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The Crime in Writing True Crime:
An Author’s Notebook

By Suzy Spencer

Around 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 she’d drowned her children, St. Martin’s 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 children’s visitation.

At 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 I’d 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 she’d done research for a Texas Monthly writer, taught classes to law enforcement officers, and done some private investigation work.

July 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 Vanessa’s 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.

But 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 couldn’t do that, she explained, because she’d 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 wouldn’t be surprised, she said, to be jailed by the end of the week.

July 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 "wasn’t 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 Hill’s gag order.

Some days, it seemed that the Yates and Leggett cases were fighting for front-page space in the Chronicle. Every time Vanessa’s story was printed in the Chronicle, then covered in the national, and even international, media, my job became harder. Rapidly, sources who had said they’d talk, wouldn’t. At least one potential source, I was told, consulted his attorney about my interview request, before turning me down, on the attorney’s 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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