Book Review: NSFW: a novel by Isabel Kaplan

Gut-wrenching, clever, and undeniably 😉 honest.

Isabel Kaplan graduated from Harvard and holds an MFA in creative writing from NYU. She is the author of the national bestselling young adult novel Hancock Park and a co-founder of Project 100, an organization launched after the 2016 election to support progressive women running for Congress. She previously worked in TV drama development at Fox Broadcasting Company. Isabel was born and raised in Los Angeles.

I love how real this book, NSFW (Not Safe For Work) felt. Having personally experienced a somewhat similar environment as the book’s anonymous protagonist, it was easy for me to picture the day-to-day rat race—bullshit bureaucracy, toxicity, and harassment—in the office setting, which is so effortlessly described throughout. If you’ve worked in corporate America, you’ve probably experienced or at least witnessed some level of coercion and/or complicity. And for such a serious subject matter, Kaplan lifted the tension with moments of dark humor, allowing the reader to take a much-needed breath. One of the most disturbing relationships in the book was between the protagonist and her mother. A toxic bond filled with emotional manipulation, invalidation, and gaslighting—something that affected the core of the MC. Keeping her mother happy is a full-time job, one that at times, overshadows her own sense of self-awareness, and fogs her ability to advocate for what she truly wants.

I can count on one hand the number of books I’ve personally connected to over the last two years, and NSFW is now one of them. I rank it alongside two of my favorites: Luster by Raven Leilani and Animal by Lisa Taddeo—two of my auto-buy authors.

So many scenes stick out but one that touched my heart describes the MC searching through boxes in her father’s garage when she comes across old home videos. She watches one of herself as a child in which her mother teaches her how to mount a plastic blue rocking horse to show her Nana “what a great rider” she is. She stumbles around the toy, timid at first until her mother successfully coaxes her on. After which she’s rocking back and forth saying, “See! I didn’t break anything! I’m not breaking anything!” I found this scene so symbolic and indicative of a child raised in the clutches of a narcissistic parent. A child who walks on eggshells and quickly learns to sacrifice her own needs in order to keep the peace. (A theme echoed in every chapter of NSFW.) But in order to retain a sense of her own moral principles, she must decide if silence is worth success, or if speaking the truth will break recurring toxic patterns and finally set her free.

5/5 ⭐️ ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️

I recommend to readers who enjoy dark subjects in a corporate setting, compelling female protagonists, electrifying prose, and psychological themes.

Published July 5th, 2022

Synopsis:

From the outside, the unnamed protagonist in NSFW appears to be the vision of success. She has landed an entry-level position at a leading TV network that thousands of college grads would kill for. And sure, she has much to learn. The daughter of a prominent feminist attorney, she grew up outside the industry. But she’s resourceful and hardworking. What could go wrong?

At first, the high adrenaline work environment motivates her. Yet as she climbs the ranks, she confronts the reality of creating change from the inside. Her points only get attention when echoed by male colleagues; she hears whispers of abuse and sexual misconduct. Her mother says to keep her head down until she’s the one in charge―a scenario that seems idealistic at best, morally questionable at worst. When her personal and professional lives collide, threatening both the network and her future, she must decide what to protect: the career she’s given everything for or the empowered woman she claims to be.

Fusing page-turning prose with dark humor and riveting commentary on the truths of starting out professionally, Isabel Kaplan’s NSFW is an unflinching exploration of the gray area between empowerment and complicity. The result is a stunning portrait of what success costs in today’s patriarchal world, asking us: Is it ever worth it?

Book Review: The Last to Vanish by Megan Miranda

Suspenseful, eerie, and full of twists.

Megan Miranda is the New York Times bestselling author of ALL THE MISSING GIRLS, THE PERFECT STRANGER, and THE LAST HOUSE GUEST, a Reese Witherspoon Book Club pick. She has also written several books for young adults, including COME FIND ME, FRAGMENTS OF THE LOST, and THE SAFEST LIES. She grew up in New Jersey, graduated from MIT, and lives in North Carolina with her husband and two children.

I loved the atmospheric setting in this novel. It was so isolated and creepy. But when coupled with the mysterious history—labeled by the national press as “the most dangerous town in North Carolina”—it definitely gave it a darker edge. The descriptions were rich throughout and I could clearly picture the Passage Inn and the mountains surrounding Cutter’s Pass. The same detail applied to the cast of characters who were easy to read and tell apart. Although I enjoy a faster pace, given the amount of detail in this novel, it definitely needed time to build. The misdirection and plot twists were well executed, including the end reveal which I did not see coming.

This was the first Megan Miranda book I’ve read and I loved it! I’m always excited to discover new authors and in this case, I can’t wait to read everything else she’s published so far, including her YA novels. She’s definitely on my radar and I’m so excited to see what she publishes next!

4/5 ⭐️ ⭐️⭐️⭐️

I recommend to readers who enjoy a deeply atmospheric setting with a creepy history, twisty plots, and a fearless female protagonist.

Published July 26th, 2022

Synopsis:

Ten years ago, Abigail Lovett fell into a job she loves, managing The Passage Inn, a cozy, upscale resort nestled in the North Carolina mountain town of Cutter’s Pass. Cutter’s Pass is best known for its outdoor offerings—rafting and hiking, with access to the Appalachian trail by way of a gorgeous waterfall—and its mysterious history. As the book begins, the string of unsolved disappearances that has haunted the town is once again thrust into the spotlight when journalist Landon West, who was staying at the inn to investigate the story of the vanishing trail, then disappears himself.

Abby has sometimes felt like an outsider within the community, but she’s come to view Cutter’s Pass as her home. When Landon’s brother Trey shows up looking for answers, Abby can’t help but feel the town closing ranks. And she’s still on the outside. When she finds incriminating evidence that may bring them closer to the truth, Abby soon discovers how little she knows about her coworkers, neighbors, and even those closest to her.

Book Review: Things We Do in the Dark by Jennifer Hillier

Twisted, clever, and utterly satisfying!

Paris Peralta is suspected of killing her celebrity husband, and her long-hidden past now threatens to destroy her future.

I was lucky to receive early access to Jennifer Hillier’s latest psychological thriller, THINGS WE DO IN THE DARK, published July 19th, 2022. After catching numerous rave reviews online I started reading and couldn’t put it down. The novel is skilled at covering extremely dark themes and managed to keep me satisfied with an in-depth backstory and intriguing plot.

JENNIFER HILLIER is the author of the bestselling Little Secrets (finalist, Los Angeles Times Book Prize and Anthony Award), and Jar of Hearts (winner, ITW Thriller Award, and finalist for the Anthony and Macavity Awards). A Filipino-Canadian born and raised in Toronto, she spent several years in Seattle before returning home to Canada. She currently lives in Oakville, Ontario with her family.

There are so many scenes that still haunt me but one, in particular, is when Joey is sent to live with her aunt and uncle after her mother is incarcerated. The image of her lying in bed as the shadow of a figure looms in the doorway watching her sleep is so beyond creepy. And when the truth is revealed behind this encounter, and she finally gets revenge it had me racing through the chapters to the end.

I loved the skilled use of dual timelines to create depth of character and suspense. When the main reveal happened midway, everything leading up to that point felt worth it, and the pieces fell into place for me. I love clever use of structure in suspense novels, and when done correctly, it gives a novel so much more than just a story—TWDITD accomplished that and I felt like I was piecing together a puzzle. The cast of characters is diverse in this story and each one is so unique, that I was invested in every single outcome. The way Hillier shifted my feelings for Paris with each twist and turn was masterful, eventually leading me to a satisfying ending I was definitely ready for. I loved that there was more than one mystery to this story too. It kept my attention and the pages turning.

