Catch a killer

January 9, 2006 at 2:01 pm (Uncategorized)

Slowly, slowly, catch a killer. Slowly. Slowly. Catch a killer.

She used to say it to me all the time. She’d creep up behind me at my desk and whisper it in my ear. She’d call me on the weekend and repeat the ominous mantra. Sometimes, she’d send the simple yet startling words in an e-mail.

Her name was Sharon Santus and she was the leader of the justice team at a newspaper in Virginia. She was compelled to repeat this hypnotic phrase because I had a glaring habit of rushing headlong into a murder investigation.

It was a personal flaw long before I went into the news business. When a person is killed and the slaying is shrouded in mystery, I can’t wait for the truth to be revealed. I want to know whodunit, how they dunit and why as soon as I can. I want to unravel it all like a knot no one else can manage.

Most people know that I’m short on patience. When the virtue was being doled out, I was prowling the fishing docks of Newport News, asking about a man I was sure had committed an atrocious act.

It was the nasty cane killing back in 2000. An elderly woman had been beaten with her walking stick and left on the floor of her apartment. I had been assigned to the case and within a few days, I was sure I knew the identity of the fiend. Absolutely sure of it. I wanted to prove it, alert the police, and write a long, breathless story for the reading public. I wanted to explain away all the elaborate, nebulous riddles that had so confounded the entire population.
“Slowly, slowly,” Sharon would tell me, catching me by the arm before I went bolting out the newsroom door for the fourth time in an hour. “Catch a killer.”
She was right, of course. One loquacious witness or a single, tasty clue does not mark the resolution of a crime. Tenacity is an admirable quality in a sleuth, but so is restraint. These days, I have a new boss with equal wisdom advising me against working in haste.
Yet, I don’t believe I’m alone in wanting to race to the facts sometimes. Most cops will tell you they’d like to have all the pieces gathered up and the big crime puzzle solved by the end of the day. Wrap it up, book the culprit and hand him over to the courts.

The average person reading the headlines over coffee tends to prefer a quick resolution, too. In national crime stories and local ones, they scan the pages or television channels in search of new developments, no matter how wee those developments might be.

Family members ache a little more each day that passes without answers. Killers have left their loved ones dead on city streets, in the woods or in shallow graves. Nobody can tell them why.

Since 1971 in Maine, nearly 100 murders have gone unsolved. One that haunts me is that of Dorothy Milliken, bludgeoned to death outside a Lisbon Street laundromat in 1976. Milliken’s daughter, 30 years older now, wonders every day if the killer will be found.

But not all of these haunting crimes are 30 years old. There was Butch Weed in 2003 in Wilton. Eighty-year-old Helen Caron, killed when an apartment building was burned down in Lewiston in 2001. Crystal Perry, stabbed in her Bridgton home in 1994. And of course, James Vining and John Graffam just a month ago. More killings, few explanations.

I’ve been particularly involved lately in the Vining and Graffam investigation. I speak to sad friends or family members and try to eke out clues. More than once, I’ve been convinced I was onto something. More than once, I’ve been disappointed with what I’d found. Because I was working with a sweaty desperation to grasp the answers that have eluded the sharpest minds in the state.

Unsolved murders haunt not only those directly involved with the deceased, they haunt entire communities. Somewhere among us walks a person with the derangement to take a life and the cunning to hide his or her sins.

Somewhere on the downtown streets, I might have handed a cigarette to the very hands that killed those two men and left their bodies out by the railroad tracks. You might have handed the killer change during a transaction at the bank.

I’d like to suggest that there is a way out of this for all of us. The killers who walk among us do not need to live with the white-knuckle burden of their crimes. Contact me and confess. Call and admit your crimes and you can be led smoothly to the fate you have wrought. No more living in fear of discovery, no more emotional crippling of your neighbors.

Slowly, slowly, catch a killer. It’s a fine sentiment for someone brooding over the complexity of a case. But there is an equally good catch phrase for those who have created all the pain and turmoil: “Confession is good for the soul.”



  1. Anonymous said,

    Great piece of blogging. Glad I accidently found your blog. I would love you to visit this site subliminal messages and tell me what you think.

  2. fizzlefart said,

    are you trying to give him suggestions or what?–>

  3. rachel said,

    i am a big lover of corn, oh, boy, i tell you yes

  4. Daniel said,

    Television news is like a lightning flash. It makes a loud noise, lights up everything around it, leaves everything else in darkness and then is suddenly gone.

  5. Blogs, news and more! said,

    I am just amazed at how well you write! Keep-on going you are just so good… mary

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