The Making of a Mystery Writer

We all know there are people who dedicate their lives to doing good works as well as those who dedicate their lives to evil. In childhood fables, the villains are often isolated in their evil—set apart of the rest, the better, of the villagers.

As a Baby Boomer born in the late 1950’s, I grew up with Andy and Opie in Mayberry, where there the most noxious criminal was a lovable drunk who gladly locked himself into jail rather than drive and be a menace to society. Movies and television helped perpetuate this myth because everyone likes a happy conclusion—even if it is unrealistic. We would rather believe there are more people with good intentions than those with evil ones. Perhaps it is partly because of this blind faith in the good of people—and we base this on no scientific evidence at all. We use the anecdotal evidence of the kindnesses we see in our daily lives in our community, amongst our friends and family. Those who are good do not generally flock to those with malevolent desires.

I remember a murder when I was only eleven years old; he was my classmate. A killer had stabbed him in the middle of the night during a Boy Scout camping trip. The case was mysterious because the victim’s tent mate heard nothing nor did he see anything. No one had. Of course, we know more about pubescent sleeping habits today—how deep and shut off they are to any part of the conscious world. He was Michael Raynay—and I mention his name only because it is not hard to find his name, with the extensive media coverage at such an unusual setting: beautiful Bozeman, Montana. Poor Michael, he didn’t die immediately. In fact, his primary injury was a head wound presumably inflicted to make him unconscious during the stabbing—which he otherwise might have survived. His tent-mate didn’t hear the blow.

No one heard.

The police and FBI didn’t solve the case for many years, although the Gallatin Valley did have a few disturbing random murders. In those days, though, serial killers were a phenomenon–something that didn’t really happen, especially in such a picturesque place as Montana. People believed they lurked in the urban city backgrounds. There, they expected it. But not in Montana. It wasn’t until Susan Jaeger disappeared from a camping trip to Montana, did people start really noticing what was going on. When she disappeared and her body recovered, it was national news.

The case gained notoriety not only because of the victim’s young age but also because of the victim’s parents, who disavow capital punishment, even in the case of their daughter’s killer (law enforcement eventually found her body). They’ve been prominent figures in the fight against the death penalty.

It wasn’t until 1973 when a Belgrade (about 10 miles from Bozeman) police officer received a tip about a man named David Meirhofer, who had seen a missing nurse with him the last night anyone saw her at all. During their investigation of Meirhofer—the potential suspect—they found the gruesome discovery of Sandra Smalligan, the local nurse. The police found some of her body parts in David Meirhofer’s freezer: all those killings were finally solved.

The family found some answers as to what happened to their loved one, but they never received the justice they deserved. The small Montana town of Belgrade had a weak police department. For some reason they did not have Meirhofer on suicide watch. Therefore, Meirhofer, killed himself on his first night of jail, leaving the bereaved families with many unanswered questions.

This story–from Michael Raynay, to Susan Jaeger, to the nurse who was missing, made me interested in murder mysteries and true crime because this happened in my hometown—a place that most people considered as safe as could be. It was even more eerie because David Meirhofer was a classmate of my sister.

This all happened before Ted Bundy made his notorious mark on the world. Ted Bundy, who was handsome, smart, and educated, was the essence of the ‘eligible bachelor.’ Not only was he smart and handsome, he was charming and had connections to some of Washington State’s high-level politicians. His capture and the gut-wrenching horror stories that followed shook our nation. Because he looked so normal. But he was a monster. Most baby boomers growing up with the innocence, shelter, and unrealistic view of normalcy were thunderstruck that someone who could fit so well with the highest level of society was actually capable of committing such horrendous acts.

And of course, others followed. Some more shocking—some less so. The next that I remember was Jeffrey Dahmer’s demented rampage of inviting single gay men to his apartment, then would surprise them by masking himself as a bar regular who was looking for a hook up. Those unlucky souls that wanted that hook up with him were doomed, as he quickly subdued his prey by knocking them out, giving them drugs, or using some other mechanism to bring them to total submission.

These days, we are hardly outraged by these types of murders because they have become an accepted part of our society, which is just outrageous! These days, there are too many murders to bring to the national news, unless it is a vulnerable white child, or a beautiful and pregnant woman, or some other compelling reason for the story to make national news headlines.

This is sick that we have allowed this to become accepted. We should all be doing more to make sure our children are safe. And this doesn’t just fall onto parents but to every single person who feels something is wrong, notices something out of place—or a child with a nearly emotionless face who stands next to a man she obviously doesn’t love. There are signs. People should learn them and report them because take it from me, a survivor of sexual abuse—the signs are there. People just need to have the guts to call the cops. Too often, a tragedy occurs because no one was compelled to call the cops.

Whenever you see a child in possible danger—call, damnit! Because if you don’t, the results could result in a tragedy that will haunt your inept or apathetic behavior for the rest of your life.
So when people ask me why I have always been drawn to murder mysteries and serial killers, my answer is given above. At a far too early age, I had to wrestle with the idea of real life monsters (I had one in my home). Children should never have to worry about serial killers; their primary worry should be on making the soccer team or landing the lead role in her middle school play.

But these days, it’s our culture. And that’s not acceptable.

Peace to all,

Melinda

2 thoughts on “The Making of a Mystery Writer

  1. That’s a wild story about something that happened in such a place, particularly at that time. It must have been scary knowing there was a killer in your midst.

    1. The strange thing was that all these cases were spread out over so many years. I was just a kid when Michael died and I was an adult when Meirhofer was arrested and the victims were all so different that I don’t think the police considered him to be a serial killer. Thanks for the comment!

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