This was the first Jennifer Hillier book I’ve read and did not disappoint. I’m so excited to have discovered a new author who’s not afraid to write about the disturbing things that keep us awake at night. She’s definitely one to watch going forward and I can’t wait to read what she publishes next!

4/5 ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️

I recommend to readers who enjoy complex psychological suspense, family drama, and compelling female characters.

PUBLISHED JULY 19TH, 2022

Synopsis:

When Paris Peralta is arrested in her own bathroom—covered in blood, holding a straight razor, her celebrity husband dead in the bathtub behind her—she knows she’ll be charged with murder. But as bad as this looks, it’s not what worries her the most. With the unwanted media attention now surrounding her, it’s only a matter of time before someone from her long-hidden past recognizes her and destroys the new life she’s worked so hard to build, along with any chance of a future.

Twenty-five years earlier, Ruby Reyes, known as the Ice Queen, was convicted of a similar murder in a trial that riveted Canada in the early nineties. Reyes knows who Paris really is, and when she’s unexpectedly released from prison, she threatens to expose all of Paris’s secrets. Left with no other choice, Paris must finally confront the dark past she escaped, once and for all.

Because the only thing worse than a murder charge are two murder charges.

Book Review: When the Stars Go Dark by Paula McLain

Vivid, clever, and steady-paced.

Hauntingly descriptive with pulse-pounding twists and a vulnerable yet highly intuitive protagonist. Paula McLain writes about a very chilling topic with the elegance and ease of a pro.

Paula McLain is an American author best known for her novel, The Paris Wife, a fictionalized account of Ernest Hemingway’s first marriage which became a long-time New York Times bestseller. She has published two collections of poetry, a memoir about growing up in the foster system, and the novel A Ticket to Ride.

When the Stars Go Dark is the first of McLain’s novels I’ve read but it definitely won’t be the last. The book combines psychological suspense with a little mysticism, creating an intriguing angle for the overall story which pulled me in immediately. I loved the setting, based in northern California, and enjoyed following Anna and the wide cast of characters around the small town of Mendocino.

The story follows Anna Hart, orphaned as a child and passed through the foster system, which only better prepared her for a career as a detective, committed to finding murdered and missing children.

I’m always intrigued by female detectives and especially love when they’re painted in a relatable light. I found the characters believable, and their arcs very satisfying. The plot was compelling albeit slow-burning at times; different from what I usually read. But it was a fresh change and I was immediately drawn in by the narrator and her back story.

“For as long as I could remember, I’d had reasons to disappear, I was an expert at making myself invisible.”

Anna Hart – When The Stars Go Dark

I particularly loved the setting and picturing the west coast was a nice backdrop compared to the usual grungy cities a lot of detective novels take place in. A scene that sticks in my mind sees Anna visit a psychic who tells her: “This is your life’s work for a reason. The things you’ve lost have drawn you to help these children and young women,” the psychic says to Anna then goes on to hit the bull’s eye, “The ghosts of the kids you’ve helped, they hang on you like stars.” I loved the added layer of mysticism that scene brought to the story.

4/5 ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️

This is an atmospheric suspense novel that I thoroughly enjoyed and highly recommend to readers who love a relatable protagonist, realistic twists, beautiful settings, and a steady pace with a slow-burning end. Think of pragmatic characters like Mare Sheehan in HBO’s Mare of Eastown and AMC’s Sarah Lindon from The Killing, placed against a beautiful California backdrop.

Synopsis:

Anna Hart, orphaned as a child and passed through the foster system, only better prepared her for a career as a detective, committed to finding murdered and missing children. When unspeakable tragedy strikes, she turns to the Californian village of Mendocino to grieve. Seeking comfort in the chocolate-box village she grew up in, Anna instead arrives to the news that a local girl has gone missing. The crime feels frighteningly reminiscent of a crucial time in Anna’s childhood when an unsolved murder changed the community forever. As past and present collide, Anna is forced to confront the darkest side of human nature.

After reading her author’s note, I learned that McLain, along with her two sisters, grew up in a series of foster homes. McLain’s biological mother disappeared when she was 4, and her father spent time in and out of prison. During the 14 years she spent in foster care, McLain endured sexual abuse. Detective Anna Hart, the protagonist in “When the Stars Go Dark,” is also a survivor of abandonment, and mirror’s the author’s own personal experience in the system. Anna, the story’s protagonist, uses her trauma as a tool to help in her police work of tracking down the predators who brutalize children.

Book Review: Girl A by Abigail Dean

A slow burning literary thriller with a psychological twist.

Abigail Dean’s haunting debut—Girl A—focuses on the aftermath rather than the actual abuse inflicted on the characters, reflected within the current timeline as flashbacks. We follow Alexandra Gracie; a survivor—now a successful lawyer—and learn about the conditions she and her siblings were subjected to, including the lengths they went to survive, depicting the ugly truths of human nature.

Dean’s razor-sharp prose and use of flashback (which I found somewhat confusing at times) gives the reader a shocking glimpse into Lex’s cruel past and highlights an overarching theme around the psychological implications of childhood trauma. The story is well researched so I wasn’t surprised to learn of the author’s fascination for true crime, focusing on several cases–the most recent being the Turpin case in 2018—in which she selectively drew inspiration for her characters. The one shining light in this story is the protagonist’s wish to create a positive from a negative with the creation of a therapeutic space on the land where their childhood home stood.

While I do agree that this book is a wonderful literary accomplishment, I found the topic triggering to read about. I also found the length of each chapter a bit too long (personal preference) to get through in one sitting. I would recommend this book to those readers who enjoy a much slower burn with less action. It’s a very different pace than I’m used to reading but there is a lot of well-deserved praise surrounding this book. Each character is unique and I found it extremely interesting to learn how far they’d all come after having experienced such profound trauma.

4/5 ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️

I recommend this book to readers who enjoy a slow-paced psychological burn, an unreliable narrator, and a twisty thriller based on true crime.

Synopsis:

Lex Gracie doesn’t want to think about her family. She doesn’t want to think about growing up in her parents’ House of Horrors. And she doesn’t want to think about her identity as Girl A: the girl who escaped, the eldest sister who freed her older brother, and four younger siblings. It’s been easy enough to avoid her parents–her father never made it out of the House of Horrors he created, and her mother spent the rest of her life behind bars. But when her mother dies in prison and leaves Lex and her siblings the family home, she can’t run from her past any longer. Together with her sister, Evie, Lex intends to turn the home into a force for good. But first, she must come to terms with her siblings–and with the childhood they shared.

Only Murders … In My Old Neighborhood

If you’re anything like me, you’ve been glued to your screen every Tuesday night since August 31st along with every other Hulu subscriber to watch one of the most entertaining shows on TV. Only Murders In The Building starring Steve Martin, Martin Short, and Selena Gomez has been one of my favorite series of 2021, and I’m ecstatic a second season has been approved for next year. One of my favorite things about the show, aside from its hilarious star-studded cast, is its affectionate tribute to the Upper West Side. Capturing the macabre humor and stunning architecture that exists between the Hudson River, Central Park, Columbus Circle, and Morningside Heights.

The building, as seen on the show, is not actually called The Arconia. The pre-war structure, which was completed in 1909 and is located on West 86th and 87th (the size of an entire block), is called the Belnord. A building I passed by (and fantasized about living in) regularly on my walks around the neighborhood, its location a mere six blocks from my old apartment. For a little under $5 million dollars, you could call this place home and relish in its glamorous 13 stories of rich history.

