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Category: True Crime

Review: The Wilderness of Ruin by Roseanne Mantillo

Montillo_wildernessReviewed by Krista McKeeth

The Wilderness of Ruin: A Tale of Madness, Fire, and the Hunt for America’s Youngest Serial Killer by Roseanne Montillo

In late nineteenth-century Boston, home to Herman Melville and Oliver Wendell Holmes, a serial killer preying on children is running loose in the city–a wilderness of ruin caused by the Great Fire of 1872–in this literary historical crime thriller reminiscent of The Devil in the White City.

In the early 1870s, local children begin disappearing from the working-class neighborhoods of Boston. Several return home bloody and bruised after being tortured, while others never come back. With the city on edge, authorities believe the abductions are the handiwork of a psychopath, until they discover that their killer–fourteen-year-old Jesse Pomeroy–is barely older than his victims. The criminal investigation that follows sparks a debate among the world’s most revered medical minds, and will have a decades-long impact on the judicial system and medical consciousness.

The Wilderness of Ruin is a riveting tale of gruesome murder and depravity. At its heart is a great American city divided by class–a chasm that widens in the aftermath of the Great Fire of 1872. Roseanne Montillo brings Gilded Age Boston to glorious life–from the genteel cobblestone streets of Beacon Hill to the squalid, overcrowded tenements of Southie. Here, too, is the writer Herman Melville. Enthralled by the child killer’s case, he enlists physician Oliver Wendell Holmes to help him understand how it might relate to his own mental instability. With verve and historical detail, Roseanne Montillo explores this case that reverberated through all of Boston society in order to help us understand our modern hunger for the prurient and sensational.

The Wilderness of Ruin features more than a dozen black-and-white photographs. 
Hardcover, 320 pages
Published March 17th 2015 by William Morrow & Company (first published February 1st 2015)


This historical/true crime novel focuses on the area of Boston, Massachusetts in the late 1800’s to early 1900’s, opening up with a short introduction to the murderer and torturer, young Jesse Pomeroy. It then goes on to the history of the area and weaves Jesse’s story in throughout the rest. The beginning of the novel felt a little disjointed before it settled into a more cohesive read. The book is broken up into sections, but the reader will still get a good idea of what it was like to live in Boston during this era.

What I most enjoyed about this story was that it opened my eyes to a lot of other subjects. However, I do think that not all of the events that are presented in the story will appeal to everybody. I, myself, had a hard time getting through the section on the great fire and how city regulations and laws were changed to make Boston safer. Yet without that part of the story, I don’t feel it would have had the same effect on me with regard to the displacement of its peoples and how the whole community of Boston and surrounding areas suffered from it.

When the book began to explore how the prison systems changed, the introduction of solitary confinement, and laws regarding the death sentence, I really felt drawn in and didn’t want to put the book down. I found it fascinating that this discussion about ‘madness’ was conducted at both the scientific and societal levels.

If you are looking for something that focuses only on Jesse Pomeroy, this is not the book as there was not a lot of information about the case to build a full novel on. Instead, what you’ll get are the ideas that surround the complicated notion of “madness” and what was happening in the community of Boston and it’s people during that time in history. The Wilderness of Ruin focuses on a specific location at a specific time and a mysterious young man named Jesse Pomeroy, asking the question “Why did he kill?”. It reflects on the sensationalist newspaper reports and how scientists also tackled the question. I ended up really enjoying the book as a whole, and would recommend it to those who love historical novels.

