Sunday, January 17, 2016

Author Interview - A Conversation with JT Townsend Part 1

JT Townsend
JT Townsend is a Cincinnati-based true crime writer with two published books about famous cases in Cincinnati. The first is Queen City Gothic, about unsolved local murders, the second is Queen City Notorious, a just-published tome about the greatest solved murder cases in Cincinnati history. JT and I sat down over lunch recently to discuss his writing, his library lecture series, what crimes keep him up at night and his favorite true crime movie. Part 1 features general information about JT’s life and career, Part 2 concentrates on in-depth analysis of famous local and national murder cases.

Jerry Smith: I don’t believe you have a deep writing background. What made you want to write about crime? Have you always been interested in crime research investigation?

JT Townsend: When I was a kid I read Agatha Christie’s Ten Little Indians. You know, I’m a fourth grader, I’m reading books on baseball. Suddenly everyone starts being murdered, and they realize the murderer is one of them. I was hooked. Shortly after that, I read about the Lizzie Borden case. Anybody who reads about the Lizzie Borden case will become hooked on true crime. Then for the detection part, that was kind of the mystery there. I also watched a lot of Columbo episodes. If you recall, that was not a “whodunit.” Did you ever see a Columbo?

JS: I love Columbo.

JT: They would give away the murderer in the first few minutes. It’s all about the final thing Columbo’s going to say. He’s sucking up to the killer the whole episode. It’s the final thing he’ll say and he’ll finally say, “Okay. Gotcha!” It’s always “one more thing, sir.” The murderer always tries to explain it. Then, right at the end, he’s got him.

As for writing, I do have a B.A. in English from Miami University. I always wrote the best emails of anyone in the company I worked for. I had the company president ask me to edit copy. I started my first freelance piece in 1997 and went from there. You know I wrote Queen City Gothic during chemotherapy.

JS: Yes.

JT: Terrible first draft. Terrible. But it was a draft.

JS: You had a book.

JT: Years of editing. Chemo was 2007 to 2009. A lot of editing. But I had a book.

JS: Were you working full time at that time?

JT: I was. But that’s kind of how I got into crime writing.

JS: Tell me about your research. What surprises has it let to?


JT: I have a genealogist on retainer. That is the most fascinating part of this. I can get into the newspaper files, but it’s the back-story—what came later, what came before. In researching Queen City Notorious, the guy who killed the little girl in front of the railroad tracks, an unspeakable crime and the guy was a pedophile. Through genealogy I was able to learn he got his life straightened out. He went through two unspeakable tragedies; his son died, then six months later several members of his family were killed in a car/train accident. He went off the deep end. None of that was in the paper about his background. About how this guy had two terrible shocks in a row. His life was going well, but he lapsed back into being a pedophile.

I lost my sister in a car accident. It’s shocking. A phone call one morning ... “Your sister’s dead.” Wow. Genealogy research has uncovered all this about this guy’s life. It makes you sort of sympathetic towards the killer. It’s hard to beat. Especially to someone who would kill a child.

I’m good on the microfilm, digging into case files on people, but the genealogy, that has been the most fascinating part of this. The facets of the story that it uncovers.

JS: What other type of information does the genealogy uncover? Is it just related to the person you are researching? Or other details?

JT: It’s the gamut. It’s people for me to interview, you get birthdates, death dates, relatives, in some cases significant life events come up. Like the case I was telling you about. It really gives you another chapter, an extra mile to the story. The genealogist I have is a real pro. A professional genealogist will give you an incredible background check. It’s an area I’m not adept at.

JS: Is that a full-time position for them?

JT: Yes. She has a lot of clients. She’s good. I profusely thank her at the beginning of my acknowledgements, Tricia Huff. It’s stuff I wouldn’t be able to find out without her.

JS: Are national cases, such as Lizzie Borden and the Lindbergh baby, more interesting than local cases, such as the Cincinnati Strangler, whom you actually feature in one of your presentations?