The Belnord’s location, like many other buildings on the Upper West Side, holds a long sordid history of murder and hauntings that span back over the 19th century. A theme reflected throughout Hollywood in movies and shows like Rosemary’s Baby, Ghostbusters, and The Night Of which continue to depict the stark contrast of one of the most beautiful locations where horrific things can and do still happen. From seances and psychics in the basement of the Ansonia on Broadway (sounds a bit like Arconia, I know) to 455 CPW—a once cancer hospital turned abuse-ridden nursing home turned luxury condominium building to the disembodied voices and childlike apparitions at the Dakota (noted as one of the most haunted locations in NYC to live). John Lennon even attested to seeing the ghostly presence of a weeping woman there before he was shot and killed outside the building on the street. Now residents have reported seeing his spirit roaming the halls of the building—yeesh!

In the 1930s and 40s, the Upper West Side became a sanctuary where those fleeing Naziism settled after the war, provided they could disclose an affidavit from an American relative. The Eclair bakery on West 72nd street became famous for its guestbook, where newly arrived refugees would sign their names and perform a frenzied search for the names of loved ones they hoped had made it out.

Scene outside the Dakota after John Lennon was murdered.

Setting the supernatural aside for a moment, some of the grisliest murders I’ve ever read about have occurred in this somewhat suburban neighborhood so many New York families call home. A few so shocking they still resonate with me to this day. And unlike on TV, the outcome is rarely ever satisfying, but rather more surreal.

The Killer Nanny

Yoselyn Ortega—nanny to three young children murdered two of them in 2012 when they were under her care. She was finally sentenced to life in prison in 2018. Victims, Lulu, six, and Leo, two, were the two members of the Krim family left with Ortega, while Nessy, their three-year-old sister was out with their mother at the time.

Ortega, who was supposed to take the two kids to Lulu’s dance class, decided instead to go back to the apartment on West 75th street. She lead the kids into the bathroom where she proceeded to use a pair of kitchen knives to stab and slash both of them to death before placing their bodies in the bathtub. Mom, Marina Krim, walked in right as Ortega turned the knife on herself, thrusting it into her wrists and throat.

Neighbors reported hearing Marina’s screams echoing throughout the building after the grim discovery. Father, Kevin Krim, was out of town on a business trip at the time of the murders and was met at the airport by the police who escorted him directly to the hospital where his wife was being treated for shock.

Ortega “told a psychiatrist hired by her defense that she was following the commands of the devil,” but later undermined her own statement “denying hearing any instructions from Satan in video interviews shown to the jury.” Her motives for the crime remain hidden inside a twisted and delusional mind.

A Tragic Murder Suicide

When people saw Yonathan Tedla jogging around the Upper West Side, they knew him as a friendly neighbor with a beautiful wife, Jennifer Schlecht, and an adorable five-year-old daughter called Abaynesh. For eight years, they’d been seen as outwardly happy, chatting, and smiling as they left for work and school during the weekdays. They’d even dress up for Halloween and go door to door, with Tedla carrying his daughter up on his shoulders. “When you saw them, they were a happy couple. Funny dude, always smiling,” one neighbor said. “It’s just unbelievable. They were an adorable family. Absolutely adorable. I never saw them fight — ever,” another concurred. But that’s not what the police found when they entered the third-floor apartment on West 121st Street in November 2019.

And things were intense behind closed doors. Three years previous, Jennifer obtained a temporary restraining order against her husband after he threatened and harassed her. The couple had met ten years prior at Columbia when she was studying for her master’s degree in social work and public health and Tedla was working there as an IT freelancer. Schlecht worked in Namibia with the Peace Corps for over a year before refocusing her career in the area of maternity and child health and had over 15 years of experience in international relief and development.

Jennifer Schlecht’s father, Kenneth Schlecht, stated the couple’s marriage began to deteriorate shortly after the birth of their daughter. “She was in tears, said her husband had indicated that if she served him with divorce papers he would ruin her or take them all out.” And it’s noted Tedla threatened his wife specifically when she mentioned divorce. Unfortunately, when she finally made the choice to leave him it was already too late.

A 4- to 5-inch serrated knife was identified as the murder weapon.

A week before the murders, Tedla was spotted by coworkers who stated, “He was a nice guy, but strange.” Jennifer was about to obtain an order of protection from the courts, but she never made it in front of the judge. And when police arrived at the scene after responding to a nervous call from the victim’s brother, they were met with a gruesome and tragic scene.

When officers entered the residence they found Jennifer Schlect’s body lying dead on the bathroom floor, her decapitated head in her lap. Upon searching the remainder of the apartment, they found Abaynesh, with a gash so deep to her throat she was left headless, inside a gore-spattered bedroom. Tedla had hung himself with a rope from the child’s door.

Don’t Trust Your Neighbors

I moved apartments on October 1st, 2018, from the Upper East to the Upper West side. At that time, I lived on the edge of Riverside Park, a short walk to the subway, in the heart of the Historic District and the bustling end of Broadway. Three weeks after settling into my new apartment, a notification flashed across my phone screen. A woman had been found murdered less than a three-minute walk from my front door in a neighboring building. But not like you’d imagine a regular NYC-style murder: strangled by an ex-lover, shot while being robbed, stabbed on the subway. No. This woman was found inside her own apartment with her throat slit.

THE KILLER LIVED INside THE BUILDING

I remember feeling a sense of anguish that something so gruesome could happen this close to my new place of residence. Especially considering it was one of the nicest areas of the city I’d ever lived in. Something came over me and I couldn’t help but go and look for myself. Like everyone who lives in New York City for a certain length of time, you become jaded toward terrible things since they happen constantly. I needed more details in order to feel safe and somewhat in control (I know that sounds insane). I made the three-minute walk around the corner from my building to the street and was immediately met with streams of police tape cordoning off the entrance to 710 West End Avenue. There was a small crowd of people including NYPD, journalists, and passersby all waiting for answers.

710 West End Avenue
The Girl Next Door

On October 17th, Anya Johnston, 24, was filed as a missing person. Her mother, Isabel, hadn’t heard from her for hours and grew concerned until she received a call from her daughter explaining she’d be home soon and that she’d gone for a walk.

At 10:30pm that same day, police officers arrived at Anya’s apartment on the 15th floor where she and her mother sat waiting for them. When asked where she’d ventured off to, she replied that she’d taken a long walk to the Brooklyn bridge but returned because it was too cold and she’d had a long day. When asked to elaborate on what ‘a long day’ meant, Anya said she didn’t want to comment saying “Well, I’m not sure what your version of the events are. So, I don’t, I don’t really know what to say. I don’t want to say a damn thing.”

They responded by telling her she was going to be transferred to a hospital, where she went without protest, arriving at Mount Sinai West’s psychiatric unit.

Anya Johnston.
The Bird Lady

To her neighbors, Susan Trott, 70, was an annoying tenant whom they wanted to evict from the building, but to her closest friends and colleagues, she had the biggest heart, with an even bigger personality. One friend fondly described her as, “A tornado kind of person.”

Trott, who’d lived in her apartment for over ten years, owned two rescue dogs (both elderly) and would take them out in the middle of the night to pee, which regularly prompted fights with other tenants. They complained she didn’t use leashes and that the dogs were aggressive. Another fight ensued when she purchased a vacant apartment next to her own and would have friends stay there. Some neighbors complained that she was illegally renting the apartment out, spurring the board’s anger. Another fight was over how she carried a loaf of bread or a bag of birdseed around to feed pigeons on the corner of West End Avenue and in Riverside Park. 

Friends of Trott’s stated, “she had gotten into altercations – at times physical – with neighbors over the past decade.” And, “She was attacked over her apartment and love of animals.” Despite the animosity, she refused to move.

