What are you doing here?
Summer, 1958. I was a thirteen-year-old geek with thick glasses, frizzy hair, a scruffy dog named Laddie, and two girlfriends who lived up the street. Our family lived in Wilmette, a suburb of Chicago. My father was a corporate attorney; my mother was a housewife and aspiring teacher; my younger brother had flaming red-hair and loved sports; my little sister wore her straight blonde hair in pigtails and was an avid reader. We lived in a roomy white stucco house with a front lawn my father mowed on the weekends and a back yard where he grew tomatoes, carrots, zucchini, corn, parsley, squash, and herbs.
I babysat for fifty cents an hour and had three regular clients. It felt good to pocket the three or four dollars I’d make on a good night and was pleased that at thirteen, I had my very own stash.
One night, my babysitting job took a turn I could never have imagined. The parents left for a night of dinner and dancing at the local country club. Their five children, aged ten to two years, were my very favorites, so I was pleased when Shirley called to tell me she and her husband were going out for the evening.
It was a hot summer evening. I’d tucked all the kids in bed and was headed to the living room, wondering what book to read – except there was a man – unshaven, holding a cane sitting in a chair by the fireplace. My heart pounded, and my feet froze to the floor. When our eyes met, neither of us moved. Was this man’s intent to hurt me? Hurt the kids? Kill all of us?
He said nothing. I said nothing. My mind raced: who was he? How did he get in? What was his intent? Should I call the police? Should I make a move at all? Why is he staring at me like that? Why does he have a cane? Does he have a gun?
Watching him stare at me felt like time had stopped. I didn’t know where I was or what would happen next. All that existed was the unshaven man with the cane and me. Finally, I surprised myself (when my fear subsided a bit) by treating the man as a guest, not a lawbreaker.
“Would you like some coffee?” I asked, hardly understanding why I offered a refreshment instead of racing to the phone to call the police.
His expression didn’t change when he said, “No on the coffee. I want to talk.” His voice sounded raspy, like he had a cold or was sick. What would we talk about, Sports?
I edged toward a chair, sat down, gave him a weak smile, and asked what he’d like to discuss.
The verbal floodgates opened. He talked about his zig-zag life, why he took the “L” train from Chicago to Wilmette, and how he happened to pick the big house on Central Street for his surprise appearance. After about an hour, he rose and walked out the front door.
December 2020. Camarillo, California. Years later, with my true crime manuscript completed and after having spent thirteen years riding shotgun with my co-author, LAPD’s Badge Number One, John “Jigsaw” St. John, I’d learned a thing or two about crime and murder. We worked on one serial murder that began as a home intrusion but wound up with five elderly women raped, strangled, and murdered. Capote’s classic: In Cold Blood reminded me of my fascination with crimes that begin with a break-in (much like the one that happened to me) but end in murder.
For the next few blogs, I’ll explore why these crimes are especially terrifying.