True Crime Review: Midnight in Peking by Paul French

Reviewed by Krista Mckeeth

Midnight in Peking: How the Murder of a Young Englishwoman Haunted the Last Days of Old China
by Paul French

In the last days of old Peking, where anything goes, can a murderer escape justice?
Peking in 1937 is a heady mix of privilege and scandal, opulence and opium dens, rumors and superstition. The Japanese are encircling the city, and the discovery of Pamela Werner’s body sends a shiver through already nervous Peking. Is it the work of a madman? One of the ruthless Japanese soldiers now surrounding the city? Or perhaps the dreaded fox spirits? With the suspect list growing and clues sparse, two detectives—one British and one Chinese—race against the clock to solve the crime before the Japanese invade and Peking as they know it is gone forever. Can they find the killer in time, before the Japanese invade?
Historian and China expert Paul French at last uncovers the truth behind this notorious murder, and offers a rare glimpse of the last days of colonial Peking. Hardcover, 272 pages

Published April 24th 2012 by Penguin (Non-Classics) ISBN 0143121006 (ISBN13: 9780143121008)

Historian Paul French puts a bit of a unique twist on True Crime. He focuses on a unsolved murder that took place in China just at the onset of war with Japan. The mixing of different cultures and peoples at this time in Peking’s history is pivotal factor in why this crime was unable to be solved .

The balance between the cultural history and development of Peking and the procedures taken to solve this crime were equal factors. As the murder victim was originally from Britain both police forces had to work together. They were also given a time limit on how long they had to unravel the details and arrest a suspect. When the time limit is up, Pamela’s father takes on the case himself and with all of these documents 75 years later, the author believes he has solved the mystery and presents it to us in a very convincing format.

After telling her father that she was going roller skating, Pamela fails to come home. He goes looking for her and comes across a murder scene in which the dead is literally gutted and unrecognizable that he has to identify her body by a piece of jewelery and her hair color. All of her body organs are removed and her face is butchered. Leading the investigation into several different directions, most likely being that this was not an crime of passion, and whereas there is no blood at the site of the body the murder had to have been carried out elsewhere. And this is what leads them into a large amount of questioning of people, business owners and possible witnesses that were out that night in various parts of the city that Pamela was known to frequent.

The author gives us insight into the city of Peking. How the people that were coming and going from this city at this particular part of history were just as much a part of the way that the investigation was handled as the murder itself. People and businesses coming and going in the recent years with the impending war with Japan looming upon them. The combination of rules and regulations that both sides of the police forces had to abide by and a time limit that could only frustrate matters. Even her own father who was very familiar with Peking himself, unable to to find the answers before he died as well. A sad story that the author was able to bring to light many years later.

True Crime: Criminal Profiling


Article by: Kylie Fox

A specially trained detective walks around a crime scene, not swabbing for blood stains or measuring the size of the stab wounds that have penetrated a victim’s body. He notices instead the position her body lies in, whether any attempt has been made to cover or hide the body, the area of the body the wounds are administered, the type of weapon used, signs of struggle and items on or near the body.

This specialist learns all he can about the victim – victimology – so that he can walk in her shoes for a time, figure out why she was targeted. Was there something in her daily routine, in her recent or past history or in the way she looks that could have triggered this response?

He reconstructs the victim’s final day, final hours, final minutes in this world and plays them over in his mind until they make some kind of sense. He feels her horror, her fear and her pain emotionally and physically until he’s certain he has those last moments right.

Then, using all of the physical and psychological clues that he’s gathered, he inserts himself into the mind of a killer. Possibly an even more terrifying place to be than the mind of the victim. He walks the path the murderer would have taken, reconstructs the crime and, more importantly, the thought process that the perpetrator used.

He can tell us the age and sex of the killer. Possibly a range of occupations and his social status. He may tell us we’re looking for a plumber or a postman or an unemployed loner.

He cannot tell us his name.

But this kind of information can help narrow down a long, and ever growing, list of suspects. It can help police feel more confident when they make an arrest – this suspect fits the profile.

Criminal profiling is still looked upon by some as a bunch of hocus-pocus with no real place in criminal investigations. But when the police have run out of ideas or where there is no physical evidence to go on, the criminal profile is often the next point of call for investigators.

What are those clues that a profiler can see that leads to their often frighteningly accurate profiles? What do they see that other police cannot?