Trott was a successful copywriter and major player in the advertising industry for decades, working for firms including BBDO, J Walter Thompson, McCann-Erickson, Satchi & Satchi, and Y&R and for brands like Levi’s, Nickelodeon, Ambien, Virgin Atlantic, and Air Canada. She ran her own ad company out of her apartment. She split her time between London and New York and owned an apartment in Manhattan as well as a home upstate.

Susan Trott.

When Eric Boscia, a long-time friend, and colleague of Trott’s, failed to reach her by phone on Sunday, October 21st, he was concerned and contacted police to request a welfare check. Officers responding to the call entered Trott’s residence in the early hours and discovered a trail of blood leading them through the apartment to the bedroom. There they found the unconscious and unresponsive body of a 70-year-old female, clothed, and laying on her back. Upon closer inspection, they noted a deep laceration to her throat.

The apartment wasn’t in disarray, and there was no sign of forced entry so police surmised Trott had let her killer in and may have even known them. There was also no sign of the murder weapon in her apartment, nor was there a clear motive. However, after speaking with neighbors it became clear that Trott wasn’t a very popular tenant, and that, according to some of her friends, she’d had issues with a particular woman in the apartment above hers on the 15th floor.

All Evidence Pointed Upstairs

Once forensic units descended onto the crime scene, the trail of blood was discovered in footprints leading from the crime scene, into the hall, and up a flight of stairs. It quickly leads investigators directly inside a 15th-floor apartment belonging to neighbors, Isabel and Anya Johnston. Anya, who, three days prior had been admitted to a psychiatric unit. Officers searched Anya’s apartment, looking for evidence but were unable to find a weapon matching the incision marks on Trott’s body. Carpet swatches were cut out and submitted for testing. NYPD also confiscated, among other things, a jacket, some pants, and a pair of Converse All-Star sneakers from Anya’s apartment, which were later matched as having Susan Trott’s DNA profile all over them. Reports also indicated that the right Converse sneaker “was consistent” with the impressions made on the carpet in Trott’s apartment.

Johnston was arrested and immediately transferred from Mount Sinai West to the psychiatric unit of Elmhurst, and once her medical status stabilized she was sent to Rikers. But her mental health has remained a pivotal aspect of the case, with her defense attorney claiming Anya has “an extensive mental health history, going back probably 20 years.” He confirmed reports that Anya was adopted from a Russian orphanage as a preschooler and later attended Winston Prep, a private school in Chelsea for students with learning disabilities. He confirmed they would be exploring a defense of insanity regarding the case.

The question of motive continues to perplex the public. Initial media reports mentioned the notion of Anya possibly being caught in the act of burglarizing Susan’s apartment, but the indictment has no burglary-related charges. Boscia, Susan’s friend stated, “Sue never mentioned [Anya] by name, but had said a woman was assaulting her and had been stealing from her. If Anya was in the midst of a theft when the confrontation happened, Boscia believes that Susan would have been sensitive to Anya’s agitated state.

M48 Cyclone knife.

And there’s the question of the murder weapon. According to court records, Anya’s Amazon purchase history reveals she bought an M48 Cyclone knife, the same type of weapon the coroner stated made the unusual tunneling lacerations to Trott’s throat. But the knife itself was never recovered. And nobody really knows what transpired between the two of them. There are those in the building that feel awful for Isabel, Anya’s mother, stating “Sue and Isabel [knew] each other for decades…and [had known] Anya ever since her mother adopted her.” When asked specifically about Anya, she was described as “a highly disturbed person…Anya has always had ‘issues’ according to other people in the building.”

Sadly, about a month before Trott was murdered, it has since been revealed she was planning to leave the coop for good. According to her close friend, Boscia, “She’d already found the real estate agents.” He employed the same team to sell her unit in June of 2020. “Her thought was to get either a place in the country or a pied-à-terre in the city and just travel…just enjoy her 70s.”

But were there warning signs of an impending murder? 

About a month before her death, Boscia visited Trott and she mentioned feeling uneasy about someone but didn’t want to get into specifics, dismissing his concern with a wave of her hand. “She was like, ‘Next. It’s fine, it’s fine.’”

Anya Johnston remains at Rikers in pre-trial custody, having been indicted for second-degree murder. The case is still open and pending trial.

Part One: Gabby Petito Timeline

If you’re anything like me, you’ve been following the Gabby Petito case. To try and make it easier, I’ve compiled the information into a timeline below which I’ll continue updating until they catch and prosecute the criminal responsible.

Submit a tip

If you have any information on the case such as, potential sightings, photos, videos, or other details, do not hesitate to contact the FBI at tips.fbi.gov or by phone to 1-800-CALL-FBI or 303-629-7171. Videos and images may be submitted to fbi.gov/petito. You may also contact your local FBI office or the nearest American Embassy or Consulate.

The Last Road trip

  • Mid June 2021

    Gabby Petito and Brian Laundrie were seen leaving his parent’s home in North Port, Florida. They had been living there together prior to preparing for the road trip. They headed north to New York in the van before heading west on July 2nd. They planned to stop in various national parks along the way, ending their trip in Oregon.

    Background: (Gabby’s father, Joseph Petito stated to authorities that the two had been friends in high school, and after graduation, kept in touch. Their relationship became romantic a few years later and they ended up living together at Laundrie’s family home, before getting engaged in July 2020.)

  • July 5th

    The couple arrived at Monument Rocks.

    July 8th to August 11th

    They stopped in multiple locations including Zion National Park and Mystic Hot Springs.

  • August 12th

    A concerned citizen called in a domestic disturbance outside the Moonflower Community Cooperative in Moab, Utah stating to the police: “We drove by and the gentleman was slapping the girl. Then we stopped. They ran up and down the sidewalk. He proceeded to hit her, hopped in the car, and they drove off.”

    In the bodycam footage from Moab officers, Petito said she suffered from OCD and anxiety, with both her and Laundrie saying she was stressed because of the YouTube blog they were working on to document the doomed cross-country trip. 

    Laundrie is seen with scratches on his face and arm which he tells an officer were caused when Petito ‘was trying to get the keys from me’ and ‘hit me with her phone’.

    He later said she was angry with him because of his dirty feet. 

    When an officer asks Petito if her boyfriend hit her, she replies ‘I guess’ and makes a grabbing motion on her chin. 

    Laundrie admits he ‘pushed her’ during the altercation. 

    The cops determine Petito was ‘the primary aggressor’ and say they are separating the couple for the night.

    I have included a clip directly beneath but if you’re interested in the full video, scroll and click to watch the second one below.

    CLIP of body cam footage
    FULL LENGTH body cam footage

    Another source indicated the caller mentioned he saw Gabby hitting Laundrie on the arm. According to the police report, Laundrie said the weeks of traveling caused an emotional strain. He also said Petito thought he was going to leave her in Moab without a ride. The witness then said he watched as Petito climbed in the driver’s window as if Laundrie locked her out. No criminal charges were filed and the couple slept apart that night, according to the police report.

    A National Park Service ranger who also responded to the call interacted with Petito for about 90 minutes, and warned her that her relationship with Laundrie had markings of a “toxic” one, the ranger told the Deseret News of Utah.

    “I was imploring with her to reevaluate the relationship, asking her if she was happy in the relationship with him, and basically saying this was an opportunity for her to find another path, to make a change in her life,” ranger Melissa Hulls told the Deseret News.

  • August 17th – 23rd

    Laundrie family attorney Steven Bertolino confirms Brian Laundrie flew home to Tampa from Salt Lake City on August 17 and flew back to Salt Lake City on August 23 to “rejoin Gabby.”

