Confessions of True-Crime Junkies – Times Publications, May 2013
In addition to being The Valley Times executive editor, Shanna Hogan is a true-crime author who is writing a book on the Jodi Arias case. While reporting the story, she discovered an interesting phenomenon taking place at the courthouse—trial watchers consumed with real life murder mysteries. These are their stories.
Each morning before dawn breaks, Katie Wick waits hours outside the Maricopa County Superior courthouse, standing in line with a few dozen other spectators.
When the doors open at 7:30 a.m., the crowd files inside and navigates through a maze of X-ray machines, metal detectors and security guards.
Taking the elevator to the fifth floor, Wick and the others race toward the four empty rows of chairs at the end of the room, securing a spot inside the courtroom for a chance to witness the Jodi Arias trial.
For the past few weeks, this has been routine for Wick, a 27-year-old Glendale woman, who has rarely missed a day of the proceedings.
“It’s first come, first serve. So when we get off the elevator, people run to get a seat,” says Wick. “It’s getting a lot more chaotic. People are fighting over seats, cutting in line. It’s a circus, so much drama.”
As the trial for the 32-year-old murder defendant accused of slaughtering her ex-boyfriend has developed into an international media sensation, the scene outside the courtroom has become a spectacle in its own right.
Self-described “obsessed,” trial watchers wait in line for hours for one of the 23 coveted seats open to the public, hoping to get a glimpse of the prosecutor they’ve come to love and the defendant they’ve grown to despise.
When court is not in session, the entertainment continues online with followers taking to Twitter, Facebook pages, trial websites and message boards to dissect each gruesome detail.
Those obsessed with this case and other such crimes admit it’s a macabre fascination—the attraction to serial killers, trials, forensics and cold-blooded murder. They call themselves trial watchers, crime addicts, forensic-philes, and true-crime junkies, and for them the Jodi Arias case is just the latest in a string of high-profile murder mysteries to capture their attention.
Yet, for Arizona’s crime junkies, the trial has been a rare opportunity—a media phenomenon occurring right at home—one that has evolved into a ghoulish guilty gratification.
“It’s like a drama,” Wick says. “It’s crazy. I feel it’s so consuming. Even on the weekends I think about it. It’s always in your head.”
The decomposed remains of 30-year-old motivational speaker Travis Alexander were discovered stuffed inside the master bathroom shower of his Mesa home on June 9, 2008. He had been shot in the face, stabbed 27 times and his throat was slit from ear to ear.
His ex-girlfriend, Jodi Arias, was an instant suspect. Arias had been described as completely obsessed with Alexander and was accused of stalking him, breaking into his home and slashing his tires. Ultimately, she was tied to the murder by forensics and time-stamped digital photos that, amazingly, showed Arias and Alexander on the day of the murder and Alexander as he was being killed.
After changing her story twice, Arias admitted to killing Alexander, but on the stand claimed it was in self-defense. On May 8, after a four month trial, Arias was convicted of 1st degree murder.
The story was a real-life fatal attraction mystery, custom made for Lifetime.
And when the trial began in January, the pews were filled with reporters, the coverage launching Jodi Arias into notoriety.
For months the trial has been broadcast on TV and various websites, allowing millions to view the proceedings. On social media, followers chronicle the trial on Facebook, Twitter and blogs, with various websites condemning or supporting Arias.
The testimony, which has included an audio recording of a sex tape, has bordered on pornographic; the crime scene and autopsy photos are nightmarish. Those extreme elements have only further fueled public interest, says Beth Karas, a 19-year-veteran reporter for Court TV and “In Session.”
“I have not covered many cases in 20 years that involve this amount of salaciousness and this amount of graphic photos,” says Karas. “Because of the sex and the religion, and because it is a capital case—all that makes it really appealing.”
To get a peek of the show, trial fanatics have flown in from as far away as Canada, waiting for up to 10 hours in line for a seat. Each day the trial tourists join a rotating group of locals, who say they have an especially close connection to this case.
While in line for a spot in the galleys, friendships have formed, fights have broken out, and one woman even sold her place in line for $200. Because the transaction was witnessed by court staff, the woman was forced to return the money.
In the waiting area, the chatter is loud and raucous as these forensic-philes debate the case.
“Nothing will convince me he was stabbed first,” a lady says loudly. “I don’t care what the pathologist says.”
“Then how did he get the defensive wounds?” another counters.
As the banter grows louder, security guards occasionally order the gaggle to be quiet.
Most who attend the trial are “pro-prosecution,” although a small segment support Arias, believing she was a victim of domestic violence.