JT: I’m thinking more about what makes a case enter the national consciousness. Or even a local consciousness.  

JS: I would think being famous would help.

JT: Definitely in the case of Lindghberg, obviously. The most famous couple in America, the most famous child in America is missing and killed. That’s a slam-dunk. It’s been called the greatest story since the resurrection.

The infamous Lizzie Borden
JS: Wow. What would make a case like Lizzie Borden become so well known?

JT: The Borden family was not well known outside their own hometown. If they had died natural deaths, we wouldn’t know anything about them. The murder of Andrew and Abby Borden and the trial of their daughter Lizzie makes you wonder why that case has stayed with us when other sensational cases, other sensational ax murders, have not. I will say this—the Lizzie Borden case—one of my favorite true crime writers, Edmund Pierson, revived it 1924, then wrote an article about it in a magazine. He ended up reviving the case. I’m sure I’ll do a Lizzie Borden book. I mean, why not? I’m still mad about that case.

JS: What common threads do you find in criminal minds and behavior? Do you see the same things happening in different cases?

JT: Talking murder, murder is either a matter of passion or gain. It’s either some kind of personal cause homicide, where someone is personally involved with the victim, or you’re trying to gain something, financial or otherwise. You know what stands out about everyone I’ve studied? They’re bold. They’re willing to take risks that you and I won’t. People like you and I will often say, how can someone do something like that, y’know? ‘Cause it’s beyond us. But we forget that criminals take these kind of risks every day. They don’t think about it. You have to be somewhat of a narcissist, obviously. And somewhat of a sociopath. They say four percent of all people are born sociopaths. Look how we see that today. Murderers. Computer hackers. Guy who kills a senior—he was going to clean the gutters and he skips out with the money. Sociopaths. They don’t care about anyone else. Four percent cause 99% of the world’s problems.
(JT discusses the Lizzie Borden case in more detail, among others, in Part 2 of our interview)

JS: What cases keep you up at night and why?

JT: You know my wife said once when I was researching Queen City Gothic, she said I woke up in the middle of the night and said, “She’s his sister and his mother,” and fell back asleep.

JS: (Laughter)

JT: My wife goes, “What was that?” I didn’t know. His sister and his mother ... could be Ted Bundy. The Ted Bundy case haunts me because it was a case of incest. They never identified his father. His grandfather was a big, virile violent man whose own life was troubled. Bundy’s mother was the eldest daughter. She was a Christian woman, the school valedictorian, yet she’s used, impregnated and abandoned by some shadowy guy nobody knows? Her own family didn’t believe that story, her other relatives. It was her father, I’m sure of it. That one bothers me.

I think of that little girl, Ann Marie Burr, who disappeared from her neighborhood in 1961. Ted Bundy is their paperboy? Those keep me up the most, where you have an unsolved crime where you have a known perpetrator nearby—those I just can’t get out of my head.

JS: Can you comment on the effectiveness of the police and the criminal justice system? Do you think it is successful most of the time?

JT: Pass. (both laugh)

JS: Has your research ever helped you uncover new information on an unsolved case?

JT: Everything I’ve done with Bricca. More and more people will talk with me. Some of it’s hearsay, some of it is circumstantial, but it keeps coming. I’m always looking for information about that case.

JS: Let’s discuss your books. Queen City Gothic—you’ve discussed some of what went into the publishing of that book, could you provide a bit more detail?

JT: To get my mind off chemotherapy. I already had all the articles. It was a hobby, I collected cold case articles. That was the easy part. It was my wife’s idea.

JS: What about your second book, Queen City Notorious? How did Gothic lead into Notorious?

