tagged true crime

Last year, I had the pleasure and privilege of meeting with a woman by the name of Kay Weden. In 1993, she was a school teacher in Salisbury, North Carolina who was simply living her life, going to work and raising a teenage son, Jason, on her own. She was very close with her mother, who she regularly visited and you would think her life would be fairly straight forward. In December of 1993, her life veered off into a direction she would take decades to straighten out.

Earlier in 1993, Kay had been dating a local police officer, L.C. Underwood, who was introduced to her by a neighbor. When their relationship fell apart, he became enraged to the degree that he constantly stalked Kay and threatened her well-being. He let her know if she tried to tell anyone about it, no one would believe her because he was a cop. The level of intimidation and manipulation was hard to bear. Then, on December 9th, 1993, L.C. Underwood killed Kay's mother in cold blood. What Kay didn't realize at the time, was L.C. Underwood had also killed her current boyfriend, Viktor Gunnarson, a Swedish national who had moved to the area. It would take months to locate Viktor's body and in the meantime, L.C. Underwood engaged in a terror campaign against Kay and Jason Weden that changed their view of life permanently.

For whatever kismet there is in the world, I happened to contact Kay just after L.C. Underwood died in prison of cancer. To his dying day, he was unrelenting in his threats against Kay and Jason and unapologetic for his crimes. He even tried to engage conspiracy theorists to believe Viktor Gunnarson was responsible for the crimes. The responsibility rested firmly with L.C. Underwood and retired police chief, Paula May, knows that for a fact. She recently wrote a book about the story, First Degree Rage: https://wildbluepress.com/first-degree-rage-paula-may-true-crime/. Her amazing work and Kay and Jason's incredible resilience are a credit to the survival of the human spirit.

I had the privilege of speaking with Paula, Kay and Jason during interviews for the series Dead of Winter on Investigation Discovery: https://www.investigationdiscovery.com/tv-shows/dead-of-winter/full-episodes/cold-blue. At the time Kay and Jason were estranged - he blamed her for dating men who basically ruined their lives. It was only when L.C. Underwood was dead and the two of them could unite for the production, that each relaxed and looked at their situation with clarity. Kay was simply at the wrong place at the wrong time with the wrong person. If it wasn't Kay who was in L.C. Underwood's sites, some other naive and loving woman would have paid the price. If anything, this was a lesson in not ignoring red flags and listening to your gut when you know someone is behaving badly. Sadly, love can be blind for all of us in those situations.

This story went straight for my heart and I felt a great amount of compassion for everyone involved. I kept in touch with Kay and learned during last year, Jason and his wife - after almost 20 years together - decided to start a family. They now have a lovely little girl, Olivia, who is the light of their lives. Today the Wedens have some sense of peace - the peace they deserved all along.

Lately, people have been asking me if I have nightmares about the work I do. I rarely think about my work literally. I don’t try to get inside peoples’ heads – I want to report facts as part of a story and I want to get those facts right. I try to remain impartial and merely respond to the facts. But there are a few cases that I found highly disturbing and a few images I unfortunately return to that hurt me to my core.

When I was in college and as a young adult, I was a medical photographer, first at the University of Iowa Hospitals and Clinics and then at the Glasgow Royal Infirmary in Glasgow. My role was to be an adjunct for teachers, many of them studying anomalies of the human body through documentary photos. My protection from some truly mind-blowing situations was that I was behind a camera: I saw gangrene, a woman whose every blood capillary exploded in her body making her look like a grape, I saw peoples’ innards as part of surgery and I recorded their nose jobs for rhinoplasty surgeons.

While I’m in the field for television production, I am not the one with the camera. I don’t have that emotional shield. I’m the one receiving documentary photos, usually by the hundreds, of victims in situ at a crime scene and then at their autopsies being taken apart, piece by piece. I find the human body fascinating. I find violent crimes that destroy the human body positively horrific.

The story that disturbed me so much was perpetrated by James Marlow and Cynthia Coffman, spree murderers who abducted 4 innocent young women, raped them and then killed them across a long swathe of the southwest in the mid 1980s. Upon looking at the evidentiary photos of each of 4 crime scenes where Sandra Neary, 32; Pamela Simmons, 35; Corinna Novis, 20; and Lynel Murray, 19 were murdered, the photos of Lynel Murray’s crime scene caught me sideways. Not only had the 19-year old psychology student been abducted from her part-time job at a dry-cleaning business, having her life altered irrevocably within seconds, but Marlow and Coffman dragged her off into a lair for a session of torture bar none. Her end would have been terrifying, painful and extended far beyond something cruel and unusual. The image of her that won’t go away is that of her death mask, a look almost of relief, with the grey eyes of the dead open and looking up.

The public always get to hear extensively about murderers – it seems to hold our fascination. But for me, I work in service of the victims. To see Lynel Murray, who could have gone on to have an amazing life, was taken by two people who saw no value in it except for their own consumption, is astonishing in the worst way. I am beyond having any appropriate words of condolence for every person Lynel Murray’s life touched while she was here and what a loss that is for them.

James Marlow and Cynthia Coffman were sentenced to death in the State of California in 1990. I cannot see any place else for them but incarceration – I don’t see rehabilitation in their futures to re-emerge productively back into society. Marlow and Coffman were a son and a daughter. They had brothers and sisters. Coffman was a mother herself. Tragedy in these cases is unrelenting.

