By Jeff Ayers
Kathryn Casey’s 7th true crime book, DEADLY LITTLE SECRETS, explores the Matt Baker case out of Waco, TX. Matt was a Baptist minister, and was convicted of murdering his wife, Kari, and staging it to look like a suicide. At the time, Matt was having an affair with the music minister’s daughter, a beautiful young blonde named Vanessa Bulls. In the end it became apparent that Matt Baker had never been the man he pretended to be. He’d been living a double life since college: a man of God who preyed on women.
Kathryn talked to ITW.
What prompted your interest in writing true crime stories?
I began my writing career in the mid-eighties, working for magazines. At first, I wrote for Houston-based publications, then moved on to national periodicals, including Rolling Stone, MORE, Ladies’ Home Journal, TV Guide, Town & Country, Seventeen, and others. Somewhere along the way, I gained a reputation for writing about crime. In hindsight, it appears that my editors realized I had a knack for wheedling my way around criminal investigations, getting the big interviews and delivering the story.
In truth, I’m something of a research nerd. I always tended to over research my magazine pieces, especially the crimes I covered. The first murder I investigated was for the late Houston City Magazine. The case was a love triangle in the Texas Big Thicket, in a small town middle school. The coach had turned up dead, shot through the head, and the principal was the main suspect. Both men loved the same woman, a school secretary. I spent months researching the case, including attending the seven-week trial. I was particularly fascinated by what happened in the courtroom, hearing the evidence and then following the leads.
In the years that followed, I continued to cover big cases for magazines. At one point, in the early nineties,I branched and turned one magazine article into my first book, EVIL BESIDE HER. It was actually rather a natural progression. But your question, why am I interested? I believe because covering these cases gives incredible insight into human nature, and my decades writing nonfiction has been a kind of a Crime School 101. I’ve learned a lot about how things happen, what a murder investigation looks like from the inside, but more important why they happen, what leads to the deadliest of crimes, and what kinds of personalities are willing to murder to get what they want.
What interested you in writing about the case you cover in DEADLY LITTLE SECRETS?
I look for unusual cases, relationships where the world wouldn’t expect a murder. I like cases where I’m not dealing with the usual suspects. This case, in particular, ventures far from the typical setting for a murder. Matt Baker was a charismatic young Baptist preacher, one who at one point had the potential to have it all, a great career, a loving family. His wife, Kari, was a bright, bubbly, personable young mother of two daughters, an elementary school teacher. She loved Matt dearly and was his staunchest defender. At first, Kari’s death was written off as a suicide. No one questioned that the young preacher might be responsible. How could they? In fact, he was so quickly believed when he said that his wife was depressed and took her own life that an autopsy wasn’t even ordered. Looking back, there were those signs police should have picked up on, especially that the suicide note was typed and unsigned.
You’ve branched out into mysteries. Why? Which do you prefer writing?
I enjoy writing true crime, but sometimes it’s just flat-out fun to make it all up. Plus, you see, after nearly three decades as a crime writer, I have tons of stories floating around in my head, cases I’ve heard about, experiences related by cops and forensic folks, events I’ve witnessed in courtrooms. At a certain point, I came upon the idea of fashioning them into fiction. I invented a Texas Ranger and named her Sarah Armstrong. A single mom who lives on a horse ranch outside Houston, Sarah is the Ranger’s only criminal profiler. In the past five years, I’ve written three mysteries in the series: SINGULARITY, BLOOD LINES, and THE KILLING STORM. In those books, I’ve taken Sarah across Texas chasing killers, into small towns and big cities. More than once, I’ve put her life on the line. I’ve loved every minute of it. To be honest, at first I was pretty nervous about the switch. I mean, just because I’ve been successful writing true crime, that didn’t necessarily mean that I’d be able to write crime fiction. But readers have responded well, and the books have been well-received, garnering great reviews. Library Journal even called the last one, THE KILLING STORM, one of the best books of the year and described the entire Sarah Armstrong series as “outstanding.”
