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Pacific Northwest | July 18, 2004Pacific Northwest MagazineJuly 18, home
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In tales of True Crime, Ann Rule taps our need to know why
Ann Rule talks with Mertie Winston, the mother of Green River victim Tracy Winston, about borrowing some photos of Tracy for Rule's book. Three years after Tracy's disappearance, part of her body was found near a tree at Cottonwood Grove Park along the Green River in Kent.
THE DAY BROUGHT cold air carried on a light breeze, typical for December in the Pacific Northwest. Perhaps based on the weather alone, Ann Rule should have known something was coming. After all, in her wildly popular true-crime books it is often on the most normal of days that something frightful happens.

"Friday, November 7, 1997, was an ordinary day in Sarasota, Florida — or so it seemed," she writes in the opening of her 2002 book "Every Breath You Take," in which a husband ends up murdering his not unsuspecting wife.

"The wind had blown constantly that fall, but that wasn't unusual for Kansas," she writes in the first line of her 1999 book, "Bitter Harvest," which tells the story of a brilliant Kansas physician who burns her children to death and poisons her husband.
Rule hangs crystal prisms in her work "cabin," appreciating the rainbows of color and scattering light they bring in. Here, sunlight through a prism plays on the manuscript of her upcoming book about Gary Ridgway, the Green River killer.
Ordinary weather, seemingly ordinary days — in an Ann Rule book they are portents, cues for innocent people to watch their backs. In "Bitter Harvest," Rule notes with apparent approval that on that unremarkably windy day in Kansas women were nevertheless on guard: "Housewives set out flashlights and candles — just in case." They seem to know what Rule now knows after years of sitting at her prodigiously cluttered desk in her home on Puget Sound, writing true accounts of horrific murders, the people who commit them, and those who suffer at their hands — a desk at which she is now putting the finishing touches on her 23rd book, a mammoth take on Green River killer Gary Ridgway, due out this fall.

What Rule has learned, through the court documents and yellowing newspaper clippings and grisly crime-scene photos that surround her, is that it's really not a bad thing to be the type of woman who keeps a candle at the ready even in normal wind; you never know.
While some victims' families are critical of Rule making money off their stories, other families communicate with her often, supporting her work in hopes it will help others avoid their loved ones' fate.
For this same reason, Rule writes with a wooden baseball bat and a gun nearby. Tougher than most women in their sixth decade, she looks like she could do some damage with them. Then again, maybe not. Paradoxically — and endearingly — Rule has managed to keep from being hardened by the grim scenes of human cruelty her job immerses her in. One would think, for example, that a woman like her would have no squeamishness left when it comes to seeing red. Yet Rule says — with the voice of an extremely sensitive creature — that she is grateful to her editor for marking cuts to her Ridgway manuscripts in green instead of the traditional red ink. "It hurts less when it's in green."

The woman whose specialty is killers can't bring herself to kill insects, and, when it comes to food, has her own idiosyncratic form of vegetarianism. The criterion for exclusion from her diet: whether she feels too bad for the animal. "Basically I'm mostly down to turkey and fish and free-range eggs."
Rule's first published stories were written under several pseudonyms, including Andy Stack. Rule's maiden name was Ann Stackhouse, and people called her father Stack. Her oldest son's name is Andy Stack Rule — hence this pseudonym.
Among the law-enforcement memorabilia Rule collects are caps, which hang from a beam in her writing cabin.
And despite all the lessons her books offer in not letting one's guard down, she still does it all the time, believing, for example, in certain home repairmen long after she should probably have shown them the bat. It's this same inextinguishable optimism that led her, on that normal Pacific Northwest day last December, to give the benefit of the doubt to two very upset men who were standing in line at her book signing — men she probably should have looked at with a more skeptical eye.

BUT BEFORE WE get to those two angry men, another Ann Rule opening line, another reminder to be on guard amid the normal. "The Thanksgiving holiday, 1998, was no different from any other holiday," she writes, starting off her account of the deadly shooting that caused a Metro bus to plunge off Seattle's Aurora Bridge on the day after Thanksgiving that year. The incident, she says in her introduction, "demonstrates how little control humans have over their own destinies, and how disaster sometimes comes while we are involved in the most mundane of pursuits."