JT: Well, some of the detectives I worked with on Gothic said hey, great book, but we look like Keystone Cops on some of these cases. Can you write a book where we solve the cases? I said okay—I wrote a book about mystery, I’ll write one about justice. It’s as simple as that. It’s probably my mistake, I didn’t include cases with already a lot of information out there. I didn’t do Ann Marie Hahn, I didn’t do George Remus. I didn’t do James Ruppert, who killed his family up in Hamilton on Easter. Eleven people massacred. The only well-known case I have in there is Edythe Klumpp. I think the other cases are sensational. They were all huge news at the time. Every one of them. None of them has really stood the test of time, though. I wanted people to discover these cases. In chapter three of my book, one of the wealthiest women in Cincinnati is shot in her mansion by her son-in-law. Coverage today would be epic if something like that happened. Epic!

JS: I really enjoy attending your lectures. They tend to be riveting from beginning to end. What do you like about speaking to live audiences? Does public speaking come naturally?

JT: I like the live audiences. I like the fact that I’m there talking about something that fascinates me, and I know people wouldn’t be sitting there unless they were fascinated too. I was going to be a teacher coming out of college. I even taught my last semester. It didn’t go well. I decided not to do it. I’m sort of getting that teacher vibe again. But I have interested students all the time. The people are why I’m there, the bigger the audience the better. When I give a Bricca talk, and there are more than a hundred people, it’s an event. That Monfort Heights Bricca talk? I felt like a rock star.

JS: (Laughs). I imagine they were engaged.

JT: They finally had to kick us out. The library closed at eight. I kept seeing the librarian going like this (slices finger across throat). Finally she came up at five of eight—they booed her.

JS: Really!

JT: They would have stayed there until midnight if they had stayed open. I love the audiences—true crime people. People who are as fascinated as me about these kind of things—things none of us would ever dream of doing. They start off being narcissists and become sociopathic. They’ll take the risk. We can’t put ourselves in their place. I love the audiences, Jerry. You know that.

JS: Are you on a mission to punish bad guys and solve crimes? Or is this just a hobby for you?

JT: I’m an armchair detective. I do want to keep a distance. Would I love to solve a cold case like Bricca? Sure. Do I see that happening? Probably not. In terms of cold cases; social justice. Here’s me solving it. Believe me, I’ve put a lot of thought and research into this, you can trust my judgment. I’ve put myself into a position to be an expert. To make the calls. To say who did it. I’m not going to cop out and say I don’t know. Social justice. That’s the best we can hope for on some of these cases. So we don’t forget these people. The victims.

JS: You’ve done a lot of lectures and talked to a lot of folks. What is the weirdest experience you’ve had or weirdest question you’ve been asked? That you can talk about?

JT: (Laughs) I’m thinking about this one—This is my funniest moment, without question. I was talking about the Coby case in Queen City Gothic. A husband and wife shot to death in their garage. Their eight-year-old son came home from school and found them. I have a picture of Dennis and Evelyn Coby in the book. I’ve got the picture up there and the woman raises her hand. She says, “It’s obvious from that picture that they were killed by his gay lover.” I said “What?” She said, “Well, look at his wife! She’s five feet tall and looks like a boy.” I looked at the picture of Ellen Coby and she was very diminutive, very skinny, short hair ... I know Tom Coby, I’d never say anything bad about his parents. But I just looked at her and saw how boyish she looked and I had to sit down. Actually everybody started laughing and I thought, “Oh my God.” She said, “He probably had some altar boy as a lover or something.” I sat in the corner and just said, “Time out—what if she’s right about that?” That was weird.

JS: What is the subject of your next book?

JT: It will be about the Bricca case. Write about what you know, they say. I know true crime, and I know Bricca.

JS: That is one of the most interesting cases you’ve ever talked about.

JT: It’s the most notorious cold case in Cincinnati history. I don’t know all the Ohio crimes, but I’d say it’s the number two cold case in Ohio behind Marilyn Sheppard. The Marilyn Sheppard case is the one—it’s Ohio’s greatest mystery. I’m going to give a talk on that case. Buddy, there are five suspects, including the good doctor. In addition to Eberling, there are three others. It has to be one of these five. It’s going to be a good talk. We’re going to look at all five of these people, put them under the microscope.

