Today I’m pleased to share a guest post by debut thriller author Carl Vonderau, but first here’s the book info…
William McNary is a private banker who keeps his clients’ secrets — and some of his own. His father is Harvey Dean Kogan, the infamous serial killer known as “The Preying Hands,” responsible for killing thirteen women who abused children in the Chicago area. He brutally butchered them and then arranged their bodies for his disturbing black and white photos. These pictures started the “murderabilia” market, which William can’t seem to escape. Thirty years later, William has carefully constructed his life to exclude his father’s name and history. But a threatening phone call from a man claiming to be his brother shatters his idyllic life and makes him fear for his family’s safety.
The Hard Life of a Child of a Serial Killer
In researching my thriller, Murderabilia, I soon learned that a killer’s offspring are also his victims. They endure both the public’s and their own personal punishments for their parents’ sins. All suffer the endless repetition of the same question: How could you not know?
Kerri Rawson is Dennis Rader’s daughter. Her father was known as BTK: Bind, Torture and Kill. He horrifically murdered ten people, including two children. This is all that most of us know about him. But Kerri remembers the treehouse her father constructed in their ample backyard. Dennis Rader hiked, played, and prayed with her. He was a scout leader and president of his local Lutheran church. When she married, he walked her down the aisle. He never gave her any reason not to adore him. Until he was arrested.
Melissa Moore is the daughter of Keith Jesperson, The Happy Face Killer who murdered at least eight women. She remembers being a child and running to grab the change from his pockets. He would throw her in the air and take her for ice-cream or gummy worms. They rode bikes and took camping trips. As she got older she felt increasingly uneasy around him. But how could she ever suspect he was a serial killer?
Fred and Rose West killed at least twelve people in the UK. Their second eldest daughter uses Mae as a fake name and had a horrific childhood. She describes how her parents locked her and her siblings in the basement. They heard something going on upstairs but didn’t know what it was. When Mae got older, her father sexually abused her. Then her older sister disappeared. Mae and her brother suspected their parents had killed her. But the thought of being thrown into foster care kept them silent. With all that suffering, Mae still remembers how her family always ate dinner together. Her mother made fabulous cakes for their birthdays.
Edward Wayne Edwards killed at least five people, including his son. His daughter suspected he was a murderer for many years. But not until she was forty-eight, and had two children of her own, did she submit her DNA to the police. Her father was soon arrested. Maybe the thought of protecting her own kids led her to, at last, betray him.
Mickhail Popkov is the worst serial killer in the history of the former Soviet Union. He killed as many as sixty-nine women. To this day, his daughter Katya says she never suspected his double life. She still finds it hard to believe, despite his detailed confessions. Where were the cuts and bruises his victims should have given him?
Who wouldn’t resist the claim that the man who raised you, the man who was kind and made you laugh, could leave your home and brutally murder people? As Kerri Rawson puts it: “It’s as if your whole life is a lie.”
The arrests of their fathers blew apart these children’s lives. When an FBI agent told Keri Rawson that her father was BTK, she thought she’d pass out. She stared at walls and talked in circles. Suddenly the man she loved was being called a monster. TV crews knocked on her door and trumpeted every deviant act of this stranger. Even the police made her feel violated. Overnight her family became pariahs and had to go into hiding. Then there was the terrible guilt. Any odd past behavior of her father became suspicious—the neighbor lady who was strangled using BTK’s technique, her father’s love of true crime, the time he lunged at her brother, how he taught her self defense as if to protect her from someone like him. In the days after her father’s arrest, the FBI found his hiding places in the house and in her childhood treehouse. His “hidey holes” were full of mementos of his killings—like photos, journals, and underwear. Even the transistor radio at his bedside had belonged to a victim. How could Rawson ever trust her own instincts again? It’s no wonder she struggles with post-traumatic stress disorder.
When Melissa Moore was fifteen, her mother sat her down to tell her that her father was in jail for homicide. Her mother, perhaps from denial, perhaps to protect her children, refused to say more. Melissa went to the library to learn of her father’s atrocities. In a few hours, he transformed from protector to predator, as if he were two separate people. Overnight her peers shunned her and parents kept their children away. Then the guilt set in because of the clues she’d seen. Each memory was an accusation: his torture of cats, his knowledge of how to kill someone and get away with it, his love of detective fiction, his embarrassing public discussion of sex, a roll of duct tape in the cab of his truck. Once her father told her that he’d done bad things. But he wouldn’t say more because Melissa would go to the police. Later, rewinding that strange conversation, she wondered if her own father would have killed her to protect himself. Did she carry the Devil’s genes?
Taalibah Muhammad, the son of John Allen Muhammed, the D.C. sniper, cried when his father’s picture popped up on the television. He was eleven years old. Taalibah was publicly ostracized and privately filled with shame. Kids at his school asked if he had guns at home, and if he would do the same thing. The very questions condemned him.
All these children were victims. Many have lived with the fallout from their fathers’ crimes for ten years or more. Rawson says that the secret shame and guilt rotted her insides. Some changed their names and moved to different cities to shake the stigma that stuck to them. Most ceased all contact with their fathers for a time. Or they pretended—at least to themselves—that their fathers had died. Rawson and Moore have gone public, written books, and tried to connect with the families of the victims. Ted Bundy’s daughter went through several name changes and has managed to remain hidden from the press and her father’s “fans.” Most haven’t been able to fully reveal to their own children what the missing grandparent did. Instead they parcel it out as their kids grow older. Now parents themselves, parts of their own lives have been frozen since the arrests.
Next time you condemn the family of a serial killer, consider your own life. Suppose you had a happy childhood and loved your father. Then one day the FBI knocked on your door and informed you that he had a secret hobby—killing people. You too would be shattered, your whole life repudiated. How could you cherish such a monster? Why didn’t you see it? The self-blame would torture you endlessly. In a matter of hours you’d become another of his victims.