This idea — that the main lesson of violent crime is its frightening unpredictability — might well be Ann Rule's credo. It's a credo that has drawn her legions of devoted fans, the vast majority of them women, who often credit her books' cautions with saving their lives.

Rule's vision of violent crime has also made her a lot of money. From humble beginnings that involved doing door-to-door surveys for $1.60 an hour, surveys that covered such fascinating topics as people's preferred flavors of Jell-O, Rule has arrived at an enviable place in her career, recently receiving more than a million-dollar advance for her Ridgway book. "Green River Running Red" will be her personal take on the crimes of a man who used to live not far from her, and is probably the most notorious Northwest serial killer after Ted Bundy (whose story Rule told to wide acclaim in her first true-crime book, "The Stranger Beside Me").
Police memorabilia are among the things Rule collects. She once was a recruit for the Seattle Police Department, but couldn't pass the eye exam.
And now, back to that ordinary December day and those two men at the seemingly normal book signing. Rule had said a few words, mentioning she was working on the book about Ridgway. "The first guy went by and said, 'Hope you're researching this carefully,' " Rule recalls.

"Yeah, I am," she replied, assuming the comment was well-intentioned. "It almost sounded like it was, you know, 'Atta Girl!' " This, incidentally, is exactly what victims in her stories often do; they assume the best, and fail to notice very angry men.

A few minutes after their first pass, the men were back. This time Rule realized they were brothers of one of Ridgway's victims; she sensed they were drunk. Suddenly, she heard them shouting: "You're making a fortune off our sister!"

Security escorted the men out. But not before two women in line, aunts of another Ridgway victim, piped up: "We want her to write about our niece!" They were glad to have Rule telling the world who had been lost, and who was to blame.

The incident highlights both the danger of being a writer curious about violent crime and the gratitude many feel toward Rule for being brave enough to tackle these stories. Knowing she is a magnet for both fury and appreciation, and a lot of other emotions besides, the author takes it in stride:
Some might expect to find scrapbooks or family photos in their office bins. Rule keeps a scattering of containers like this one, labeled "Murder Photos." Beanie the cat, part of Rule's menagerie, has found an adjacent crate to nestle into.
"I made up my mind when I started 30 years ago, if I'm going to be scared all the time, I shouldn't be doing this because it would wreck my life."

FROM THE BEGINNING, Ann Rule found criminals in the calmest of places. She grew up in Saginaw and Ann Arbor, Mich., raised by a mother who taught special education and a father who coached track at the University of Michigan. Her childhood summers were spent in nearby Montcalm County, a place with the word calm sewn into its very name, and there she spent a lot of time in jail. "My grandpa Hansen in Michigan was the sheriff," she explains. "If I wanted to see my grandparents I had to literally go to jail." It was a mom-and-pop affair, with a living quarters, cells and the sheriff's office all in one yellow-brick house.

"I would help my grandma cook for the prisoners," Rule says, "and I would pass the tray through the slot in the pantry to the prisoners, and they were so nice! So I would always ask my grandpa, 'How come they're locked up?' "
Rule explores the beach near her home, saying she finds respite from her work in gentle things. "I get as far away as I can from the things I write about." With her is one of her many animal companions, Willow, a Bernese mountain dog.
She had another question: "Why would anybody want to grow up to be a criminal?" She didn't have the fancy words to describe the object of her curiosity then, but she does now. They're the kinds of big words she uses when lecturing in front of law-enforcement officers, many of whom consider her an expert in their field. In that little yellow-brick jail, Rule says, "I wanted to know why some kids grew up to be criminals and why other people didn't. That is still the main thrust behind my books: I want to know why these things happen, and so do my readers."