Has there ever been a case you’ve written about that was just too much to handle?
Not really, but a lot of the true crime books get stressful. Remember, someone real has died, a living, breathing human being, one who had a family, people who loved him or her. On the other side, there’s often another family grieving, one who has a loved one facing decades in prison. More often than not these families were once tied together through a marriage, one that took a bad turn that ended in a murder. So there are two definite sides. I talk to everyone who will talk with me, which means that I most often get diametrically opposed viewpoints on the people involved and what happened.
My job is to keep asking questions, keep looking for sources, keep investigating, until I have a grasp of whom the people are and why their relationship ended in violence. Not everyone wants to talk to me, and I do understand that. Sometimes they mistakenly believe I have a slant on a case going in. I don’t. I’m there looking at the evidence, listening to what the folks involved have to say, and only then making up my mind about each individual case. The research can be daunting. I spend about a year and usually end up with somewhere around one hundred interviews for each book. It’s a major commitment, but in the end having so much information is essential when I sit down to write.
Why do readers like to read true crime?
I get asked that a lot. Plus, I’ve had true crime readers tell me that they worry there’s something wrong with them. Otherwise, why would they like to read about such terrible crimes?
I believe there is a combination of explanations. On one level it’s for the same reasons we rubber neck at car accidents. There’s a sensational case in the headlines, and it catches our interest. First, we’re relieved it’s not us or anyone we love. Second, we’re curious about what happened. Third, we’re concerned about the people involved, what led to the crime. That curiosity is powerful. Most of us would never consider murdering another human being. We can’t fathom any reason short of self-defense or the defense of another that would make us draw a gun intending to kill. Especially not with the intent of murdering a person we built a life with, the mother or father of our children. So we want to understand how such things happen and what types of people commit such abhorrent acts. If a true crime book is well researched and written, it answers our questions; it opens the window that wipes away the shadows, exposing the truth.
And then – not to be ignored – there’s the drama. These are amazing stories, real stories about real people. A good true crime book is reality TV on hyper drive. The characters/people involved usually live large. They do things the majority of us would never consider.
I’m currently working on a true crime book. The working title is DELIVER US: STORIES FROM THE TEXAS KILLING FIELDS. There’s a section of Texas that links Houston with Galveston, about a 50-mile stretch of interstate, where there have been an unusually high number of unsolved murders of young women over a period of forty years, beginning in the early seventies. I’ve been following them for a very long time. Recently one of the cases was solved, after seventeen years. Right now, I’m researching, deciding which cases I’ll include in the book. When it’s completed, DELIVER US will tell the stories of the victims, the killers (when they’re known), those who’ve lost friends, daughters or sisters, and the cops who investigated the cases. In all honesty, this book is turning out to be an incredible task. With so many cases, my to-do list is formidable. But I’m steadily chipping away on it. I’m hoping that DELIVER US will be out sometime next year. But right now, I’m excited about DEADLY LITTLE SECRETS. It’s always a rush when a new book comes out. I love this book, and I’m looking forward to seeing it in bookstores and hearing from readers. It’s like a child I’m sending out into the world, trusting it will find its way.
A novelist and an award-winning journalist, Kathryn Casey is the creator of the Sarah Armstrong mystery series and the author of six highly acclaimed true crime books. Her first novel, SINGULARITY, was one of Booklist’s best crime novel debuts of 2009, and Library Journal chose the third, THE KILLING STORM, as one of the best books of 2010. Casey’s protagonist is a Texas Ranger/profiler headquartered in Company A, Houston. Kathryn Casey has appeared on Oprah, Oprah Winfrey’s Oxygen Network, Court TV, Biography, Nancy Grace, E! Network, TruTv, Investigation Discovery, The Travel Channel and A&E. Ann Rule calls Casey “one of the best in the true crime genre.”
To learn more about Kathryn, please visit her website.