Crime in Writing True Crime:
An Authors Notebook
11 AM on June 26, 2001, six days and one hour after Andrea Yates
summoned Houston police to her suburban, middle-class house and
confessed that shed drowned her children, St. Martins
Press contracted me to write a book about the case. Simultaneously,
Judge Belinda Hill of the 230th District Court in
Harris County, Texas, the presiding judge on the case, placed a
gag order on all involved cops, investigators, attorneys and witnesses.
Yates husband, Russell Yates, was served the gag order at
church that night while attending his dead childrens visitation.
the time, I thought the gag order and competing with the national
media were my only obstacles to covering the crime. I was wrong.
I had the wrath of Judge Hill with which to contend and the fallout
from the jailing of freelance writer Vanessa Leggett. Leggett was
a friend of mine, who Id meet two and a half years earlier
at a book signing for my first true crime book, Wasted. She
soon told me she was working on a true crime of her own, about a
Houston murder, and that shed done research for a Texas
Monthly writer, taught classes to law enforcement officers,
and done some private investigation work.
16, 2001, Vanessa and I shared lunch. The national media had hired
private investigators and had teams of reporters on the Yates case.
I needed Vanessas investigative help. She told me that the
Houston chief of police had sent a memo to all HPD employees, threatening
their jobs if they spoke to anyone about the case.
Vanessa, pale and shaking, also told me that Federal investigators
were after her for refusing to turn over her complete research files
regarding accused murderer Robert Angleton, the subject of the book
she was writing. She couldnt do that, she explained, because
shed promised many of her sources anonymity. If she turned
over her files, her sources would be revealed. She absolutely would
not, she vowed, reveal her sources. She could not compromise her
word. And because of that, she wouldnt be surprised, she said,
to be jailed by the end of the week.
20, 2001, Vanessa was locked in a Federal cell, held in contempt
of court. Suddenly, she was the news, and suddenly, I was advised
to give my two previously published books to prosecutors, defense
attorneys, and any other potential source to assure them I "wasnt
another Vanessa Leggett," that I was a "legitimate, published
author," not the "wannabe" that prosecutors were
accusing Vanessa of being. By then, attorneys for Andrea Yates and
attorneys for the Houston Chronicle had filed briefs in the
14th Court of Appeals, attempting to fight Judge Hills
days, it seemed that the Yates and Leggett cases were fighting for
front-page space in the Chronicle. Every time Vanessas
story was printed in the Chronicle, then covered in the national,
and even international, media, my job became harder. Rapidly, sources
who had said theyd talk, wouldnt. At least one potential
source, I was told, consulted his attorney about my interview request,
before turning me down, on the attorneys advice. Others turned
me down on the advice of colleagues. In fact, I had more interviewees
stand me up for meetings during the five months of reporting the
Yates case, than in my previous 25-year career.
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