The fans have demonized the defense and turned veteran prosecutor Juan Martinez into a celebrity. Trial watchers ask to take pictures with Martinez or get his autograph—spurring the defense to at one point ask for a mistrial for prosecutorial misconduct, a motion that was denied.
The groupies have different motives for their intense interest in the case. Some say they are drawn to the legal process, others find the facts of the murder compelling. Most say their interest has turned into an obsession.
Kimmy LaVoie admits the Jodi Arias case has consumed her life. She thinks about it “morning, noon and night,” dreams about the case and talks of it constantly.
“I think if you asked anyone, they would say I’m obsessed,” she says. “We went out to dinner recently and my family said, ‘Can we have a meal without discussing Jodi?’ We didn’t make it through dinner.”
A widowed 51-year-old Phoenix grandmother, LaVoie has followed crime stories since she was a teen living in New York during the Son of Sam reign of terror.
She grew up voraciously reading true-crime books, watching the shows and closely following high-profile cases, including those of Scott Peterson, Michael Jackson, Susan Smith, the Menendez Brothers and Phil Spector.
When Nicole Simpson was murdered in 1994, LaVoie drove to L.A. so she could personally see the blood from across from the crime scene tape. Following the Scott Peterson trial, she named her dog Laci, after Peterson’s pregnant wife and victim.
LaVoie confesses she isn’t sure why she’s so interested in evil, and says no one in her life “gets it” either.
“They think I’m nuts,” she says. “I think they think there is something weird about me, that I get obsessed with strange things.”
Earlier this year when the Arias trial began, LaVoie’s dark passion took an even darker turn. Attending the trial, at times with her 17-year-old daughter, she sometimes waits six hours to get a seat for 20 minutes.
When not in court, her addiction continues online, where she is a member of several Facebook pages devoted to the trial. At one point, after spending too much time discussing the case, she posted online that she “needed a break.”
“I’ve actually thought a few times that I’m not coming to court anymore,” she says. “But I’m so drawn to it that I do.”
For Mesa mom, Tawni Dilly, 44, Jodi Arias has been a fascination ever since she learned of her arrest in 2008. Dilly, a true-crime follower as a kid in the “Helter-Skelter days,” was so drawn to the story she spent more than $500 to purchase the police report and crime scene photos from the Mesa Police Department through public records.
And in 2009, when Alexander’s home and crime scene went on the market, she found a realtor to take her through the property. Inside, pieces of the carpet and drywall were missing; the doors were still stained with black fingerprint dust.
“I felt like I needed to see where it happened, to put the pieces of the puzzle together for myself,” she says. “When I walked in, at first I thought the house had been vandalized. I never thought it would look like it did.”
Dilly says no one in her life sympathizes with her fixation on crime stories. But by following the cases online, she has connected with like-minded people in cyberspace.
“Everyone in my life is like ‘I don’t understand why you look at this, I don’t understand why you like this,’” she says. “It made me feel horrible, because it’s like, what’s wrong with me?”
The subculture of true-crime fanatics has only existed for the last few decades, but the public has always been intrigued by law and order, says journalist Christia Gibbons, who teaches classes in criminal justice and media at Arizona State University.
“I think people have had interest in crime since time began, because it’s the basic good/evil, right/wrong sense of justice,” says Gibbons. “People are just fascinated with these stories. They want to see good triumph over evil.”
Fueling the passion for trial watching was the advent of Court TV, which debuted in 1991, allowing viewers to watch every moment of mega trials. Court TV later became “In Session,” which ironically reduced its coverage from six to two hours a day midway through the Arias trial. Full coverage was quickly picked up by the cable channel HLN, which subsequently scored record ratings.
But it was social media that created an almost fanatic following, allowing people to interact with other trial watchers. In the era of social media, Beth Karas says she’s seen a notable difference with the way people digest crime stories.
“The audience is much larger now because the information is available immediately,” she says. “I’ve seen the transformation.”
Trial followers become deeply invested in these cases. And while opinions have always been divisive, social media makes it easier to express their viewpoints, which is not always a good thing, says Karas.
“There is this anonymity to social media—it’s just so easy to type a few cutting words, that people make threats, they say nasty things. They are so insulting,” she says. “That, I have never experienced before. It’s a little troubling when it gets to the point where threats are made.”
Stay-at-home mom Jennifer Lowe has experienced those threats firsthand. In 2012 she started a Facebook page dedicated to the trial, which quickly amassed more than about 1,000 online followers. During each court session, users post thousands of comments about the testimony and evidence.
“When I started this group, it was mainly because I wanted a place where people could come and speak their minds,” she says.
But creating the page ignited a bizarre online rivalry with another Facebook page on the case, as well as pro-Arias support sites.
