Blindsided by ‘Blindsighted’

blindsightedA few weeks ago, I was delighted to learn several friends and co-workers shared my love of Tony Hillerman’s novels, mysteries set in the American Southwest and featuring two Navajo Tribal Police officers.

As a bonus, I received a recommendation to check out the writing of Karin Slaughter, an Atlanta-based writer of crime novels set in Georgia. My co-worker suggested I might start with “Triptych,” the first in a series of six novels about a Georgia Bureau of Investigation agent named Will Trent.

I headed to the public library, but they didn’t have it so I left with “Blindsighted,” which I later learned was the first in a series of six other novels set in fictitious Grant County. Turns out it also was Slaughter’s debut novel in 2001, a New York Times bestseller and nominee for the Crime Writers’ Association’s Best First Crime Novel.

Well, after breezing through that 434-page paperback novel, let me say this: It’s not what I expected.

There are plenty of positives: A strong sense of place in small-town Heartsland. Clear, muscular writing fortified by well-researched detail about medical and police procedures. Appealing lead characters in Dr. Sara Linton, the town’s pediatrician and corner, and Jeffrey Tolliver, the town’s police chief and Linton’s ex-husband. Solid pacing and careful plotting that kept me turning the pages, eager to see what would come next.

What I didn’t anticipate was the depth of sadism and sheer evil embodied by the killer and another suspect. I’m not particularly squeamish, but this book had me cringing at times. Slaughter (an appropriate name for a writer in this genre) conjures scenes involving torture of especially vulnerable women that go beyond anything I’ve read before. The words “diabolical” and “depraved” came to mind.

Karin Slaughter

Karin Slaughter

The first chapter opens with the grisly death of a blind college professor. The second victim is an emotionally unstable college student. The third and fourth victims? I won’t say.

I knew nothing about Slaughter going in. She’s astoundingly prolific, with 16 novels, 3 short story collections and 1 anthology to her credit — and she’s only 44. And she’s achieved international success, with her books available in 32 languages.

Perhaps I should have been patient and waited for “Triptych.” Starting out with “Blindsighted” was like jumping into a cold bath. It left me shivering and uncomfortable.

BTW, the book title comes from a word that means “The ability of a blind person to sense the presence of a light source.”

Consider that a hint as to where some of the torture scenes take place.

Photograph: Alison Rosa

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A life gone bad

Jamie France was crowned Miss Teen Oregon-World in 2009 as a high school senior. Now 23, she was charged this week with possession of meth, heroin and a controlled substance.

Jamie France was crowned Miss Teen Oregon-World in 2009 as a high school senior. Now 23, she was charged this week with possession of meth, heroin and a controlled substance.

Ex-Oregon teen pageant winner among 3 arrested in Keizer drug bust”

That’s the kind of headline that turns readers into rubberneckers and invites ridicule. But behind every set of mug shots like these lies a sad story.

In this case, it’s the sudden freefall of a former teen pageant winner who was one of three people arrested this week after a raid where cops found heroin, methamphetamine, cocaine and hallucinogenic mushrooms.

Just five years earlier, Jamie France was a high school senior who was crowned Miss Teen Oregon-World. On Tuesday, at age 23, she was charged with possession of meth, heroin and a controlled substance. Earlier this year, an astute reader pointed out, she was one of two drivers who were both cited for DUII following a head-on crash in the wee hours on a major highway about 25 miles west of Portland.

How, when and why a young woman of such promise got hooked on nasty, hard drugs is baffling. But the takeaway for me is the same as what I experienced a day earlier, when I was reporting on the suspicious death of a 39-year-old man whose body was found in a car in a ditch outside a small, desolate town in Kansas.

In short, a life gone bad.

***

And why would I be reporting on a dead man in Kansas?

Turns out the guy was originally from Portland. Find out what you can about him, my editors said. See if you can talk to any of his Portland relatives.