Rule graduated from the University of Washington in 1955 with a degree in creative writing. Initially, though, she decided to follow what she calls her "genetic" tendency toward police work: Besides her grandfather, many other men in her extended family had careers in law enforcement. Rule's own brief career as a Seattle policewoman stalled out, however, at the vision exam; she proved too near-sighted to read even the big E on the wall chart. "That was, for me, the biggest tragedy of my life so far," she says.
On her Web-site newsletter (, Rule tells fans about her zucchinis rotting on the vine. They respond in her guestbook with gardening advice. Her rowboat/planter is where she's planning on trying her next crop — but that will have to wait for a break in writing deadlines. Her friend, Marilyn Brenneman, suggests gardening is one of the things Rule does to keep perspective: "You just try to poke as much of the good stuff into your head as you can and it balances the bad stuff."
By the early 1970s she was trying to make it as a freelance writer but had also begun volunteering at the Seattle Crisis Clinic, where she worked alongside a UW work-study student whom she found to be brilliant, handsome and sensitive. Rule was married at the time, but in the process of divorcing. (She doesn't like to talk about that marriage now, and has never remarried.)

In "The Stranger Beside Me," Rule writes of that handsome student: "I can remember thinking that if I were younger and single — or if my daughters were older — this would be almost the perfect man."

The man was Ted Bundy.

Rule says there was never anything romantic between them — "thank God" — but she believes she was drawn to Bundy, in part, because of his young age relative to hers (he was 22) and his vulnerability. He reminded her of her younger brother, Don, who had committed suicide about 10 years earlier. Through long nights at the clinic, Rule and Bundy became close, sharing advice and personal stories, but eventually Rule left the clinic and the two fell out of touch — for a while.

RULE STRUGGLED to make a living as a freelancer at first, writing crime stories for a now-defunct magazine called True Detective. It was the type of magazine her friends wouldn't put on their coffee tables. The problem was its covers, which were "always a maiden in distress with a bad guy clutching her and holding some erect phallic symbol, whether it was a knife or a gun," Rule says. She finally prevailed on her editors, saying, "Why couldn't you have policemen helping people on the cover?" So they put policemen on, but now they were holding the phallic symbols and clutching the barely clothed women.
"I can only watch these about an hour at a time," says Rule of a Gary Ridgway interview on DVD. She purchased all 105 hours of his recorded interviews.
Then there was the restriction on how Rule could present herself. "They liked my work, but they said, 'You'll have to get a male pen name, because our readers won't believe that a woman knows anything about police.' " She called herself Andy Stack, Arthur Stone, Chris Hansen — all pseudonyms inspired by names in her family.

"I didn't care what they called me," Rule says. "They were paying me $200 for every story . . . and I had all these little kids to support." There were four at the time; a foster child came later. Today, Rule has four grandchildren as well. To hone her crime-writing skills, she started taking courses at Green River and Highline community colleges and ended up receiving an associate of arts in police sciences. After that, Rule recalls, her editors told her she knew more about crime-scene investigations and how homicide detectives work than any of the men writing, so she could use her own name.

She demurred because "often the bad guys were back on the street by the time the story came out . . . Since I was living alone with little kids, I just decided I would hide behind my male persona, just for safety's sake."

In that sentiment, and the instinct to hide from her work, is a hint at how disquieting it can be to make a career out of monitoring society's most violent elements.

"There's a lot of negative energy involved in this, trust me," says Marilyn Brenneman, a friend who is also a King County senior deputy prosecutor and was a character in "A Rose for Her Grave," Rule's 1993 book about Randy Roth, who murdered two of his wives for insurance money. Brenneman was a prosecutor on that case, and has worked plenty of other disturbing cases.

"I don't know what's normal and isn't anymore," she says, explaining what a career filled with murder does to a person. To cope, "I try to do a lot of normal things. I'm pretty sure Ann does the same thing. She has very close friends, she's very close to her children, she walks on the beach, she does gardening. You just try to poke as much of the good stuff into your head as you can and it balances the bad stuff."

The next time Ann Rule used her real name in writing came after she received an unexpected call from Bundy on Sept. 30, 1975, telling her he had been arrested, but that it was no big deal.

