In Netflix’s hit series Mindhunter, fictional FBI agent Holden Ford—who is based on legendary real-life FBI special agent and criminal profiler John E. Douglas—interviews some of the most notorious serial killers of his time to try to better understand why they committed such horrific crimes.
New York Times bestselling true-crime author Suzy Spencer knows what it’s like to sit face-to-face with a killer, questioning them about their life and atrocities. Here, she talks about how she had two murderers incriminate themselves during interviews and how other true-crime writers avoid being manipulated by killers.
I am sitting knee-to-knee with a cold-blooded murderer. He hasn’t killed just one person, a Texas woman named Regina Hartwell; he’s the number-one suspect in a second murder. In fact, he’s rumored to be a hit man for the Mexican Mafia. And our knees are touching. I don’t move away.
That happened 20 years ago this month. If I were doing that interview today, I would hear in my head the words of fictional FBI agent Holden Ford in the Netflix series Mindhunter: “We must establish communication. Nonthreatening communication.” That’s advice Ford repeats throughout the series, as he discusses how to talk with hostage-takers and murderers.
In a later episode, Ford is noticeably nervous as he interviews serial killer Edmund Kemper. Kemper points that out. Ford denies his anxiety.
If Justin Thomas, the man whose knees touched mine, had told me I was nervous, I would have denied it, too, because I thought I was calmly doing my job…as he moved from knees to taking me on a tattoo tour of his body.
The tour started innocently enough with the ink on his arms. Then, suddenly, Thomas stood. Towering over me, he pulled up the back of his white prison shirt. I wondered if he was going to strip in front of me. But all he did was show me the Spanish words needled into his back and translated them with a smile. Then he lifted up the front of his shirt and showed me the tattoos on his taut torso. That’s when I noticed the glint in his eyes as he watched me looking at him, and I thought about the fact that he hadn’t seen a woman, who wasn’t a prison staffer, in God knows how long.
I realized that in the hours he and I had been locked alone in that prison interview room, no one had checked on us, no one had even peeked through the small window in the door.
Then as I left our 4-hour encounter and pushed against the prison door in front of me, I discovered it wouldn’t open. I hit it again and again and it wouldn’t budge. I began to panic that I was trapped in prison. I had been nervous. After three or four more pushes against the door, I discerned that the door behind me hadn’t yet shut. In a prison the back door must close before the front one opens.
Finally safely tucked in my home, the editor of Wasted, my book about Justin Thomas, and I talked on the phone. “What was he like?” she said. “Charming, right?”
“How did you know?”
“They always are.”
“Interviewing killers is somewhat similar to interviewing politicians,” explains Caitlin Rother, a bestselling author of almost a dozen books, including the true crime Love Gone Wrong. “You know they are going to try to assess you, spin you, impress you and win you over by telling you what they think you want to hear, because most killers are conmen (and women), and highly manipulative.”
“You will be ‘played’ from the moment you introduce yourself, and you won’t even realize it,” adds Ron Franscell, another bestselling author of true-crime books, including The Darkest Night. “Your killer will undoubtedly tell you how close he feels [to you] or how much he trusts you. Making you think he is your buddy is part of his manipulative game, like a Venus fly trap.”
Indeed, Franscell admits that in his dozens of interviews with convicted killers, each one has played him persistently. “They are where they are because they are superlative psychopaths or sociopaths, and they care only about themselves. But they are also superlative chameleons who adapt to their immediate surroundings—including you. And when you are finally convinced these are decent people in unfortunate circumstances, you’ve lost.”
That’s why most true-crime writers research their killers thoroughly before sitting down with them. We read their court and jail records. We study their psychological and medical records. We talk to law enforcement. We talk to their attorneys and opposing counsel. We talk to their friends and family, anyone who may have had an encounter with them. We observe them in court and/or read their trial transcripts. Only then do we write a letter to them requesting a prison interview.
Through their attorneys, friends and family members, they usually already know we exist and are writing a book about them. They may have even observed us in the courtroom. So, be it good or bad, we have established some sort of a relationship.
Still, when I sit down with a murderer, the first thing I do—which is the first thing most true-crime writers do—is say that I want to hear and tell their side of the story. I must—we must—be sincere in that interest. Then I begin with easy questions, such as, “Tell me about your childhood.” Once they seem relaxed with me, I ask them about how they met their victim (though I never say “the victim.” Instead, I use the victim’s name). Eventually I meander into getting them to tell me their side of the murder. Then I let them talk, because killers have perfected their well-rehearsed chronological spiel that they think explains how and why they are innocent. And no matter what they say, I don’t—we don’t—react.
Franscell recalls interviewing a triple killer who stashed his victims’ corpses in an abandoned mine for almost two months. “I had to sit there rather placidly as he described carrying their decomposing flesh in his arms to the next dump site.”
But placidly listening and timing our interruptions of their rehearsed narratives helps us break through to the truth. For example, they may be in the middle of their story when I’ll suddenly jump back to the beginning of their timeline and throw out some weird or seemingly innocuous question that’s completely off topic. Or I may jump forward in time. Either way, it throws them out of their rehearsed story. And that’s when they’ll say something that they didn’t intend to reveal and that something may very well be a tidbit that incriminates them.
When I was interviewing Celeste Beard, who is serving a life sentence for the murder of her wealthy husband, for my book The Fortune Hunter, I had to work fast. The Texas prison system had changed its inmate interviewing rules and I had only one hour—to the minute—to do the interview.
The prosecution had argued that Celeste had coaxed Tracey Tarlton, her lesbian lover, into killing Celeste’s husband and that Celeste had planned the killing down to every detail, including walking Tracey through the house and telling her where to enter, what to do and where to exit. Celeste denied she and Tracey were lovers and she denied that there had been a walk-through of the house. So, again, I listened intently to every detail of her well-rehearsed story.
When my 60 minutes were up, the guard started rushing me out of the prison, but Celeste still wanted to talk. I knew that was my chance—that was when she was going to be careless. As I left the room, with my tape recorder still on, I shouted random questions, and Celeste shouted back her answers. And as I asked her how Tracey had gotten into the house that night, Celeste said she thought it was just a fluke, Tracey must have been angry, because “if she wasn’t angry, she would have remembered the walk-through.”
Celeste Beard had just incriminated herself, and after a beat she realized it, because she quickly added, “If there really was a walk-through.”
I had played into her narcissism, acted like I believed her exaggerations, and then gave her, no pun intended, enough rope to hang herself.
Similarly, Justin Thomas denied murdering Regina Hartwell, but he admitted to burning her body. So once he was relaxed with me, I nonchalantly asked him what was going through his mind when he was burning her body. “This stuff,” he said, “it can’t be going on again.”
That “again,” which I had on tape, was enough to bring him to trial in that second murder, because in that murder, he had burned the body, too. And it was enough to find him guilty. Justin Thomas is now on death row.
As Holden Ford said, “We must establish communication. Nonthreatening communication.”