In short order, with the help of our crack news researcher, I learned the man had been sentenced to prison two years earlier for dealing meth. He’d been put on probation in lieu of a prison sentence, but had absconded in late October. Local authorities in Kansas said they had identified three “persons of interest” in his death. Hmmm. Might these suspicious characters have equally sketchy backgrounds? Might they also be involved with hard drugs?

I called the man’s aunt in Portland, offered my condolences and asked, gently, what she could tell me about her nephew. She hadn’t seen him in more than 20 years, she said, but she knew he’d been in trouble. He’d done 10 years in a Idaho prison for grand theft, she told me. She was aware he’d been busted in Kansas.

Her nephew left Portland shortly after high school. Never married but had a girlfriend and an adult daughter from another relationship, both living in Missouri. The aunt said her sister-in-law had simply quit being a mom to this guy and his brother when they were still kids. Other family members stepped in to raise the boys. Things hadn’t turned out much better for the other brother, she said.

“There were issues in his life that he couldn’t overcome,” she said of her nephew. “Let’s just say he didn’t land in fertile ground.”

It was a sad story, she said with a raspy voice, but not uncommon.

I agreed, thinking of countless inmates across the country. How so many lives have gone bad. How each of their families have had their hopes and hearts broken.

“How will you remember your nephew?” I asked.

“I don’t know,” she answered. “I’m not clear about that. It’s a sad situation.”

I hung up the phone, consulted with my editors. Forget about it, they said. No need to flesh out a story on a methhead with tenuous connections to Portland. No need to subject a family to further pain.

It was the right call, of course.

Barely 24 hours later, news of the one-time teen pageant winner crossed my screen. Even before I saw the before-and-after photos, and even before I read the details of her arrest, I knew how I’d react.

Another life gone bad.

***

By the way, The Washington Post reported last year that:

– The U.S. prison population is more than 2.4 million.

– That’s more than quadrupled since 1980.

– That means more than one out of every 100 American adults is behind bars.

– About 14 percent of the prison population is in federal prison.

– The single largest driver in the increase in the federal prison population since 1998 is longer sentences for drug offenders.

***

Photographs: Keizer Police Department

Almost the bad guy

By Jacob Quinn Sanders

It’s not every day you get questioned at gunpoint after a triple homicide.

But try explaining that to your second-period teacher.

I was going to be late for school regardless. My mother and father left for work already and I’d missed my bus. It was drizzly, a bit chilly. Maybe February. Maybe March. And I had a 3.5-mile walk ahead of me.

It was 1994. I was 15. My hair was long enough to hide my neck and the collar of my Army-surplus jacket. I was tall — 6-foot-2 by then and still growing. I threw on jeans and boots and off I went.

I didn’t realize I’d forgotten my wallet. I probably shouldn’t have forgotten my wallet.

The author at age 15, sporting a pair of wicked purple pants.

Jacob Sanders at age 15, rockin’ a tie-dye shirt and purple pants.

Seeing The Oregonian before I left would have also been a good idea. Two years earlier was when I first knew I wanted to be a journalist and it was already part of my daily routine. Alas. I was behind.

It wasn’t a hard walk to school — Beef Bend Road, cut through King City to 99W, then Durham Road the rest of the way. Formerly rural suburban road, old people, strip malls, sneak across a highway, more suburbs, school.

Just a long walk. A trudge in the misty rain.

King City was the part I thought least about. A 55-and-older community laid out like a suburban development, not that different than what my father’s mother moved into a couple years earlier in Southern California. It was always quiet. Hardly ever saw people.

And it was that way that morning. I don’t remember seeing anyone. No dogs barking. No cars on the road.

I scooted across a couple lanes of traffic after I passed the 24-hour Shari’s diner that was an unofficial official late-night hangout for half the people I knew. Wide, grassy median. Wet hair matted down. Damp everything. Grumpy.

And there was a cop car. Pulling onto the median. And then another. And then another. And then another. King City and Tigard police. The first voice came from one of the cars’ loudspeakers: “Stop right where you are.”