  • August 19th

    First and only Youtube video posted of the couple’s trip on the road.

  • August 24th

    The pair checked out of the Fairfield Inn and Suites in Salt Lake City where they had apparently spent a few nights. Gabby had been chatting and Facetiming her mom leading up to and during this period. Her mother, Nicole Schmidt, stated Gabby had mentioned a heightened ‘tension’ developing between the pair over the course of their trip, as mentioned in the police affidavit.

    Strange fact: The hotel where the two stayed is located less than 700 feet from the FBI Salt Lake City field office.

  • August 25th

    Gabby’s last Instagram post.

  • August 25th or 26th

    Idaho shop owner said he spoke with the couple, who both seemed happy and were talking of their travel plans. They mentioned they were thinking of going to Yellowstone National Park.

    “They told me they were traveling from Florida. They had just been to Teton Park and they said they were interested in going to Yellowstone and I told them they could go to the west entrance,” the owner, who was not identified, told the outlet.

    “They seemed happy and when they left, she hollered back from the door that they were engaged and then I said congratulations.”

  • August 26th (TIP surfaced September 23rd)

    A witness, Jessica Schultz, saw Laundrie parked in a white van on August 26 at Grand Teton National Park, and no one appeared to be with him, she told the San Francisco Chronicle.

  • August 27th

    Nicole, Petito’s mom, received a strange text from Gabby’s phone that read, “Can you help Stan, I just keep getting his voicemails and missed calls.” This stuck her as odd because Petito would never refer to her grandfather as ‘Stan’. Her cell phone was then turned off and non-operational.

    While the family deem this as ‘odd’ behavior for Gabby, investigators do believe she sent the Aug. 27 text.

  • August 27th (TIP September 22nd)

    Diners at Merry Piglets in Jackson Hole saw Laundrie and Petito causing a scene with the staff. The restaurant and a receipt from the couple’s meal corroborate that they were there between 1 and 2 PM on that day.

    The witness continued: Brian was arguing with four female employees over his bill. His body language was “aggressive” and “violent,” and he seemed “angry” and “relentless” over the issue. Brian left “abruptly” and came back inside the restaurant about four times and that Gabby was “crying” the whole time. Gabby was described as looking “sad” and said she sat outside on the sidewalk before coming back inside to apologize for Brian’s behavior and urge him to “drop it” so that they could leave.

    TIP September 23rd

    Separately, a man who saw the domestic dispute between Petito and Laundrie in Utah last month said, “They were talking aggressively at each other, and something seemed off.”In a handwritten sworn statement, the witness said it appeared the two were arguing over control of Petito’s phone. “At one point she was punching him in the arm and/or face and trying to get into the van.”

    The witness said he heard Petito say, “Why do you have to be so mean?” although Chris added that he couldn’t be sure if the comment was meant to be taken seriously.

    **This could be one of the last time Gabby Petito was see alive.**

  • August 30th

    Petito/Schmidt family receive the last text from Gabby’s phone which reads, “No service in Yosemite” — nearly 900 miles away, in California. The family don’t think it was Gabby who wrote it.

    Afterward, the phone was turned off and non operational.

  • September 1st

    Brian Laundrie crosses interstate 75 in Florida at 10:26AM driving Petito’s white van. He doesn’t speak to anyone. When Gabby’s family reach out and try to contact him, he doesn’t respond and neither do his parents. The family goes radio silent, hires a lawyer, and refuses to speak to law enforcement.

    NOTE: It takes 35 hours driving the shortest route from Teton Park, Wyoming to North Port, Florida with zero breaks in between or traffic. In that scenario Brian Laundrie would have had to leave the park no later than 9:26 PM on Monday, August 30th. And we know he was last seen in the park on the Sunday, August 29th at 6:10 PM by a camper who gave him a lift towards Jackson.

  • UPDATE September 6th – 8th (received 9/29)

    The Laundrie family camped at Fort De Soto Campground, 75 miles from their North Port home in Florida. Laundrie’s mother, Roberta, was checked in at the waterfront site on these dates, according to a Pinellas County Parks campground check-in report provided to CNN.

    The family lawyer states they left on the 7th, all together.

  • UPDATE September 10th (received 9/29)

    The weekend of September 10th was the last weekend that a neighbor of the Laundries, Karyn Aberts, says she saw Brian Laundrie at his home.

  • September 11th

    Petito/Schmidt family file a missing persons report for their daughter.

    Law enforcement and her family continue to plead with Laundrie for information. Investigators said he is not cooperating.

    “We don’t know what Brian knows; that’s the bottom line. We’re hopeful to talk him. He needs to talk us. We need to know exactly where he was where she was their last locations,” Josh Taylor, the Public Information Officer for North Port, said.

    Police impound Petito’s white van 5 hours after she’s filed as a missing person in Long Island, taking it from the Laundrie home, while they wait for the search warrant.

    UPDATE: A neighbor stated that the weekend of September 10th, she saw the Laundrie family “in the neighborhood out in the front yard,” and that it looked like “a normal … they were going for a walk kind of thing,” and that she “never thought anything about it.” She also told CNN, “We saw them take walks as a family,” and “We saw them ride their bikes as a family and things like that.”

    Another neighbor stated he saw the Laundrie family packing up a pickup truck and attached camper before taking a long weekend trip together right after Petito was declared missing. He also stated he saw Laundrie’s father, Christopher, working on another camper after the FBI came and towed Petito’s white van away. They (neighbors) estimated that there was about “a week, week-and-a-half” between the day they saw Brian return in the van and the day he and his parents took off in the truck with the camper.

  • September 14th

    According to his parents, Brian left to go hiking in the Carlton Reserve National Park. He left with nothing but a backpack.

    Police name Brian Laundrie a ‘person of interest’ in the missing persons case for Gabby Petito.

  • September 15th

    Brian Laundrie was named as a person of interest by the North Port police for hindering the investigation.

  • September 16th

    Police execute a warrant and access Petito’s external hard drive and computer found inside the white van.

    North Port police hold a press conference with Petito’s father in which they beg for the Laundrie family to help them find Gabby.

    Laundrie’s sister speaks with “Good Morning America” hours after the Petito family hold a press conference asking for their help. Cassie Laundrie breaks the family’s silence stating: “Obviously me and my family want Gabby to be found safe,” she said. “She’s like a sister and my children love her, and all I want is for her to come home safe and found and this to be just a big misunderstanding.”

  • September 17th

    Laundrie family report Brian missing since Tuesday when he left for the hike. Police execute a search for the missing man, searching his room for personal items to assist the K9 units, heading to his last known whereabouts located at the Carlton Reserve National Park in Florida. Police discovered his allegedly abandoned Ford Mustang near the entrance, towing it away as possible evidence.

    UPDATE: It was later revealed the family went looking for Laundrie on Wednesday 15th, and found his Ford Mustang, which had a police note on it demanding that the vehicle be removed from the area. The family initially left the car there so that Laundrie could drive it back, but they returned on Thursday 16th, to retrieve it, according to Bertolino (the Laundrie lawyer).

    Carlton Reserve National Park.

    Passerby Zachary Randazzo snapped a photo of a man with Laundrie’s description at 5PM on Friday, 9/17 at Targee Avenue in North Port — about two blocks from Laundrie’s parents’ home, and 90 minutes before police showed up at his home following the missing persons report.

    This has since been disproven to be Brian Laundrie.
  • REVEAL September 17th

    Petito’s friend, Rose Davis from Sarasota, revealed Laundrie as a controlling and manipulative boyfriend. She said Petito had described strange episodes, which at times forced her to sleep at Davis’s house.