In my mix of photos from over the years that are stuck in my head, I do have some from my medical photography days, too. One is of a baby, but this was no ordinary baby: it was documented while it lived through 2 torturous days of its life. Its shape was something more like a triangle, with no discernible limbs or sex. It did have eyes at the top of the triangle, something in the shape of a nose and an opening for a mouth. I don’t know the genetic background that created this baby. I do know the terrible grief the parents experienced watching its labored and short life.

I think on these things as I try to gently and sensitively go through my day’s work. Most people that know me don’t see me in this light, but these images are a guiding force that help me try to embrace and understand all of humanity and the struggles we go through just to exist.

My shows about murder are what go in between the commercials to sell trash bags and tampons…cynical but true, so think about that when you are watching true crime.

For the past decade, I’ve spent my days knee deep in the stories of people who have died violently. I have to imagine what went on for them so I can tell their stories properly. Some have been beaten to death. Some have been shot. Some have been dismembered. My goal is to tell an accurate, truthful story that allows victim’s loved ones to feel witnessed and to ensure there is documentation that reminds people why murderers are in jail.

My first true crime documentary was with the family of Michael Peterson, a man accused of murdering his wife on a staircase in Raleigh Durham, North Carolina. It was for the series, American Justice, hosted by Bill Kurtis on A&E. Once I was commissioned to produce the show, I wrote to Mr. Peterson in jail. We wrote back and forth a few times before he told me he knew the series was prosecution-based and I would have to convince his girlfriend of my merits as someone sympathetic to his case.

Strangely enough, Mr. Peterson’s girlfriend turned out to be my father-in-law’s ex-girlfriend from 1960s Greenwich Village. The coincidence was spooky and enough to get me access to the entire Peterson family at the time. I filmed in California where his kids lived and then flew across the country in the middle of the night to film his lawyer in Raleigh-Durham, Mr. Peterson in prison and then the relatives of his adopted daughters.

When the show was finally put together, Bill Kurtis had a good swipe at the end about some of the more far-fetched theories surrounding Peterson’s case. It was a little more heavy-handed than I would have done, but that was down to our series producer, not myself.

You would think the story should end there, but it didn’t.

A few years later, I was teaching at Columbia College Chicago. As I was taking roll call, I found myself in the same room with Michael Peterson’s adopted daughter, who I’d interviewed several years before and who was now my student. We were both shocked and had to evolve our relationship so it could be safe for both of us. We continue to be friends to this day.

Karma is an interesting reminder that what goes around might very well come around again.

From years of experience in this field, I have empathy for perpetrators and their families, but if you murder, you have to be removed from society. I no longer feel that poverty or mental illness can be a mitigating circumstance for murder. It may provide an explanation, but there is always an alternative to taking someone’s life. The permanence of death is excruciating for those left behind.

On the other hand, in very few cases do you find a murderer is well-provided for and well-adjusted. Some have been raised witnessing and being subjected to unspeakable things that have traumatized them. Some have been put in compromised positions where it’s unclear what their options to murder might have been. I get that.

Our prisons are lined with people who have mental illness and need support. They are over-crowded by impoverished people who couldn’t defend themselves properly, many being wrongly accused. The fact that some towns sustain themselves through prisons, that prisons are monetized, is a travesty. We should all keep in mind that we’re merely steps away from committing a crime. Our grass is only greener, I’ve found, through luck and definitely not by design.

Working as a producer in non-fiction television, I’m often in a position where I can ask people questions about the most intimate aspects of their lives and get an honest response. It is one of the biggest privileges I can think of.

I’ve interviewed people in jail, in their homes, in hotel rooms, at their offices, on sets and in cars.

One of my favorite interviews was with the veterans of D-Day on the beaches of Normandy, France. I could imagine the boats coming up as a wave of bullets flew out into the bay. One of my interviewees had his face sliced open this way and he’d been given a vial of morphine by the Army to help him soothe the pain in the field. Problem was, he had to get to a place where he could take the morphine without bullets whizzing past his head. The struggle he went through to survive was so well illustrated, I can return to it in my mind anytime and still marvel at it.

One of my saddest interviews was in Missouri, at the home of a young girl who went missing and was never found. Her brother was beside himself with grief. I had just lost my husband, Jeff Felshman, to an aortic aneurysm and related to every word the young boy said. I was speechless. I’m thankful my cameraman redirected us both.

My funniest interview was with a judge who wanted to joke at length about farting (this was after he told me about the case of a man who had body parts strewn throughout his house) and my most thoughtful was interviewing Jon Bon Jovi in his home studio (he had just gotten off an interview with Rolling Stone magazine that he hated and told me he would interview with me as long as I didn’t look at my notes. An hour and a half later, when I finally looked at my notes, we talked on a human level and I realized what a sensitive, sensible person he was).

I continue to produce television and hope to post more stories as I move through each production. In addition, I have an extraordinary personal life that takes me to distance places (I’m writing this from Chonburi, Thailand), introduces me to intriguing people and often blows my mind with topics I had no idea even existed. I’m hoping to share those as well.

Thank you for reading and I welcome any questions you have about my posts. Know they are strictly my opinions and anecdotal experiences.