A few months ago, our writing group leader asked, “How many of you can pinpoint the moment you realized you had to tell your story?”
One of the many pivotal moments I had while writing my book wasn’t the morning I read a newspaper article about a legendary detective who’d just received a medal for solving a case and (in an impetuous moment) decided to call him. It wasn’t the moment he finally agreed to meet me or the moment he described the heart-stopping arrest of Bill Bonin with his probable next victim in the Death Van. It wasn’t the moment St. John talked about the vicious attack that cost him the sight of his right eye. The pivotal moment happened during a conversation between Barbara Bien, whose son was murdered by Freeway Killer, Bill Bonin, and me.
Detective John St. John, my husband, Jim, and I had spent half an hour with Barbara in polite conversation before I turned on my tape recorder and began the interview. We had been talking about logistics – what she went through when she first realized Steven hadn’t come home from work, her shock when she realized the real reason a group of policemen were on her doorstep, and the long night at the mortuary sitting next to Steven’s casket. Suddenly, she asked if I wanted to see his bedroom. I told her, yes. But I worried what it would be like to see a murdered child’s unchanged bedroom. Everything would be as it was the day of his death.
Steven’s bedroom felt haunted. There was his desk, his sports magazines, the photo of a freckle-faced kid with strawberry-blonde hair. There was a sympathy card from his shop teacher and a card from his friends on the day of the funeral. There was his death certificate.
“Steven was my sunshine,” Barbara said. “A peanut butter and jelly kid. Look at these pictures! We used to watch horror movies together, but now, my life is the horror movie. He’d sit cross-legged, eating a box of Cocoa-Puffs while I sat in my chair knitting. One March evening, a newscaster broke in with a bulletin: “Another body found off the Ortega Highway. Probably another Freeway Killer victim.”
Barbara told Steven never to hitchhike. Never! Never! He said he’d never let that creep pick me up! If anyone ever got hold of him, he’d Kung-Fu the monster. Pow! Whap! His mother told him he couldn’t fight his way out of a paper bag.
That was the moment I knew I had to write this book. Bells didn’t go off, or lights flash on. The moment was just a heart-to-heart conversation with another mother who faced a horrible loss with such enormous courage. She became an advocate for victims and my hero. The other moment was meeting a detective who, faced with the loss of an eye, spent his entire career standing up for victims like himself. He became their voice and my hero too. That’s why I’m writing this story.
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