    “He’s got these jealousy issues and he struggles from what Gabby called these ‘episodes,’ where he would hear things and hear voices and wouldn’t sleep,” she told the NY Post.

    “Gabby had to stay at my house a bunch of times because she just needed a breather and didn’t want to go home to him.”

    Read full post here.

  • September 18th

    Search for Laundrie continues throughout Carlton Reserve in Sarasota County.

    “A weekend ground search and aerial search Monday of the 25-thousand-acre preserve has yet to yield any answers, but we must press on,” North Port Police said on Facebook. Police indicated the search picked up Tuesday in a different part of the reserve. It concluded Tuesday evening around sundown and resumed Wednesday morning.

    The search effort included the use of drones and bloodhounds who used articles of Laundrie’s clothing taken from his home to get his scent. Police initially focused their search on a nearby park which spans about 200 acres before expanding to the rest of the reserve.

  • TIP September 18th

    Police receive a tip from a vlogger with footage potentially revealing Gabby’s last known location. A search is conducted in Grand Teton National Park.

    Vloggers reviewing video footage after listening to the news thought they’d captured Petito’s white van while driving through the park between 6 – 6.30PM on August 27th. They realized it may have been evidence and sent it straight to police.

    Video courtesy of Jenn Bethune – “Red, White and Bethune”
    Tik-Tokkers and digital detectives at work!

    Another version of the video clip reveals the van doors closing upon approach, suggesting that someone was inside when it passed by.

    Video HQ Zoomed, thanks to nirvgorilla.

    TIP #2 September 18th

    Fellow camper, Miranda Baker, says she believes her and her boyfriend picked up Brian Laundrie in the evening at Colter Bay in Wyoming National Park and gave him a ride back to his van on August 29th. Apparently, Laundrie stated he’d been camping alone for the past few days while his girlfriend was staying in their van working on social media projects. She said he offered to pay them $200 for the ride before getting into their vehicle.

    Laundrie, who was wearing a backpack, pants and hiking boots, “looked clean and didn’t smell bad,” and was very polite, Baker said. Laundrie told them he had been camping “basically in the middle of nowhere” at a site outside the Grand Teton National Park, near the Snake River.

    Laundrie claimed to have hiked for days along that river, and that all he had was a tarp to sleep on, she said. Once Laundrie found out Baker and her boyfriend were going to Jackson Hole he got agitated, asked that the vehicle stop, and got out near Jackson Dam in Grand Teton National Park, according to Baker. She said they dropped him off less than 30 minutes after picking him up.

    In a second video, Baker said Laundrie allegedly told her that he and Petito were camping along Snake River on an unregulated campground, “basically out in the middle of nowhere.”

    Laundrie allegedly told them he had been “hiking for days along Snake River.”

    Baker then recalled how unprepared Laundrie looked for someone who had been hiking and camping outside for days.

    “Looking at his backpack, it wasn’t full,” Baker said. “He said all he had was a tarp to sleep on. Which, you think if you’re going camping for days on end, you’d want food and a tent, and he had none of that.”

    This all happened four days after the Schmidt/Petito family last heard from Gabby, and three days before Laundrie showed up back home in Florida alone.

    Amanda Baker on TikTok
  • September 19th

    Within 24 hours of receiving various tips and video footage, human remains matching the description of the missing 22 year old Gabby Petito was found in an undeveloped camping area in Bridger-Teton National Forest on the eastern edge of the park in western Wyoming. The body was taken to the coroner’s office in Denver, Colorado for autopsy.

    It was later revealed the body was found a short distance from where Petito’s white van was last seen.

  • September 20th

    Coroner confirms the body found belongs to that of missing woman, Gabby Petito.

    FBI storm the Laundrie home and execute a search warrant in light of Petito’s death, removing his parents from the home and declaring it a crime scene. They remove several boxes and tow away a car thought to be frequently used by Laundrie’s mother.

    TIP September 20th

    Report of potential sighting in Brian Laundrie search. Sam Bass said he spotted the man toting a backpack at 6:17AM. Monday in the town of Baker, Fla., about 500 miles away from Laundrie’s home in North Port.

    “I’m not saying this is the guy but whoever was on my trail camera this morning in Baker, Fl strongly fits the description of Brian Laundrie,” Bass wrote on Facebook. “Authorities have been contacted but people in the North West Florida area be on the look out.”

    This has since been disproven.
  • September 21st

    Coroner rules Gabby Petito’s cause of death a homicide.

    UPDATE: Sept. 22nd

    Priya Banerjee, a forensic pathologist, told the media on Wednesday that officials might not release the cause of death because it could hurt the investigation. Banerjee said that it will be hard to tie a perpetrator to the crime because of the conditions where Petito’s body was found.

    “That is a challenge, tying the perpetrator to the crime, especially, I want to say, in the setting of decomposition, this was out in the wild, high-temperature fluctuation,” she said.

    And, she told Fox News, Brian Laundrie’s DNA will likely be found with Petito since the couple spent so much time together on a cross-country road trip.

    “So that will be a challenge, I think, to tie it all together,” she said.

  • September 22nd

    Police continue and extend search for Brian Laundrie in The Carlton Reserve in Sarasota, Florida, including a dive team and cadaver dogs. Investigators also were using sonar to check large bodies of water in the sprawling, rugged terrain. 

    Criminal defense attorney, former assistant DA and police officer, Philip Holloway told Fox News he believed it was a slim chance of finding Brian Laundrie alive.

    Police gather to continue search, Wednesday, 9/22/21 in Sarasota County, FL.
  • BACKGROUND September 22nd

    A friend of the couple, Ben Matula, states their relationship was rocky since high school, “One minute they’d be all over each other, the next minute he’d be like, ‘We’re fighting.’ They always had some drama.”

    Read full story here.

  • September 23rd

    FBI and DA of Wyoming issued a warrant for Brian Laundrie’s arrest. He was indicted by a federal grand jury for “use of unauthorized access devices” following Petito’s death. Charging documents allege that Laundrie used an unauthorized debit card (Petito’s) with the intent to defraud, spending $1000 between Aug. 30th and Sept. 1st.

  • TIP September 23rd

    Another witness has come forward, Norma Jean Jalovec, claiming she picked up Laundrie who was hitchhiking the evening of August 29th around 6:15PM to 6:30PM.

    As she drove past Jackson Lake Dam — where Miranda Baker (the first camper to give him a ride) said she’d dropped Laundrie off when he “freaked out” about going to Jackson — and saw a man, walking backward with his thumb out. He asked if she could take him to Spread Creek.

    When she arrived at the entrance to the Spread Creek camping area, Laundrie told her to drop him off at the gate. Jalovec told the media she told him she could drive him inside, and that’s when he tried to get out while her vehicle was still moving.

    Jalovec cracked a joke about trying to impress his fiance by hiking in rather than hitching a ride, but his response was to insist on being let out of the vehicle.

    Read full story here.

  • TIP September 24th

    A woman in Canada thinks she sees Laundrie exiting the hotel she’s staying at and snaps a picture, alerting the staff and police.

    The woman said a worker at the hotel, which she did not identify, told her that the mystery man “didn’t know where he was going and he had the wrong hotel.”

    The TikTok user said she sent the image to local news outlets and also reported her encounter with the man to the FBI.

  • BACKGROUND September 24th

    Gabby’s best friend, Rose Davis, told authorities Brian Laundrie is capable of surviving in the wilderness. Davis claimed “If he’s alive, he’s out there, camping out … He lived in the Appalachians by himself for months.” And, she suspects he is on the run, in the swamps, and not holed up with someone who might be harboring him.

