It’s only natural to want to believe we are in control, that when we wake each morning, we decide what we do, that our lives don’t rest in the hands of others or, even worse, of that unseen yet eternal influence commonly referred to as destiny.
Kathryn Casey generally writes the kind of true crime I avoid. When a publisher’s description (of another Casey book) reads: “Trophy wife Celeste Beard wasn’t satisfied with a luxurious lifestyle and her rich Austin media mogul husband’s devotion — so she took his life!” I know it’s probably not for me. If the description could double as a tabloid tagline, it’s my clue that I won’t like the style.
But I was intrigued by the story behind Deliver Us and decided to give her a try. Casey details the investigations of a spate of “unsolved mysteries” over the course of thirty years, connected or peripheral to the I-45 freeway running through Texas (it’s Texas week around here, apparently.) The book is sectioned according to murders that are confirmed as related, or, as is more often the case here, assumed to be. Although several of the unsolved cases are actually resolved, there are still plenty of maddening loose ends. Many of the young women’s bodies have never been recovered, and admitted killers refuse to tell the truth or fill in gaps.
Elsewhere, there’s circumstantial evidence or similarities between confirmed crimes but not enough concrete evidence to put suspects on trial. In some cases, they’re convicted on other murders or charges, but it’s still frustrating when suspicions go unconfirmed, and it denies closure to grieving families. All of these are such messy, messy stories.
The first and earliest subset of this macabre group are 11 very young women, girls even, gone missing from Galveston Island and sometimes found murdered in the 1970s. I actually thought the whole book would focus on them, because their cases seem so similar that there must be one killer behind it (someone did confess, but in one of many twists and turns here, it’s complicated.) They remain officially unsolved, serving as a starting point for this wave of violence against women in the region.
Another section surrounds a “Killing Field”, a seeming dumping ground where four women were found. This section in particular highlights a recurring theme in many of these cases: mistakes and ineptitude in police conduct. This book is heavy on the details, not in an information overload way, just very comprehensive. It almost has a documentary feel about it. At the same time, like seeing haunting images, some of these details make it extremely hard to read. Consider yourself warned.
Casey does a great service in putting victims’ families center stage. They get to tell their stories, their frustrations with police, their memories of the murdered women. That’s certainly not always the case in this genre, and I loved that it was done here. It’s devastating but also remarkable to see what some families went through to push for change when they had suffered from incompetence, for example in one case concerning intensity of searches. A father, Tim Miller, founded Equusearch, a search and recovery organization for missing persons after the disappearance of his daughter, Laura. She was found in the killing field. Others almost lost themselves entirely in trying to find their daughters, or in mourning them.
Desperate to uncover his younger daughter’s whereabouts or, if the worst had happened, her remains, Eddie went so far as to hire a plane to fly him close to the ground, crisscrossing the area, looking for a body or an area where the ground appeared to have been recently disturbed.
Another element I liked was Casey’s excellent detailing of the forensics used in the cases. It was an interesting period of time considering the state of the science and technology available when some crimes first occurred, and as it developed, often allowing cases to be solved years later. She also includes a truly fantastic survivor story, of a woman who jumped out of a truck after being abducted. Her abductor is a suspect in some murders and also the stuff of nightmares – something that seems like it should be an urban legend, his MO was sabotaging a woman’s car in order to play the good Samaritan role and abduct her.
She also interviews some convicted suspects, which, although morbidly interesting, pale in comparison to the places where victims’ families speak. Their stories were grim and bleak and riddled with lies, and I’m not sure how much they actually contributed to the book, besides showing what dumb, sad evil is behind some crimes. It’s due diligence on Casey’s part but it’s also hard to get the truth from these types and I just felt disgusted by their callousness.
It wasn’t that in other parts of the city and across the nation girls, boys, women, and men didn’t disappear. It was that this particular chunk of the Gulf Coast appeared to have more than its share of such tragedies, and too many of the cases remained unsolved.
Why? “Get murdered in Dallas, Chicago, inside Houston, and you’re dealing with cops who know how to work murders. In these small towns, they see them so rarely, they’re over their heads,” a seasoned prosecutor said with a frown one afternoon, shaking his head in regret. “These are small agencies, some of the cops have big egos, and the cases cross jurisdictions. It’s not unusual for an investigator to guard his cases and not cooperate with other cops from other agencies. That means the folks investigating don’t always talk. And that hurts the effort. It can be fatal to an investigation.”
In hindsight, it was a cop who did make the effort, one who got in her car and drove to another small town to compare notes, who made a difference.
Hard to believe after so many cases in the region they were inexperienced, but ok. This frustrating element comes up too often in crime reporting – police jurisdictions hoarding information or refusing to cooperate with others with similar cases. The woman mentioned is Sherry Willcox, an evidence officer who dedicatedly worked with DNA developments and solved a cold case, one of the heroes in these very bleak stories.
Maybe I was bothered by so many differently branching story lines and unrelated crimes. That’s sure not to bother others but it felt jumpy in places. But what it does so well is the important work of telling victims’ stories (the same reason I love Robert Kolker’s Lost Girls.) A few overwritten lines reminded me why I prefer more literary true crime in general, but it’s still a pretty page-turning, hugely informative and detailed read, not dissimilar from Dateline-style storytelling. 3/5
Three Decades of Murder and Redemption in the Infamous I-45/Texas Killing Fields
by Kathryn Casey
published January 27, 2015 by Harper Collins