Charles Cohen, just 12 years old, hid in a closet as an unhinged neighbor walked through his Camden, N.J., neighborhood on a shooting rampage and murdered his mother, father and grandmother.
Cohen never spoke of the horror of that day until his wedding night, when he finally told his new wife what had happened to him as a boy. He tucked the dark memories away in an old suitcase that he planned to bury after Howard Unruh, the man who killed his family and 10 other people on Sept. 6, 1949, was finally dead.
Cohen is one of the survivors of mass murder and serial killers profiled in “Delivered From Evil: True Stories of Ordinary People Who Faced Monstrous Mass Killers and Survived” (Fair Winds Press, $26) by San Antonio journalist Ron Franscell.
In the book, Franscell provides gripping, well-written accounts of the Atlanta “day trader spree” on July 29, 1999; the McDonald’s massacre in San Ysidro, Calif. on July 18, 1984; the Luby’s Cafeteria massacre in Killeen, Texas, on Oct. 16, 1991; and seven other mass killings.
Coincidentally, Franscell debuted the new book on the same day Jared Lee Loughner killed six people and wounded 13 others in a shooting spree in Tucson, Ariz.
Suddenly, the author’s expertise on survivor guilt and post-traumatic stress was in hot demand. CNN, MSNBC, “The Today Show” and ABC News all wanted interviews.
Franscell, 53, grew up in Wyoming. His work has appeared in The Washington Post, the Chicago Sun-Times, The Denver Post and many other national media outlets. His best-selling true crime memoir, “The Darkest Night,” has been compared to Truman Capote’s “In Cold Blood.”
Franscell published “A Crime Buff’s Guide to Outlaw Texas” in November, one of a series. He is also working on a book about investigators who get obsessed with one particular murder and pursue it passionately for decades.
“I just want to explore that passion, that obsession they feel,” Franscell said. “If something were to happen to us or to our loved ones, we’d want someone on the case who wouldn’t quit until they could put an ending on their story.”
Franscell has two grown children and lives with his wife, Mary, in San Antonio.
Q: Why did you want to do this book?
A: I have to go back to a book that I did a few years ago called “The Darkest Night,” which is an exploration of a crime against two childhood friends of mine when we were growing up in this small town in Wyoming. These two girls lived next door to me. They were a part of our lives. They were a part of the neighborhood, they were friends. They were almost family. They were abducted one night in 1973. They were terrorized through the night. There was a rape. And ultimately their two abductors took them out to a bridge in the middle of nowhere and threw them into a deep, dark canyon.
One died, and one survived. And her post-crime life is a huge part of that book. It turns out tragically, but it became more of a social study of things like survivor guilt and the post-traumatic life as well as the memories of small towns. So what happened is that book became a best-seller, and the publisher of “Delivered From Evil” had been toying with the idea of a book about survivors and came to me and asked if I’d consider it. Once we’d talked it all out, I felt it was a great opportunity to talk about some players in the American crimescape that we seldom write about very deeply, and that is victims and survivors.
Q: The first story, about the Cohen family murders, was so heartbreaking. Did you ever meet Charles Cohen in person?
A: No, I never did, and let me explain that. In each of these cases, I spent from a week to 10 days with each survivor in their homes and towns, walking the killing grounds, going to all the places that were important, interviewing other people, as well as staying in constant touch with them for 15 months by e-mail and phone.
Charles Cohen was one of the first of the survivors that I contacted. Almost immediately we somehow connected on a much more interesting and intimate level, and we talked a lot. We e-mailed a lot, and sadly, every time something like this would happen – the Binghamton shootings, there were others – he would call me, usually within hours. And he wouldn’t necessarily want to be talking about the details of a particular crime, but it had churned something up in him and he just wanted to talk. So we spent a lot of time talking on phone and visiting and going fairly deep into his heart and his mind. I felt that I knew him better than any of the subjects, and it turns out that ultimately I would never get to shake his hand. I was literally on the road to New Jersey when I got a call from his wife that he’d had a stroke. And the day I actually arrived in New Jersey. he died. So rather than attending an interview, I ended up attending his funeral.