Using a series of case studies, many referencing John Douglas, one of the founders of the FBI’s profiling unit and author of the Mindhunter series, we are going to explore exactly that in this new regular column on the Tara Sharp site.

Next time – we’ll begin with the basics of the serial killer. The triad of symptoms almost always displayed in the perpetrators of serial murders.

True Crime: Strange But True - A Ghost Strangled My Wife!

“It wasn’t me, it was the ghost!”

Article by: Kylie Fox

I’m sure the courts have heard just about every excuse going to explain a criminal’s behaviour – but how many times do you think they’ve heard the “it wasn’t me, it was a ghost” defence?

That’s exactly what Wisconsin man, Michael F. West, told police to explain how his wife sustained severe injuries consistent with being punched in the face and strangled.

West first explained away the injuries by claiming his wife had fallen but when asked specifically about her neck injuries, he said, “A ghost did it!”

Of course it did!

West has been charged with strangulation and misdemeanours of battery, disorderly contact and resisting or obstructing an officer.

Oh, and he’s been ordered to stay sober until his case goes to court! Not a bad idea, I’d say.

True Crime: The Frankston Serial Killer

Article and Interview with Vikki Petraitis by Kylie Fox

It’s the winter of 1993 and a young girl huddles inside her warm coat against the chill of the air. Her steps are fast and she glances furtively at her surroundings, feeling reassured by the two male friends who flank her. She also feels somewhat ridiculous having her friends walk her everywhere, as though she needs bodyguards. After all, this was sleepy little Seaford, a suburb on Victoria’s Mornington Peninsula. She’d lived here her entire life; she’d walked its paths, played in its parks and generally come and gone as she’d pleased without ever giving her safety a second thought.

Until now.

Now, it wasn’t safe. Two young women had already been killed.  Another, her neighbour and the mother of two of her friends, had been attacked on the sporting reserve that her own house backed onto. The same reserve that she’d always seen as an extension of her own backyard.

Nobody was safe.

A serial killer, one who hunted young women as they walked alone, was on the loose – and he could be anywhere – he could be anyone. And he would strike again.

Eighteen year old Elizabeth Stevens was the first victim of the “Frankston Serial Killer”. She had been at TAFE in Frankston and had caught a bus to nearby Langwarrin where she alighted prepared to walk the small stretch home. But she never arrived.

Her body was found in nearby Lloyd Park, her throat slashed and her chest carved with a bizarre criss-cross pattern.

Rosza Toth was attacked on her way home from work, as she walked the short distance from Seaford train station to her home, past the North Seaford Soccer Reserve. She was dragged from the footpath towards the toilet block but managed to break free. She ran onto Railway Pde and hailed down a passing car who took her to safety.

On the same night, only a short time after the failed attack on Rosza Toth, Debbie Fream left her 12-day old baby with a friend to drive to the local milkbar, not far from Kanakook Railway Station, for some milk. Fream failed to lock her car doors, and was hijacked by a man who held a knife to her throat and forced her to drive.

She drove a few kilometres to Taylors Road where her body was later discovered in a paddock – her throat cut and body savagely slashed.

By this time, the panic in the Frankston area was palpable. It was clear that there was a serial killer on the loose but the police had no leads and no suspects. Women were warned not to go out after dark alone and residents were warned to be on the lookout for anyone exhibiting odd behaviour.

A community meeting was held in Seaford, attended by the police who were working the case. The atmosphere in the room was electric. Both police and the community were well aware that it was not only possible, but probable, that the killer himself was in the room with them. The lure would have been too great to deny.

People who had passed each other every day, usually nodding a friendly greeting, now eyed one another with suspicion.

Natalie Russell was a seventeen year old student at Frankston’s John Paul College. Pretty, smart and popular with her friends, she’d left school a little early to walk home along the much-used track that ran alongside a golf course on Golf Links Road.

Her murderer lay in wait for the first woman to walk past. He’d even cut a hole in the fence in preparation. Natalie was the unfortunate victim.

