A new book examines more than 100 years of American love affairs gone horribly wrong.
His friends call him “Mr. Murder,” but David Krajicek is not your typical police reporter.
“I'm not from a family of cops, I'm not friends with cops – in fact, for years, I tried to get off the crime beat,” says Krajicek from his part-time home on the Florida Gulf Coast.
But despite his efforts to tackle “more serious” subjects (“I could imagine that science reporting might hold my interest”), the seamier side of the human experience kept calling—and Krajicek kept answering, first as a reporter at the Omaha World-Herald, then the New York Daily News, then Tru TV's Crime Library, and now as the author of several books, including Scooped! Media Miss Real Story on Crime While Chasing Sex, Sleaze, and Celebrities.
Krajicek's most recent book, Murder, American Style: 50 Unforgettable True Tales of Love Gone Wrong, is a titillating collection of true stories from 1889 to 2002 . The Crime Report talks to Krajicek about love triangles, inept hitmen, and why he's Facebook friends with murderers.
The Crime Report: I was astonished to read in the introduction to your new book that every year in the United States, 700 marriages end in murder. Is there something particularly American about killing your spouse?
David Krajicek: The U.S. has more murders, period, than most other Western nations, and I think that has to do largely with the availability of guns. We're able to kill more quickly. When you look at all the relationship murders—siblings, lovers, parents— there are about 2,000 a year, and all but about 10 percent of them are impulsive homicides. They're often triggered by an argument and often influenced by drugs or alcohol. About 70 percent of these relationship murder cases involve the use of a firearm. Basically, there's an argument, somebody has access to a gun, and the next thing you know bad things happen.
TCR: The cases you focus on in your book aren't the impulsive cases, however.
Krajicek: Right, the cases that I focus on in this book tend to come from the exceptions: the planners, the plotters, the conniving killers. Many of cases in the book are drawn from the years I spent writing a weekly column called “The Justice Story” at the New York Daily News. The column has been around since 1923, and each week I'd take a look at an interesting old murder. One of my fascinations is the motives behind these crimes. I'm not interested in how many times someone was stabbed or where they were shot, I'm interested in the back story that leads up to the murderous act. And the cases in the book tend to focus more on that than the Ann Rule-style gory details.
TCR: You look at 50 murders that span more than 100 years. Did you find any trends?
Krajicek: That's actually one of the most interesting things—I'm not sure love triangle murders have changed since the days of Shakespeare. I think that by and large the threads that run through love triangle murders are what I call the “terrible twins” of the seven deadly sins: lust and greed. One of the partners finds themselves with a new love and they just can't imagine life fettered by the debts that divorce brings – alimony, child support, lawyer's fees, mortgage payments.
So, lust and greed is often what lead to the murder, and hubris and arrogance come after. They think they're not going to get caught because they're smarter than all of us. Most of them learn that they've overestimated themselves, and once they get caught they just can't conceive of what they've done that they just deny and deny. I have email and Facebook friends who are in prison for murder for some of the cases that I've written about, and they spend all their time trying to prove that they didn't do it. I suppose this happens with all criminals—you know there are no guilty people in prison—but it seems even more intense in cases where people have killed someone that they once professed to love, perhaps because so many of these acts are so unconscionable. There are cases in the book of parents who kill their children for insurance policies. And so I guess you do what you have to do to try to justify an act like that.
TCR: Hold on: you have Facebook friends who are in prison for murder?
Krajicek: I do. Journalism has definitely changed. One of the women I write about in the book, Celeste Beard, is in prison in Texas for killing her husband, Steven, a wealthy Austin television executive. She was his younger wife and I think basically she got bored with him and wanted a different man—and he ended up dead. But she weighs in from prison all the time trying to prove her innocence. I think she actually does it through her mother. I don't think she necessarily has a computer in her cell. She sends little snippets of transcripts from her trial that she believes indicate her innocence. I disagree, but she's a regular on Facebook.
TCR: Your book covers a lot of geography – did you get the sense that murder is different in different areas of the country?
Krajicek: I just think that based on anecdotal evidence alone, Florida and Texas have to lead the nation in goofy homicides. Florida in particular, it's just kind of unthinkable how so many of these idiots think they're going to get away with crimes that they seem to put absolutely no thought into.
One of the great examples is the first story in the book, the “Flapjack Love Shack” [involving a love triangle between employees at a Naranja, Florida pancake house]. These people decided that someone had to die and decided to hire a hit man to do their dirty work. It's a classic example of people putting less thought into hiring a contract killer than most of us would to hire a plumber. Just sort of asking around, “Hey, would you kill somebody for $200?” In that particular Florida case they hired two local mechanics, no experience necessary.
TCR: What is it about Florida and Texas that make for such “goofy” homicides?
Krajicek: I don't know for sure. So many people in Texas are just so proud of themselves, so maybe hubris plays a role in the Texas cases. Texas people—they love their damn state and they kind of love themselves. In the Florida cases, I think Florida, because of the nice weather, attracts a kind of a migrant population more so than other states do, so perhaps it's a magnet for weirdos.
TCR: This coming from a man sitting in a condo near Pensacola.
Krajicek: True. But I swear I'm not running from anything.
TCR: You've written about crime your whole career – starting at the Omaha World-Herald, then in New York, and your next book is about real-life murders in Missouri. What fascinates you about the subject?
Krakicek: I guess my come-to-Jesus moment was probably the Central Park “Preppie Murder Case” in 1986. It was just such a fascinating case in so many ways, because it involved a young man [Robert Chambers] out of control, and a good young woman [Jennifer Levin] who was denigrated in the press for no good reason. [Chambers, 21 pled guilty in the strangling death of Levin, 18. He initially claimed she died during “rough sex.”] We used to joke at the Daily News about crime stories that had “all the elements.” The preppie murder story had all the elements, including the pressure on the police department, political pressure and public fascination with the case which was sort of beyond anything that I'd experienced in the Midwest.
I'm interested in crime trends, and technological and sociological change having to do with crime in America, but the main thing that interests me is telling these stories— every one of these crime beat stories is a little morality fable in one way or another.
TCR: Does the seemingly endless public fascination with true crime surprise you?
Krajicek: A decade ago, when I was trying to get to the bottom of crime reporting (for my book Scooped!), I actually asked experts why there was such interest. One theory is that people like the grass to be browner on the other side of the fence. We kind of revel when bad things happen to other people. We also like to pick through these bones to look for clues to make sure it doesn't happen to us—it's a kind of vestigial caveman tendency, I think.
Julia Dahl is deputy news & content editor of The Crime Report.