As it turned out, it was a very big deal.

TO GET A SENSE of how big a deal Ann Rule has since become in her genre, and where that genre fits into the rest of contemporary writing, go to the downtown Seattle Barnes & Noble. The True Crime section is on the lower level, next to the trashy romance novels with titles such as "Mr. Complete" and "How to Lasso A Cowboy." True Crime fills only one bookcase, but Ann Rule books take up more space than any other author.

Rule prides herself on doing her own research and likes to watch the courtroom proceedings for the cases she's planning to write about. It gives her a chance to look at the faces of the victims' families, to watch the accused killers' reactions, to meet the prosecutors. All these people will play parts in her story.

To avoid interfering in cases as they unfold, Rule always waits until the killer is convicted to begin writing. The delay also assures her a satisfying ending, a scene of the killer behind bars. That's a major appeal of Rule's work, believes Brenneman. "The bad guy's always caught."

But if the books are ultimately reassuring to readers, they are at times unsettling to the families whose relatives become fodder for paperbacks. Another reminder of this came on Dec. 18 last year, when Rule was in a Seattle courtroom for Ridgway's sentencing hearing. In a letter read aloud, one victim's mother said: "To those who have and will write books, please get your facts straight and stop embroidering upon them; and for the love of God, donate to charities that help the young and sexually abused children."

This sense that Rule is profiting from the tragedies of others clearly bothers her, but she's dealt with it and is ready for any questions. Early on, she went to a psychiatrist who told her that half the population makes its living off other people's tragedies: doctors, lawyers, journalists, etc. "And he said, 'What matters is how you feel about the people you write about.' And then I was OK."

Rule says she has been a member of the advocacy group Families and Friends of Victims of Violent Crimes for 30 years, and has given hundreds of thousands of dollars to the victims she writes about. "I just do it quietly," she says. "And I do it after the fact, so it's not like checkbook journalism. It's after they've talked to me and haven't asked for anything."

Bob Keppel, a former detective who was a character in "The Stranger Beside Me" and now does true-crime writing of his own, says: "I suppose Ann Rule does make a profit, but I tell you what, she's earned it. She lives every one of those cases, every one of those victims, every one of those victims' families. It's like it's a part of her."

And despite assumptions, her lifestyle is certainly not flashy. An oft-told Ann Rule story involves the author bargain hunting at Value Village, as she loves to do. A fan comes up to her and says: "Oh, Ann, I thought you were doing so well."

ONE STRANGE twist to the plot of Ann Rule's life story is that she's become such an icon, such a powerful intermediary between mass murderers and the mass market, that Ridgway mentioned her several times when he was confessing, and said he wished to be portrayed well in the book he hoped Rule would write about him. She's been watching those confessions for her research, and they make her feel ill.

"It was startling and is startling to me when I'm watching Gary Ridgway and I hear him say my name," Rule says. "My first impulse is, 'I don't want to be in his head, I don't want him saying my name.' "

However, she rejects any suggestion that her books might provide a killer with wanted attention, or even an incentive. "He's not going to like this book. This book is not going to aggrandize him in any way. Every killer I've ever written about hates my guts, because I don't show them as triumphant. I show the soft underbelly that they really would not want the world to see. I show exactly the opposite of what they want."

THERE REMAINS one final question: Why are certain people so captivated by her work when the stories are so frightening? It can't just be that women want to know what type of men to avoid. Men read her books, too. So do women who aren't looking for men anymore. To answer the question, Rule tells this story:

"Every time I sign books, someone will come up to me and say, 'What's the matter with me that I'm so fascinated with what you write about?' And so I ask that spider question. You know: 'If you find a spider in the bathtub what do you do with it?' And the vast majority of my readers will do as I do, take it outside and let it go. I don't kill things."

The moral, she says, is simple: "It's the gentlest of people who are the most fascinated by the cruelest."

Eli Sanders is a Seattle freelance writer. Betty Udesen is a Seattle Times staff photographer.

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