He confronted her, brandishing a knife. Natalie first tried talking her way out of danger, offering him money, offering him anything he wanted not to hurt her. He wasn’t interested. He attacked the girl who fought back bravely and with all she had. He slashed at her head and her neck, making her murder the most brutal of all.

The first murder had been committed on June 11, 1993, the third and final murder on July 30, 1993. But, the following day, July 31, 1993, his reign of terror, short-lived but brutal in the extreme, came to an end.

Following up leads of a suspicious car seen in the vicinity of both the murders of Debbie Fream and Natalie Russell, the police apprehended Paul Charles Denyer, at his home.

At first, Denyer denied any knowledge of the murders, other than what he had read in the newspapers and seen on television. He admitted having been in the area when two of the murders had been committed but maintained that it was purely coincidental.

He explained away several cuts on his hands, that police believed he sustained in the struggle with Natalie Russell, as having been caused by the fan while working on his car.

The detectives were not that easily fooled. They knew they had their man. They informed Denyer that his DNA was being matched with a piece of foreign skin found on Natalie’s Russell’s body. After a little discussion about likely DNA results, Denyer confessed. “I killed all three of them,” he said candidly.

He then went on to give full confessions to all three murders and the attack on Rosza Toth – sparing no details or sentiment.

POLICE: Can you explain why we have women victims?

DENYER: I just hate them.

POLICE: I beg your pardon.

DENYER: I hate them.

POLICE: Those particular girls or women in general.

DENYER: General.

Paul Charles Denyer was convicted of the murders and is currently serving three life sentences for the crimes with a minimum non-parole period of 30 years. However, a loophole in Victorian law at the time, could see him become eligible for parole after only 20 years. That is, in 2013.

In a bizarre twist, Denyer has petitioned the courts for tax-payer funded, gender reassignment surgery. He no longer identifies himself as Paul but as Paula Denyer.

Vikki Petraitis
, author of The Frankston Murders, released shortly after the crimes, is re-releasing the book this year with Clan Destine Press, with the new title – The Frankston Serial Killer. The new book includes details of Denyer’s life since his imprisonment.

Vikki was kind enough to answer a few questions:

KYLIE: What was it about the Frankston serial killings that made you want to write about it?

VIKKI: I remember sitting in the back of a police car at the scene of Natalie Russell’s murder thinking: Here I am, a true crime writer, sitting at the crime scene of a girl murdered by a serial killer. I have to write this book. In those days, hardly anyone was writing true crime so there weren’t a bunch of writers vying for the story. I was privy to some of the behind-the-scenes stuff because I was spending time at the Frankston police station working on other stories. I knew the local detectives involved, and I saw first-hand how hard everyone was working to catch the guy. I’m glad it was me who wrote it – someone who lived in the area and felt what it was like.

KYLIE:  You interviewed most of the people involved in, and affected by, the killings while researching the book. Are there moments from those interviews that are still memorable?

VIKKI: I will never forget Natalie’s mum Carmel apologising for the way she explained Nat’s loss on the family. But in her simple eloquence lay the most profound understandings of loss. She said that the hardest thing was remembering to only set three places at the table instead of four. It was really moving stuff. I remember people asking me how I could listen to these stories and view the crime scene videos and look at photographs, but for me it was all about honouring these people by telling their story to the best of my ability. When I heard a harrowing story from the families about their loss, my first thoughts were: how can I show this to the reader? How can I give this the power in words that it has in life? The weight of the responsibility to tell the story well overshadowed my personal response. That’s not to say that I might not feel upset later, but the ability to postpone or redirect personal reactions is the asset required by crime writers and cops and forensic people alike.

KYLIE: I can remember, having lived in the area at the time, the overwhelming sense of fear that was almost tangible at the time. What was your impression?

