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  • Writer's pictureCaitlin Rother

A career of following stories that never leave me

As I was getting my new book ready to release this past week, the updated edition of DEAD RECKONING, I realized that I had hit a milestone. I have been following the murder case of Tom and Jackie Hawks by transgender killer Skylar Deleon longer than any other story in my entire 32-year career as a daily newspaper investigative reporter turned published author.

I wrote about this realization in a blog on my publisher's website, WildBlue Press, which you can find here.

But then, this past week, as I was doing research for my current book project, on the Rebecca Zahau case, I came to another realization. My first book, POISONED LOVE, which came out around the same time as I was starting to research the Hawks-Deleon case, involves all kinds of shenanigans at the San Diego County Medical Examiner's Office. Toxicologist Kristin Rossum worked at the ME's office when she stole drugs from her lab and used them to sedate and poison her husband, Greg de Villers back in 2001.

Rossum was hired by the ME's office right out of college at San Diego State University, even after she had admitted during a job interview with the San Diego County Sheriff's Department to using methamphetamine multiple times, which caused her to lose out on the job she was seeking at the county crime lab, as I recall. This failure of county departments to share information with each other is just one of the many issues I wrote about while I was an investigative reporter for The San Diego Union-Tribune, and have continued to write about as a published author.

Today, as I'm reviewing stories that chronicle a long history of problems at the ME's office, which deemed the cause and manner of death for Rebecca Zahau as suicide by hanging, my experience and institutional knowledge is contributing to yet another investigative book. My background on the sheriff's department will come in handy for the Zahau book as well, because Sheriff Gore has continued to maintain that Rebecca committed suicide, even after a civil jury and many outside experts said it was murder. I wrote about Gore and his department's good work in the search for Chelsea King for my book LOST GIRLS, and I'll be writing about them again for my Zahau book, JUSTICE FOR REBECCA.

By the time JUSTICE FOR REBECCA comes out (I will announce a pub date and other news on that soon), my coverage of the ME's will actually surpass the Hawks-Deleon milestone.

This is what's called in the news biz as covering a beat. Much of my time at the newspaper, which ended in September 2006) was spent covering government and politics, as well as jails, prisons, and the mentally ill.

It was while I was covering county government, where I was placed right after Orange County went bankrupt and was told to learn everything I could about the pension fund and its investments so nothing like that got past us on my watch, that I met my late husband, who was the chief investment officer for the fund. And it is because of how he died -- suicide by hanging -- that has given me insight to write about the Zahau case. (For more on that, you can read my mini memoir, SECRETS, LIES AND SHOELACES.)

Since my car died a week ago, I've been thinking about how I feel like I've lost a close friend or family member. How much I've been through in and with that car. It's ironic to me, because I used to silently roll my eyes as people grieved when their faded, old clunkers finally gave out.

Don't you want a new car?, I'd think to myself. Why would you want to drive around a smelly old car that is constantly breaking down?

And now I'm saying the same thing. Only I'm realizing that it's not the car they were talking about so much as who they are, where they've been, and how they've changed since they started driving that car. The trusty old thing that got them from Point A to Point B, C, D, E, F and G.

My late husband was the one who suggested I buy that car. He took the time to research it for me, then came to me and said they were going on sale that day. We went together to the car lot and he was there when the dang salesman didn't even want me to test drive the thing because they were brand new and were allegedly selling so fast that he didn't want me to put any miles on it.

"That's ridiculous," I told him. "I'm not going to buy a car without driving it first."

So, he let me test drive it -- only a few miles -- and then I drove it home that day.

It was 1997, the very first year that Honda CRVs came out, and that car lasted longer than my husband, my marriage, my newspaper career, and long into my new life as I reached a series of other milestones: I became a published author (after 15 years of trying). Then I became a writing teacher (this was long after teaching high-impact aerobics in college, with as many as 40 students at a time in the Boalt Law dorm cafeteria, then later at a club after work in San Francisco's financial district). I worked hard at teaching and writing until I became a New York Times bestselling author, got more and more gigs as a TV commentator, and then tentatively hung out a shingle a writing-research coach. That side business has grown into a regular gig as well. Then I started singing, went on to sing in public, joined a band and added keyboards to my singing, took some voice lessons and continue to hone my skills.

My trusty car was there through it all, taking me multiple times to trials and interviews with killers such as Skylar Deleon and Eric Naposki at the Santa Ana county Jail.

Also to interview John Gardner at Corcoran state prison, where I hoped to meet Charles Manson in the lunch room, where we talked for 5 hours, having no idea I would be writing a book about Manson all these years later. My car took me to many TV interviews shot in LA and Orange County.

It took me to Arizona, where I researched the Steve DeMocker case for my book THEN NO ONE CAN HAVE HER. I also drove it to Mesa, Arizona, to interview my coauthors Scott and Joan Bolzan for our book MY LIFE, DELETED. And it took me back to LA to do research for the Manson book.

But life goes on. There will be another car, more milestones met and more memories formed. We are not limited by our material things. They are only vehicles of passage, to help us gain knowledge and experience that help us go further down the road to the next challenge, the next joy, the next dream. And in my case, the next book, or the next gig.

Essentially, one story leads to me to another, and all my experiences covering my beat at the newspaper and every book I've written thus far have led me to this point. They all seem inter-related somehow, and it feels like my car was a metaphorical connector in the journey between them. I guess I'm now at a fork in the road of life, only I'm going to have to go in multiple directions at once. (Is that even possible? I will find out.)

By the end of this next chapter titled "Rebuilding," set to the Bob Dylan theme, "Everything is Broken," I'm going to have a new kitchen, a new central heating system, new plastic piping to replace the broken cast iron, a new car, and by the sounds my refrigerator was making on Friday, probably one of those too. All while writing two books, promoting a third, and following some other stories for books on the back burner, plus playing in a band.

I'm always learning or doing something new, because what else is life but a series of new adventures?

For more information on all the books mentioned in this blog, you can explore this website, where I've posted photo galleries and info on each individual title. And more!

Thanks for reading!

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