    “He does not have friends,” Davis said. “He reads books.”

    NOTE: The quickest route to the Appalachian mountains from North Port, FL takes a little under 9 hours by car, Brian Laundrie had a 3 day head start.

  • TIP September 27th

    A tip alleges Brian went into a Florida campground (Fort De Soto Park) with both his parents in early September from Sept. 1-3 and Sept. 6-8. — but only his parents were seen leaving.

    “They were registered, went through the gate. They’re on camera. They were here on Monday evening. “We think at least if he’s not here right now, we are sure he was caught on camera as he went in the gate — that he was here for sure. Not over in the swamp.”

    The Pinellas County sheriff dept. responded with:

    “No we are not heading to Ft. De Soto and there has been no confirmed sighting of Brian in Pinellas County.

    We will refer you back to North Port PD for any further questions.”

  • September 29th

    Investigators working with Duane Chapman (Dog the Bounty Hunter) are honing in on portions of the  Appalachian Trail in North Carolina. As the manhunt for Laundrie forges on, people have claimed to have seen the 23-year-old avid hiker in Watauga County, North Carolina, according to multiple reports. Users in a private Facebook page, Appalachian Classifieds, described how people were “reporting seeing Brian Laundrie in Boone, NC.”

    The Watauga County Sheriff’s Office told local affiliate FOX 46, “We were looking into these claims, but nothing has been verified.” 

  • REVEAL September 29th

    Brian Laundrie’s parents bought a burner phone from AT&T on Sept. 14th, the day he disappeared. It was later seized by the FBI.

  • October 4th

    A hiker claimed to have run into Brian Laundrie on a deserted road on the Appalachian Trail near the South Carolina border. He stated that Laundrie parked his car before asking for help, mentioning, “Sir, I am lost. My girlfriend and I had a fight. But she called me, told me that she loved me. I have to go to California to see her.”

  • October 7th

    Christopher Laundrie, Brian’s father, finally joins the search for his missing son.

  • October 12th

    The coroner rules Petito’s cause of death as manual strangulation and noted it occurred three weeks before her body was found.

  • October 20th

    Items, a backpack, and a notebook, believed to belong to Brian Laundrie were found off a trail where he frequented. Coroner called to park to help with the identification of human remains found near the items.

  • October 21st

    Remains confirmed to be that of Brian Laundrie.

  • November 23rd

    Brian Laundrie’s cause of death was confirmed to be a gunshot wound to the head, and the manner of death was suicide.

Book Review: Behind the Red Door by Megan Collins

Very few books keep me up at night. Even fewer haunt my dreams. Behind the Red Door by Megan Collins (The Winter Sister) is one of those deeply disturbing psychological thrillers that do both. A story that highlights themes of childhood trauma and the serious implications resulting from long-term exposure to narcissistic personality disorder.

As an avid reader of crime and psychological thrillers, I was extremely excited to hear that Megan Collins had released her second book this year (after the widespread success of her debut, The Winter Sister), curious as to the central themes she would focus on this time. I’m a huge fan of books which center around personality disorders, long-term effects of trauma, and the most obvious ‘good people doing bad things.’ But Behind the Red Door caught me off guard–in a good way. With a strong focus on toxic family relationships and the ongoing implications of early exposure to narcissism, there was something very relatable about Fern’s character. Her everyday struggles with anxiety and her unique coping mechanisms were something that spoke to me personally, and it helped shape her character into someone that I actually cared for and worried about when I wasn’t reading the book. That is a talent in itself!

Collins has all the right ingredients for crafting a dark and suspenseful world that appeals to readers of the genre on a deep and realistic level. Her descriptions, settings, character traits are detailed and absorbing, and her clever use of misdirection and subtle reveals kept me on my toes. For anyone not only interested in a great read, but who also appreciates the quality of beautifully crafted prose, I highly recommend checking out her books. You won’t be disappointed.

4/5 ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️

Behind the Red Door is a dark modern-day tale of suspense, enhanced by the scary and often sad reality of how the people we’re taught to hold in the highest regard, might in fact be the ones that damage us the most. I recommend to readers who enjoy an unreliable narrator, psychological thrills, and twisty surprises.

Published August 4th, 2020

Synopsis:

When our heroine, Boston-based social worker Fern Douglas, sees a missing woman on the news, she’s almost certain she knows her. The now 34-year-old Astrid Sullivan from Maine, who was snatched twenty years ago in the middle of the day, only to be returned two weeks later blindfolded, drugged, and completely disoriented. And now she’s gone again. 

Fern’s husband, Eric, is convinced that the publicity surrounding the decades-old case is the answer to his wife’s bizarre familiarity. But Fern has no memory of it, even though it occurred an hour outside her hometown. After learning of Astrid’s most recent disappearance, Fern has a recurring nightmare. One in which a young girl appears to be reaching out, pleading for help. Begging the question: Is it really a nightmare, or a repressed memory?

After receiving a call, Fern reluctantly returns to Cedar, New Hampshire to assist her retired professor father, Ted, as he prepares to move out of their family home and relocate to Florida. But Cedar holds some anxiety-ridden memories for her. Reminders of her attention-starved childhood in which her father regularly tricked her into partaking in his cruel experiments as he tirelessly researched the psychology of fear.

Fern buys a copy of Astrid’s memoir–Behind the Red Door–published shortly before her second disappearance in hopes that it will spark a memory. As she reads through, visiting the people and places, it triggers memories from her past. And with the help of her psychologist father, she digs even deeper in hopes of uncovering details that might help locate where Astrid is now. But the truth is so much worse than Fern could ever have imagined. And soon she’s confronted with the ugliness of her own childhood, including a toxic relationship that stems from one of the people closest to her.

Quick Author Q&A

I was lucky enough to be able to pick the author’s brain on her recent publishing success and I’m excited to share her answers with you below.

What inspired you to write a book that centers around narcissistic personality traits?

I wanted to explore the nature of toxic relationships—what it feels like to be in one, how difficult it can be to get yourself out of one—and from there, those traits just sort of attached themselves to one character in particular. Fern has always had a toxic relationship with her family, but because her parents were all she had as a child, she’s had to convince herself that things weren’t as bad as they really were. Her husband sees that her parents are no good for her; the reader sees it, too, basically right away—but Fern’s ability to move through the world relies on her belief that her parents, particularly her father, really did care about her. When she returns to her childhood home to help her father pack for a move, she finally has the opportunity to try to reconcile the fiction she tells herself with the truth about her parents—and decide whether or not she will stay in those relationships.

What are your writing habits/tips?

Usually, I start writing in the morning, when my mind is most refreshed. I tend to set daily word count goals for myself, keeping them as manageable as possible. Most of the time, my goal is just 500 words, because it feels reasonable and not too daunting. On really hard days, I might only get those 500 words down, but on better days, I’ll exceed it and get to feel like a rock star for zooming past my goal. It’s all a mind game, but I find that it really works, and it helps me feel more confident as I continue on with the project. I always advise writers to set reasonable goals (doesn’t have to be word count; could be writing a certain number of pages, or outlining a certain number of chapters—whatever, really!), because I think it helps you to be both accountable and motivated.

How do your creative ideas form initially? 

The initial seeds of my novels usually come to me in the form of a “What if” question. For example, with Behind the Red Door, the question that started it all was: What if someone who had been famously kidnapped as a child went missing again as an adult? As soon as it popped into my mind, that question really interested me, and from there, I became obsessed with this idea of a “twice-missing person” and worked on developing a story that would answer my question.