At one point, Lowe was even bullied on Facebook because of her online group. Users from a different group posted her address and profile and encouraged followers to send derogatory messages—some of which included photos of her young daughter.
“I’ve definitely been harassed over this case,” Lowe says. “These people don’t even really know me, but they were just so angry with me.”
The bloody and beaten body of 30-year-old Cindy Monkman was found at the base of the Superstition Mountains on the afternoon of Christmas Eve 1988.
Two weeks later, her husband Michael Apelt and his brother were arrested for the murder. Apelt, a German immigrant and conman, had married Cindy, obtained a $400,000 life insurance policy and killed her the very next day.
For Cindy’s older sister, Kathy Monkman, the grief was unbearable. But sitting through the lengthy murder trial gave her a reason to wake up each morning—a purpose to dedicate herself to.
After her sister’s killers were sentenced to death in 1990, however, Monkman felt lost.
Throughout the trial, she had been enthralled by the legal process that had consumed a large chunk of her life. And after the verdict, she found herself tuning in to other high-profile murder trials on television.
“I was watching other trials on Court TV, totally in the closet, not telling anyone about it,” she says.
Monkman had no idea at the time that her secret trial addiction would lead her to play a role in another infamous murder trial.
After she started writing about cases online, she met a friend who shared her passion and by 2004, they became hooked on the Scott Peterson case.
During Peterson’s trial in Modesto, the two traveled to California to attend a few days of the proceedings. While there, they actually visited the Peterson house, all the while snapping photos.
In one picture, they captured something peculiar—a bag of concrete. In court the prosecution had argued that concrete was used to weigh down the body of pregnant Laci so it would sink into the San Francisco Bay in December 2002.
Intrigued, Monkman shared the photo online and was shocked when she was contacted by the prosecution a few weeks later. Kathy and her friend were subpoenaed, and the photo was ultimately used to discredit the defense’s first expert witness.
“That picture blew their very first witness out of the water. The defense had no idea it was coming,” she says. “We were pretty proud.”
Since her sister’s murder, she says she’s felt a compulsion to study sociopaths “like bugs,” knowing she will never know for sure what goes on inside their heads.
“When evil has graced your life, you become interested in understanding evil,” she says. “It’s fascinating, but it’s terrifying.”
Still, when it comes to trials, Monkman admits she isn’t sure exactly what compels her to watch.
“I don’t know that I have a full self-awareness. My reasons are known and unknown to me for getting involved. Some of them aren’t healthy. Some of them are helpful.”
In January, she began attending the Arias trial out of “pure curiosity,” and during the first week she wrote a card to the victim’s family, explaining about her sister’s murder.
The Alexander family subsequently invited her to sit with them in the first few rows behind the prosecution.
Unlike one of what she calls the “tourists coming for the show,” Kathy doesn’t have to wait in line for one of the public seats. Being able to support the Alexander family through the trial has been cathartic, she says.
“I’ve only considered it a privilege to sit there with the family,” she says. “I want to be a presence—let them know I’m in this real terrible club with you guys, and I’m not going to let you be alone.”
I have a dark confession—I too am a true-crime junkie. For years my addiction found an outlet in shows like “Dateline,” and “48 Hours Mystery.” I turned to reading true-crime books, but even that didn’t satisfy my fix.
So in 2008, I started writing about crime. It began with little-known local murder stories but quickly spiraled beyond my control. At one point I found myself locked in a prison cell with an accused serial killer—interviewing the “Baseline Killer” for an article for this paper.
When my limited word count wasn’t enough, I started writing books, penning my first true-crime book, “Dancing with Death,” which was released in 2011.
A year before that, I had begun writing about Jodi Arias—eventually landing a book deal for “Picture Perfect,” which comes out in October (shameless plug). I couldn’t have known then that the trial would turn into an international sensation.
When the TV shows started covering the case, I was tapped to be an “Arias expert” and was interviewed on shows including “Dateline,” “Geraldo at Large,” “Dr. Drew,” and “Jane Velez-Mitchell.”
On air, I presented little-known facts and my opinion to the television audience. As I did, something strange began to happen. My Facebook and Twitter following quadrupled. I started to be recognized in court. One woman asked to take a picture with me; another said she wanted to start a “Shanna Hogan” fan page on Facebook.
It was then that I realized the level of true-crime fandom that existed in Arizona and across the world. As a journalist, I also quickly realized there was a story there, which is why I chose to write this piece.
Those who don’t feel a strange connection to all things dark and depraved may read this like a voyeur looking in on what us sickos are into. But if you’ve ever read about Ted Bundy or watched Investigation I.D. for more than 10 hours at a time—please know you are not alone.