I looked around like they always do in the movies: Me?

“Stay where you are.”

The cops all got out of their cars. A couple stood behind their open doors, guns drawn.

But ready for what?

tyrom-thiesIn January, turns out, someone killed three women at Leathers Oil Co. in Gresham. In The Oregonian that morning was a mugshot of a former employee the police were looking for. A woman in King City saw it and looked out her window and saw me: also tall, long hair, long face.

Then she called the cops: “I found him!”

“What are you doing here?” one cop asked me firmly but warily.

“Walking to school,” I said.

“What school?”

“Tigard High,” I said. “Just down Durham Road.”

“Do you have ID?”

Damn it. No wallet. It had my school ID — and my money for lunch. This day kept getting better.

And I just remembered: I had a real-looking pellet gun in my bag. I was bringing it back to a friend who’d loaned it to me. It didn’t work but that would have hardly mattered.

Crap, crap, crap.

He asked me a few more questions: What time did school start, why was I walking, that kind of stuff. Something about my story must have seemed plausible. The cop hadn’t decided to trust me yet but got dispatch to patch through a call to the school attendance office. There was a Jacob Sanders enrolled. He had been marked absent in his first-period class.

He wanted my Social Security number to verify that I was the same person. I was a sophomore in high school. I had no idea what it was.

The next plan involved me getting into the back of a police car so one officer could drive me to school, where presumably someone would vouch for me — or not — and I could call my mom at work to check in.

The cops never did check my bag.

The cop pulled up in front of school and let me out. This was visible from the attendance office. We both walked in and we all sorted out quickly that I was who I said I was. I confirmed my class schedule, that kind of thing.

And then I called my mom.

“Hi, honey, everything OK?”

“I need you to excuse my tardy.”

“Well, we’ve talked about this. You missed your bus and that’s your ….”

“Mom. I was just questioned in a triple homicide. I’m standing in the attendance office and I just need you to tell the lady I’m excused. We can talk about it later.”

“What?! Are you OK?”

“Yes, just please tell the lady I’m excused and we can talk about it later.”

“O … K.”

OK. Now, off to class. Second period had already started. Social studies. Mr. Chasko. He didn’t like me much. It was mutual.

I walked in and he was in the middle of something with a projector.

“Mr. Sanders, thanks for joining us.”

I’d been late before. A couple times.

JacobSanders

Jacob Quinn Sanders

“Would you care to tell the class what you were doing that was more important than being on time to my class?”

“I really don’t think that’s the best idea. Can I tell you after class?”

“Let’s hear it. It was important, no doubt. More important than anything I’m doing.”

“I was being questioned in a triple homicide.”

Silence. For a good 20 seconds or so.

“I didn’t do it,” I offered.

“See me after class, Mr. Sanders.”

Great. All that and I was still in trouble.

Jacob Quinn Sanders works as an editor for the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette and has never been arrested for anything. These things are unrelated and would have surprised the 15-year-old version of him very much.

***

Editor’s note: I’ve known Jacob since he was a student journalist at the University of Nevada at Reno. We’ve stayed in touch through the years and I’ve seen him progress through a series of jobs leading to his current one specializing in audience engagement — a concept that barely existed when we first crossed paths.

Tomorrow: “Drowning in technology” by Nike Bentley

Chicago: One city, two stories

If you had asked me if I’d be interested in reading a book about the behind-the-scenes drama of building the Chicago World’s Fair in 1893, I would have said, “Probably not.”

If you had asked me if I’d be interested in reading a book about a serial killer who targeted vulnerable young women during the same World’s Fair, I would have said, “Probably not.”

But if you combined those storylines and packaged them as a single narrative that illustrates both the heights of what human beings can accomplish under duress and the darkest depths of diabolical behavior, well, then you’d have my attention.

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I recently completed “The Devil in the White City,” by Erik Larson and it’s one helluva read.

