.

Patti Phillips said...

Do you ever have contact with the killers or the victims' families after the books are completed?

Kathryn Casey said...

Yes. I often hear from them, and I've become rather close to some of the folks I've written about over the years.