My next book will be Bricca. The only question is whether it will be a true crime, non-fiction book, or if it will be a novel.

JS:  I wondered what you do to get away from crime writing.

JT: My brother asked me once ... “Is that all you ever think about is murder?” I’m a huge baseball fan. I played baseball for the longest time. I like other sports—I’m an avid tennis player. I love being in an art museum with my wife, looking at the impressionists and post impressionist art. My wife and I watched a show the other night on Rembrandt. It was fascinating. I watched a really good show on the DVR last night about Anne Frank—not about what happened in the house but what her concentration camp experience was like. They talk about that part of her life and what happened before she died. That’s not a true crime story.

JS: Actually it probably is.

JT: Well, in a larger sense it might be the greatest true crime story of all time in terms of body count. The mood of this piece was so melancholy. They showed the beautiful grounds today where the concentration camps were, you realized what happened there ... but, I do have a lot of other interests.

JS: Is there a favorite book, movie or piece of entertainment of yours that might surprise people?

JT: A guilty pleasure?

JS: Sure, that’ll do.

JT: I’ll tell you the movie; Somewhere in Time.

JS: I love that movie!

JT: Christopher Reeve and Jane Seymour.

JS: The most beautiful woman who ever lived.

JT: You know the movie.

JS: I do.

JT: If you said that, I’d say you’ve seen it more than once.

JS: (both laugh) I have.

JT: I’m not saying that’s the greatest movie in the world ...

JS: No!

JT: It typically garners two stars out of four in the guide. It’s a guilty pleasure. The whole hook of it ... everything about it. The old woman—“Come back to me!”

JS: Giving him the watch, yeah.

JT: Giving him the watch. Then he pulls the penny out of his pants, the 1879 penny. We watched that a month or so ago. The whole thing starts with that photograph of Jane Seymour he sees at the hotel. That photograph had to be just right for the picture to work. Then you learn that she was looking at him when the photograph was taken. That kind of stuff gets to me. It’s not true crime or anything like that; just the whole idea of that story. That would be a guilty pleasure. That’s the one I could think of.

JS: I saw that movie on a date with my first girlfriend in high school. It brings back good memories.

JT: As far as a true crime movie I think everyone should watch? The original In Cold Blood.

JS. Is that the one with Robert Blake? I’ve never seen it.

JT: Black and white, 1967. It put Robert Blake on the map. It’s one of the only movies filmed about a real event where they shot every scene where it actually happened. They recreated the Clutter murders in the house where they actually happened. When they hang the guys in the end, in was in the place where they hanged the real guys. When they showed the two killers going cross-country—they had to drive eight hours to get to the farm—they stopped at the same gas stations and restaurants the real ones did. The attention to detail for that, the courtroom, everything in that movie was filmed where it actually happened. But to film a quadruple murder in the house where it actually occurred? I remember reading that the actors who played the Clutter family got the willies. It’s black and white, it has a really edgy score by Quincy Jones, it’s a seminal true crime movie. Anyone who watches it should understand, wow—this actually happened where these actors are standing. I’ve never known a movie you could say that about. It’s certainly a real gem.

JS: What is the best way for people buy your books?

JT: Author House for Queen City Gothic, Virtual Bookworm for Queen City Notorious. Buying them directly from my publishers does help support my mission.

JS: Well JT, thank you so much for your valuable time, I really appreciate it.

JT: No problem.

Part 2 of this interview, where JT will discuss famous murder cases in more detail, including Cincinnati’s famous Bricca case, will be published later this week. Here is a link

In the meantime, here’s where you can find more information about JT and his work:

Follow JT Townsend’s blog (https://jtsiteblog.wordpress.com) or connect with him on Facebook (https://www.facebook.com/TrueCrimeDetective

Click here to purchase a book:

Also available on Amazon

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