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  • Writer's pictureCaitlin Rother

How I Came to Be a True Crime Author: With the "Strange Deaths" Beat

By Caitlin Rother

The memories came flooding back this past week, as I've been revisiting the days of being a reporter at The San Diego Union-Tribune, where I developed a niche I like to call the "strange deaths" beat some 25 years ago.

Getting into my own WayBack Machine, I wrote an essay this week about covering the Heaven's Gate cult mass suicide in March 1997, which you can read here. I continued to write about the estate battle with the county over the cult's intellectual property, which ended 2 1/2 years later in probate court.

I was also invited to discuss my Heaven's Gate coverage, as well as other stories on my "strange death" beat--and how I carved out that niche--in a 20-minute podcast with a Union-Tribune opinion editor, Kristy Totten, which you can listen to here.

As some of you may know, my late husband took his own life in April 1999 by hanging himself in a motel in San Quintin, Mexico. So, I have both personal and professional experience with suicide that has informed several of my books: HUNTING CHARLES MANSON, my latest title, DEATH ON OCEAN BOULEVARD, and also my mini memoir about my marriage and how I recovered from that trauma, SECRETS, LIES, AND SHOELACES. Please contact me if you'd like to buy a signed copy of any of these or my other books.

Some of the stories from my "strange deaths" beat include the one about Richie Newman, who lit himself on fire near a Walmart parking lot in East County and died 12 hours later. It all came as a complete shock to his family, who never even knew he was depressed. I'm still in touch with them. I was honored when the paper nominated my story for a Pulitzer.

I also wrote about Steven Hoover, who tried unsuccessfully to kill himself several times, until he finally tried starving himself. After failing with pills and shooting himself with a gun, he put foil on all of the windows of his condo, then stopped eating and drinking. He was found mummified in bed in his Clairemont condo 18 months later, after the condo had gone into foreclosure.

And finally, I wrote a long narrative, which won five journalism awards, about a little girl named Zondy Afflalo, who was hit and thrown 80 feet by a car crossing the street in Allied Gardens, which caused her to become brain dead. Her father initially didn't want her body "cut up" to donate her organs, but her aunt, who was a doctor at Kaiser, persuaded him otherwise. As a result, Zondy's organs and one of her corneas went to 5 different people, whose lives I followed for the next year. As part of my research, I watched a corneal surgery in San Francisco, a heart valve replacement surgery in San Diego, and I talked with one of the receipient's grieving mothers in her kitchen in Brooklyn, N.Y. after his body rejected two livers and died. At the time, no other newspaper had ever tracked that many organ recipients of one donor before.

I've tried to recreate that story with a different group of people for a book, but HIPPA and privacy laws have so far made that impossible. I'm still hoping to write that book some day, though, so please let me know if you are an organ recipient who is in touch with your donor's family, and if you might know other recipients of the same donor. It was such a healing story for me, and such a great educational tool for organ procurement, as they call it these days. I really think that an inspirational book about another organ donor and his/her recipients could save a lot of lives.

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