Q: I had never heard of this particular incident, which is something you touched on in your introduction. Why do you think we forget about these terrible events?
A: I think we’re hard-wired to be shocked by mass murder. They often seem so senseless, and they tend to get our attention that way, in their senselessness. We’re shocked. But in time, we also get complacent and then we forget. And then we get shocked all over again. To me, it kind of appears generational. Let me just offer this example: One of the three worst mass murders in American history, to this day, happened in 1927, and it was a bombing of a school in Bath, Mich., (by a) local, disgruntled taxpayer. Forty-five people, most of them kids, died in that bombing. Twenty-two years later, Howard Unruh comes along in Camden, N.J. and he shoots 13 people. He quickly got labeled the father of mass murder, as if we’d forgotten about Bath, Michigan, which again remains one of the worst mass murders in American history. But now Howard Unruh gets this label, as if he had invented it.
That was 1949. In 1966, Charles Whitman goes up the Texas tower and starts shooting people. Again, we offer a whole bunch breathless adjectives to this – it’s the first, it’s the worst. But it wasn’t any of those things. Then you go another 20 years and you see the McDonald’s massacre in 1984. And then in early 2007 you see Virginia Tech. And again, we keep heaping on as if these things were somehow completely different than anything that has ever happened before, when really from some distance they all look very similar. In fact, even this Tucson shooting, as tragic as it is, looks like a garden-variety mass murder.
Q: Did writing this book make you look at the Tucson incident any differently?
A: When you look at these mass killers – and I looked at many more beyond these 10 – and then you look at the experience of the survivors, the way I look at Tucson first and foremost is with great sadness because I know what’s ahead for the survivors. I know that within months, they’re going to be left on their own. All the shows of support and the presidential words and everything else will have sort of echoed off in to the distance and they’ll be left alone. And they’ll be facing decades of various problems, including post-traumatic stress and nightmares and flashbacks.
Some of them simply won’t move on. Some of them will stop dead in their tracks and just wait to die. Others, like these survivors I profile in the book, will attempt to regain their equilibrium and many will succeed, but what they will succeed at doing is merely putting some semblance of normal back into their life.
Q: How did learning these survivors’ stories affect you personally? Did it make you look at your own life?
A: It made me feel like I have a blessed life. I’ve had a life like you, and like anybody, where I have disappointments, where I have traumas, where I have pain, but I haven’t looked death in the face. I think that these people stand as a symbol of our resilience. If they can look death in the face and ultimately put themselves back on firm ground, then I think there’s hope for the rest of us.
But honestly, I have also inherited from them, in some way, a certain fear. I covered the early months of the Afghan war for The Denver Post, and I learned during that time how to be aware of my surroundings, how to position myself for maximum safety in restaurants or on the street, or wherever. It all comes back to me when I talk to these people, and even now I’m often flashing back. I’ll sit in a restaurant or in a store or even on the street, and think, “What if somebody just started shooting right now?” And that’s their experience.
Q: How do you immerse yourself in so many crime stories without getting scared or depressed?
A: I feel deeply for these people. I think that sometimes in my newspaper writing, I couldn’t get as “close to the flame” and feel ethically comfortable about it as I can with the books, where I can come a lot closer to the flame. I can make (my reaction) part of the story. And I think that’s how I deal with it. When I’m feeling depressed, when I’m feeling fearful, I realize that that’s because the story that’s being told to me, that I must now retell, is probably stirring that up, and I have to realize that readers probably want to get that close to the flame, too.
Each of these 10 (stories) touches me in a different way. I see so many different, utterly human feelings in each one of these people that each one is kind of an example of what’s possible and what we sometimes think is impossible. They’re all heartbreaking. I don’t cry easy. I never have. And the longer I went in newspapering and being a journalist, the less I cried. These people, almost to a person, brought tears to my eyes.
Staff Writer Meredith Goad can be contacted at 791-6332 or at: [email protected]