I’d known about the book for several years, and heard good things about it, but didn’t pluck it off a shelf until I was in a used bookstore a couple months ago. Now I know why there was such a buzz when it came out a decade ago.

Larson is a former Wall Street Journal reporter who writes with the sweep of history and the attention to detail of a journalist. How he manages to take utterly different stories and turn them into gripping side-by-side accounts of Chicago at the turn of the 20th century is an amazing feat. The book is eminently readable and took me to places I hadn’t been before.

On one hand, the book tells the story of Daniel Burnham, a Chicago architect who recruited the country’s top architects – most of them reluctantly – to work together in building a spectacular world’s fair on a vast expanse of parkland adjacent to Lake Michigan. It was a task that entailed managing egos and budgets and steering them toward a cohesive theme that would unify the dozens of buildings that had to be constructed on a ridiculously tight deadline.

On the other hand, the book tells the story of Dr. H.H. Holmes, a con artist with irresistible charm, dazzling blue eyes and the coldest heart known to man. Holmes moves to Chicago just before the fair, believing (correctly) that it’s an opportune time to buy a commercial building, open a pharmacy and hotel, and hire newly arrived, naïve young women hoping to find excitement beyond the small Midwest towns they’ve left behind.

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Author Erik Larson has taught at San Francisco State and the University of Oregon.

The stories don’t intersect at all – except on the page. Larson builds drama in telling both stories, allowing tension to build and a sense of dread to take hold with every mention of a new female subject. How the victims meet their death is nothing less than ghastly (and I’ll spare the details to avoid spoiling the experience for anyone who reads the book).

Bottom line: This is a book built on the strength of meticulous reporting. Larson succeeds in recreating the rough-and-tumble and often deadly dangerous city that Chicago was some 120 years ago. He succeeds likewise in bringing a sadistic killer to life and, in the end, tying up all the loose ends presented over more than 400 pages.

Photograph: nhpr.org

Springwater Trail: A postscript

Portland may be a city of tall bikes, tree huggers, neck beards and food carts. But as a community of 600,000 people, it’s not immune from any of the urban issues you’d find elsewhere in the United States.

A week ago, I wrote about a pleasant afternoon run on the Springwater Corridor Trail, the 21-mile paved path running from downtown Portland out to the eastern suburbs.

The experience of it brought back memories of when I’d go there regularly when I was training for half-marathons. It’s safe, quiet, lined with leafy trees, and free of kamikaze bike riders.

Just days later, police responding to a reported robbery on the trail wound up shooting a 23-year-old transient who came at them swinging a crowbar.

The June 12 encounter happened a few miles west of where I did my weekend run near Gresham and exposed a seamy reality that runs counter to Portland’s crunchy granola stereotype.

gr.springwater

While I and thousands of others flock to the Springwater Corridor to run, bike or walk in a secluded green space, homeless people have set up camps along the route, living in tents easily hidden by trees and shrubs lining the trail.

By and large, these are men (and an occasional woman) who’ve opted not to stay in a shelter. And cops say they are the source of garbage and petty crimes that put neighboring residents and business owners on edge.

In fact, police call the trail “the homelessness highway.” In a story following the June 12 shooting, my talented colleague, Anna Griffin, wrote:

“It’s the latest and highest profile reminder of something police and an increasing number of East Portlanders already knew: When city and county leaders pushed to annex large swaths of east Multnomah County almost three decades ago, they promised residents all the perks of city living. But as poverty spreads east from gentrifying neighborhoods closer to downtown, east Portland is getting the worst of urban life.

“Scientific studies and anecdotal evidence show homelessness, along with other forms of extreme poverty, moving east from downtown Portland into communities beyond 82nd Avenue. The Springwater Corridor is a focal point.”

Cops and social service folks don’t have any immediate answer to the problem. In any case, I won’t be dissuaded. I’ll be back at Springwater soon, eyes open and fully aware.