True crime author Ann Rule gets to know the kind of people most of us hope we’ll never meet. The long-time chronicler of murders most foul is fascinated with the personalities of those who kill as a matter of choice.
Early in her career, the author got a close-up glimpse of one such frightening character. When Rule was just getting started as a crime writer in the early ’70s, she worked at a Seattle crisis clinic with the soon-to-be-revealed serial killer Ted Bundy. In the decades since that coincidental meeting, Rule has become America’s top true crime writer, with 16 best-selling books to her credit.
In her latest study, Every Breath You Take, she descends into the twisted mind of Allen Blackthorne, the handsome, brilliant and self-made (right down to renaming himself) multimillionaire who instigated the 1997 killing of his former wife, Sheila Bellush. After years of threats and terror, Sheila was shot and slashed to death in front of her two-year-old quadruplets. Blackthorne was convicted of her murder in July 2000 and sentenced to life imprisonment.
"I’m always looking for the protagonist who appears to have everything in the world," Rule said recently from her home in Washington state. "The rest of us think, boy, if I were handsome or pretty and smart and charming and wealthy and popular and had love, why wouldn’t I be happy? But these people never get enough. And, in the end, many of them will kill to get what they want. If I find the right person who looks good, but under that façade is basically evil, the book’s very easy to write. I just kind of follow along with the action."
But Rule doesn’t rely on action alone to propel her stories. She also delves into the family histories of her principal characters, trying to discover why they act as they do. "When I was a little kid and my grandpa was a sheriff in Michigan," Rule says, "I was allowed to go up in the cells and visit with the women prisoners. They just looked so nice. I was always asking my grandfather, ‘Why would they want to grow up and be a criminal?’ The why of murder always fascinates me so much more than the how. I wanted to understand the psychopathology, why some people would grow up to be criminals. I found that if you can follow the family pathology back, often there are clues."
With a degree of foreboding that is chilling to contemplate, the victim in Every Breath You Take chose Rule to be her voice from the grave long before she was murdered. "Kerry Bladhorn, who is Sheila Bellush’s sister, sent me an e-mail [in February 2000] and said, ‘I’m going to try one more time to find you.’ She told me that her sister, when she got divorced 10 years earlier from Allen, had said, ‘If anything ever happens to me, please have it investigated.’ And then she said, ‘Promise you’ll find Ann Rule and ask her to write my story.’"
Rule concedes that her book would have been derailed had Blackthorne been found not guilty. "It’s always a gamble for me," she explains, "because if someone is acquitted at trial — and I try to be at every session of the trial — I really could not write about it. They could say that I was invading their privacy."
Beyond the common trait of guilt, Rule says the criminals she writes about share other similarities: "I think the lack of empathy is the first thing. . . . All of them, I would say, have deeply entrenched personality disorders. In their minds, the world revolves around them, and the rest of us are one-dimensional paper-doll figures who are put on earth to make them happy. I don’t think they attribute the feelings to us that they have themselves. It doesn’t really matter who they hurt. Yet they’re all chameleons. They fool us. They give us back whatever we might want from them, if it suits their purposes."
Rule says her authoring chores have evolved into a fairly predictable pattern: "I’m always working on three
Her next book will be about Anthony Pignataro, the plastic surgeon from Buffalo, New York, who poisoned his "faithful wife of 20 years," albeit not fatally. "It took her a very long time to even believe that this man she’d always stood beside would do that to her," Rule says. "I’m going to tell the story from her viewpoint."
Beyond telling good and true stories, Rule has a more basic agenda. "The thing I hope to do, although I know it’s impossible, is put myself out of business," she says. "I want to warn potential victims. Many of them are women, and many of them are battered women. It’s a cause for me. When I look back, though, so many of the books I’ve written are about wives who just couldn’t get away. But I’ve heard from probably a dozen or more women who’ve said, ‘I’d be dead if it wasn’t for something I read in one of your books.’ That makes me feel so good."
Thanks to the public nature of trials and the media interest in them, even the most heinous killers get to tell their story. Rule believes their victims should be heard, too. "I always want to give the victim a voice," she concludes. "One of my main tasks is to let the reader know the extent of the loss and what might have been if this person had been allowed to live."
Edward Morris writes on books and music from Nashville.