VIKKI: I too lived in the area and it was something that we were aware of all the time. I remember going into the fish and chip shop and around to the video store and looking at me and thinking: is it you? Being a true crime writer and the reader of hundreds of true crime books, I probably felt safer than most. I knew that he picked women off the streets who were alone or didn’t lock their car doors. I made sure that if I had to go shopping, I took my daughter with me, and that I parked out the front of shops under the lights. People were out in droves buying security doors and guard dogs, but my perception was that he was unlikely to change his MO and break into my house and kill me. Knowledge is power in these situations.

KYLIE: Obviously these murders had a huge impact on the lives of those directly related but what do you think the long-lasting effects of this series of crimes have had on the public consciousness?

VIKKI: I’m not sure there is a long-lasting effect for the general public, and I’m also not sure there should be. One man made a choice to terrorise a community and murder three women. For a while, we were over-cautious and scared, but then things settle down and return to normal. I would hate to think that one man could have a long-term fear effect on people. I suppose that because he did what he did, he opened a door to the possibility of it happening again, but that possibility was always there. Maybe people who lived through it, trust a little less, or are more careful. Maybe that’s a good thing, maybe it’s not. I chose to believe that once he was caught and locked up, we were as safe as we were before he started killing. I don’t want to live in fear. He took enough with the lives of three women. I don’t want to think that he took any more.

KYLIE: Your original book, The Frankston Murders was released shortly after the events. It will be re-released under the title The Frankston Serial Killer, by Clan Destine Press this year. What new information will be included?

VIKKI: The new edition has been re-edited and streamlined. A writer develops a lot over 15 years and so I’ve changed bits and pieces all the way through. I’ve also added the update on what Denyer is doing now in prison. The fact that he wanted to wear make-up and now dresses as a woman, complete with pigtails, has certainly brought about a renewed interest in him.

KYLIE: How does it feel for you revisiting the crimes, and the devastation they caused, after all this time?

VIKKI: Surprisingly, I’ve found it quite distressing to revisit the story. I don’t usually read my own books, so once it’s out there, I move on to the next project. I think that as a writer, if you can’t let go of a story and move on to the next one, it would eat you up – especially true crime writers. Revising the story is different now, with time. I know that a number of the people I interviewed have passed away since then. I grew very fond of Natalie Russell’s aunt, Bernadette. She was so keen to keep the public aware of Denyer and what he did. Unfortunately, she didn’t live to do this. I visited her just before she died and I mourned at her funeral. The grief contained in the story is now much more real to me since I have experienced loss in my life. Until you lose someone you love, you can only sympathise rather than empathise with the families. Now I get it which is why I have found revisiting the story as distressing as I have.

KYLIE:  Is there any difference in the way you perceive Paul Charles Denyer now, to your perception of him at the time of his arrest and trial?

VIKKI: One thing that struck me was that as the years go on, people don’t even remember his name. When it first happened, everyone knew who he was – which I guess is the whole point of it for him – but with the passing of time, many wouldn’t even remember his name. I’m not sure if my perception of his has changed; he’s a woman-hating killer. Seeing the media photos of him with pigtails pretending to be the very thing he loathes is hard to understand.

KYLIE:  You’ve contacted Denyer for both the original book and again, for the new edition. Was he able to offer any insights?

VIKKI: When I first wrote The Frankston Murders, I wrote to Paul Denyer in prison to offer him the opportunity to contribute. I didn’t get an answer from him and one of the detectives spoke to him and Denyer told the detective that he had flushed my letter down the toilet. For the reprint, I wrote to him again with the same offer – did he want to tell his story, or at least explain the reasoning behind his decision to live as a woman. In only a couple of days, I received a reply from ‘Ms Paula Denyer’ – as Paul was now known. Paula explained that ‘she’ did not wish to make a contribution and that one day, she might like to tell her own story. The letter was respectful and well-written. She signed off with: ‘I plan to make this world better.’

Coming from a self-confessed woman-hating monster, that last sentence is one of the most frightening prospects I’ve ever read. I shudder to think how he would make the world a better place. You can read more in the upcoming, “The Frankston Serial Killer“.