January 23, 2011

Author Q&A: The survivors' stories

Ron Franscell's new book answers the question 'Whatever happened to ...' people who lived through some of the nation's notorious mass murders.

By Meredith Goad mgoad@pressherald.com
Staff Writer

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.

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Ron Franscell happened to debut his new book, "Delivered From Evil," on the same day that Jared Loughner fatally shot six people in a rampage in Tucson, Ariz.

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San Antonio journalist Ron Franscell says that writing the book "Delivered From Evil" provided him "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."

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. 

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