Wednesday, July 11, 2012

Author Caitlin Rother on Interviewing Killers For a Living

I interviewed my first accused killer in June 1994, when I’d been a newspaper reporter for about seven years and was covering mental illness in California jails and prisons. It was long before I knew as much as I do now about the criminal justice system, mental illness and how the criminal mind works.

It was so long ago that I’d forgotten his name and just had to look up the story I wrote about him for The San Diego Union-Tribune – it was Juan Galvan. But I still remember how he looked in the fluorescent light of the George F. Bailey Detention Center in Otay Mesa, and a few details about his case: This guy was paranoid schizophrenic, and he’d been sent home on a bus from state prison to his Spanish-speaking parents’ house in the Golden Hill area of San Diego with a vial of prescription meds, which he, not surprisingly, lost on the bus.

When I talked with him, Galvan was awaiting trial on charges that he’d attacked and murdered a number of people in his neighborhood park. Uneducated and with limited English-language skills, his parents didn’t seem to understand mental illness and didn’t know what to do when their son sat on the sofa chain-smoking through a blowhole between his pulled-down hat and turned-up collar and didn’t know who they were. Or when he locked himself in the boiler room, which he’d made up to look like a solitary prison cell, played sad Mexican songs, or talked to the birds in the back yard. I remember quite clearly that his skin had a green cast in the light of the county jail, and I wasn’t sure if it was because he was not well or if it was just the artificial lighting.

Galvan, who didn’t believe he was mentally ill, told me he was “confident, optimistic” about his case because he did not commit the crimes. “I know everything’s going to be all right,” he said.

His parents believed in his innocence as well, that it was a conspiracy by law enforcement to blame their son for the murders. “If he was guilty we would know it,” his father told me. “He lived here and never did anything to us.”

Fast forward to 2012. I’m no longer a daily newspaper reporter, but a New York Times bestselling author, working on my seventh true crime book as I’m promoting my newest book, LOST GIRLS, which was just released July 3, about the rape and murder of Chelsea King and Amber Dubois by sexual predator John Gardner.

Suffice it to say, I’ve learned a lot about the criminal mind and the criminal justice system since 1994, but some things still haven’t changed: Even the convicted killers are still telling me that they’re innocent, or in Gardner’s case, that it wasn’t all his fault – that he tried to seek treatment to stop himself before he killed again. It’s unclear how hard he tried, but I did check out his claims, and was horrified to learn that there are NO substance abuse or mental health treatment beds in San Diego County that will take a convicted sex offender like him.

He and his mother did try to get him committed at a public psychiatric hospital in Riverside County, but because the laws regulating the admission of patients under the imminent danger law are so arcane, the doctor reportedly didn’t believe Gardner qualified as 5150 – someone who is deemed to be in imminent danger of harming himself or others – he sent him on his way with two vials of prescription medications. About a week later, Gardner went on a near fatal suicidal drug binge and then another week later, he raped and killed his second victim, 17-year-old Chelsea King.

Just recently, I headed up for a sentencing hearing in Orange County for Nanette Packard and Eric Naposki, two former lovers who were convicted recently of conspiring to kill Nanette’s multimillionaire boyfriend Bill McLaughlin back in 1994, the same year, coincidentally, that I was interviewing Galvan. I’ve interviewed Naposki twice now for more than seven hours and he is a charming, friendly guy. A real talker. A former linebacker in the NFL and also the World Football League, Naposki is a really big guy, who joked with me and flexed his enormous Popeye-esque biceps to prove that he doesn’t need steroids to be big.

When he wasn’t regaling me with stories of his winning tryout for the New England Patriots or background about his career in security and his two failed marriages, he was explaining to me how Packard had hired a hit man to kill McLaughlin – and it wasn’t Naposki, who was named the shooter by police and prosecutors, and then last July by a jury.

Naposki’s lawyers have spent months putting together a motion asking for a new trial, saying his first one wasn’t fair because evidence that would have proven his innocence has long been destroyed, witnesses have died, etc. So, as it turned out, he wasn’t sentenced that day, to give the defense more time to respond to the due process/new trial motion his attorneys have just filed.

Unlike Gardner and other convicted killers I’ve written books about, Naposki isn’t mentally ill. The case against him is murder for financial gain, a “special circumstance” allegation that made him eligible for the death penalty. And he has changed his story multiple times.

But what people need to understand – and why they can learn from reading my books – is that killers, whether they’ve been convicted or not, don’t have a big sign on their forehead or a greenish hue to their skin. Gardner won an award in school as “Best Conversationalist,” and could be quite friendly and seem nonthreatening – whether he was at the dog park, or on the hiking trial. Just 90 minutes before he killed Chelsea King, he was perched on a rock in the Rancho Bernardo Community Park, drinking beer, smoking cigarettes and chatting with a woman, who was out running with her dogs, about the live rattlesnake he used as a ruse to get her into a conversation.

Like all three men I’ve interviewed since April 2009 -- Eric Naposki, John Gardner and Skylar Deleon – some killers can seem quite charming. They are manipulative by nature. Two of them have sung to me during the interviews. They try to play me and persuade me that they are good people as I ask them probing questions that try to uncover their secrets without them knowing and to reveal who they really are. My author friend Laurel Corona, a fellow SDWW member, says I’m brave, but frankly, I just find it fascinating.

My writing students at UCSD Extension asked me if I confront these men and call them on their lies, and I said no, not always. As Naposki put it, I play devil’s advocate, point out when they contradict themselves or say things that don’t make sense, but I know that if I become too confrontational they will shut down and the interview will be over. Or they just won’t trust me and won’t let their true colors show. So I let them say what they want, then I come around and ask what I want to ask.

It’s a subtle exercise of psychological gamesmanship, which I always find interesting. But my goal is to show readers a three-dimensional picture of these people. I’ll let my readers decide if I come away with the winning stuff.

Thanks so much to Caitlin for stopping by In The Next Room! For more information about Caitlin Rother, please visit her website at, follow her on Twitter, @caitlinrother, or “like” her author’s page on Facebook:

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