Name three authors that inspire you, or three books that inspire(d) you:

Oh man, there are SO many, but since I’ve only been asked for three, I’ll say: Toni Morrison, Gillian Flynn, and Marisha Pessl.

Are there any true crime cases that stick in your mind and perhaps influence your writing?

In the early seventies, there was a string of missing child cases in the area around my hometown. I wasn’t even alive back then, but the stories of Janice Pockett and Lisa White haunted the area for years to come, and I thought of them often while writing Behind the Red Door. In my book, Astrid is kidnapped as a child and then later returned, but sadly, that was not the case for Janice or Lisa, whose families still hold out hope that they’ll learn what happened to them. I think there’s something especially eerie about missing person cases, since the fact of their vanishing often means there are very little clues, and their family and friends are often left to try to fill in the blanks all on their own.

The TikTok Suitcase Murder Mystery

A fun adventure quickly turns into a grisly discovery on a Seattle beach.

Beach in West Seattle.

The Scene

It was a warm, sunny Friday in June near Alki Beach in West Seattle, when a group of teenagers thought it would be exciting to document their discovery after “Randonauting” in the area.

What they found…

Upon approaching the shoreline, one of the teenagers spots a small black suitcase balanced on the rocks. The tide is moving in, pulling the small item back with it into the ocean. At first the teens are seen joking, having no idea what they are about to uncover. The video then shows the young woman descend the rocks with a stick in hand. She proceeds to unzip, and peel open the case as her friends film her, only to be met with an overwhelming odor that quickly reveals something more sinister than they were expecting. After police arrived and searched the scene, more human remains were found, and the area was immediately closed off.

The Suitcase: Still shot from TikTok video.
Still shot from TikTok video and faces of victims found inside.

Wtf is Randonauting?

Randonauting is the act of using the Randonautica app to travel to random places near you based on a “quantum random number generator and mother nature”, which gives specific coordinates for you to follow.

When you open the app you start by setting a radius and the generator will spit out coordinates for you to travel to. The apps introduction video claims that these locations can be “influenced by the users thoughts and consciousness”.

This is why, while setting up the app, it asks whether you’d visit attractors (highly concentrated quantum-points), voids (sparse quantum-points), anomalies (reported patterns of areas influenced by thought) and urges you to “focus on your intent” while the app sets a location for you.

The New York Times described it as: “Think: The law of attraction meets geocaching.”

Image courtesy of The Atlantic.

Two weeks earlier…

A young woman arrived at a residence in Seattle on the late evening of June 9th to meet landlord, Michael Lee Dudley, about a room he’d advertised for rent. When he came to help her with her luggage, she noticed his glasses were broken, and he had scratches on his face.

Dudley proceeded to take her to the available unit called the “blue room.” She told police that after taking a shower, she opened the door to her new bedroom and saw “heaps of clothing” in the middle of the floor — and a hand sticking out from underneath.

She said Dudley told her later that night that he needed to “clean up the mess”, and asked if he could take her somewhere else; as they were leaving, she saw him laying out large sheets of plastic in the basement.

When she asked him about it, he told her: “Let’s put it this way, his gun misfired and mine didn’t,” the police report states.

Detectives interviewed neighbors who claimed that they’d called police earlier that same night after hearing gunfire (20 days before their bodies were found) and a male yelling from inside the residence, “please don’t do this, just let me leave.” Burien Police had responded to the call but got no response when they arrived at the residence.

Detectives obtained phone records of the victims and learned that their phones stopped transmitting or receiving data on June 9that approximately 1908 hrs (7:08 pm). One of the last calls from the victim’s phone was to Dudley at 1901 hrs and that call pinged off a cell tower within a mile of his residence at 16466 Ambaum Blvd.

Detectives learned from witnesses that Dudley had been renting a room to the victims but wanted them to leave and had been fighting with them since they couldn’t pay rent during the pandemic, and were — according to Dudley — engaging in criminal activity.

Detectives were able to gain a search warrant for 16466 Ambaum Blvd So. and it was served on August 19th. During the service of the warrant CSI detectives found bullet holes, bullet strikes, spent rounds and blood which was located in the “blue” room.” It was also apparent that the room had been recently cleaned and freshly painted. During the course of his interview with homicide, Dudley confirmed certain details but denied any involvement in the couple’s murder. When asked about the blood, he said Jessica had cut herself earlier that day but he could not explain the bullet holes and empty casings which matched his 9mm handgun.

The remains were later identified as Jessica Lewis, a 36-year-old mother of four, and her 27-year-old boyfriend, Austin Wenner. And according to police, Wenner died of a single gunshot, while Lewis was shot multiple times. They were then chopped up and dumped in the suitcases.

Booking document.

A Shady Past

It wasn’t Dudley’s first brush with the law, Back in 2016 he was arrested and charged for assault in a domestic violence dispute after beating up his then girlfriend, Marlys Gordon while holding a gun. She attests to his violent past and says, “He started to hit me and grabbed my hair and grabbed my head…threw me and my stuff out on his patio…hit my head again…with one hand while holding his gun in the other.”

Gina Jaschke, another witness and Jessica Lewis’s aunt, claims that her knowledge of Dudley more or less tracks with the allegations made by his own daughter. “Sometimes he would break their car so they couldn’t leave,” she said–describing him with various epithets. “He put trackers on people’s cars. Anytime he ever got in a dispute with anybody he would tell them to leave but try to lock them in the house.”

Dudley’s backstory also suggests a history of sexual abuse and incest; Dudley’s daughter filed a sexual assault restraining order against him in June 2018. Filed in Pierce County Superior Court, the document accused Dudley of sexually assaulting his daughter for nearly a decade.

“[Dudley] Sexually assaulted me for 9 years from age 10 until 18 (2007) by drugging and raping me,” she alleged. “Forcing me to share a bed with him from age 10, and making me watch him masturbate while he watched pornography.”

“I don’t feel safe in my home. Or leaving my home to work,” his daughter added–while also describing a disturbing tendency. Dudley allegedly frequently took out his gun and threatened to use it.

Dudley allegedly had another disturbing and typically telling tendency: cruelty toward animals.

“He killed the dog in front of them and left the carcass outside for three days to scare them,” Jaschke continued. “They had nowhere to go. That’s why they stayed there. He beat this dog to death with a hammer because it got one of his chickens…he just left it out there for the other dogs to look at and sniff. He’s a freaking psycho.”

62 year old, Michael Lee Dudley: Murderer.

Charged: Michael Lee Dudley

He was formally charged with two counts of murder in the second degree, for the death and dismemberment of Austin Wenner and Jessica Lewis, by the King County Prosecutor on September 8th 2020. He pleaded not guilty.

While no other suspects have been named, State forensic anthropologist Dr. Kathy Taylor told Seattle police she believed there were multiple people involved. Cuts on Lewis and Wenner’s bodies were ‘disorganized’ and appeared to be done in different manners with various devices.

The case setting hearing was initially scheduled for 1 p.m. Oct. 1st. Dudley remains in King County Jail on $5 million bail.

Details to follow as they develop.

Have You Hired a Psychopath?

Toxic corporate culture has been in the spotlight over the years with the more recent examples including Harvey Weinstein and the late, Jeffrey Epstein. The term, ‘Psychopath’ gets thrown around in the media with various books and academic articles exploring the subject. From popular TV shows like Dexter and Mindhunter, to documentaries like HBOs, The Jinx, society has become more familiar with the vernacular coined by health professionals to describe a person with an antisocial personality disorder. As a result, sociopaths and psychopaths often are identified as scary individuals who either look frightening or have other off-putting characteristics. In reality, they could be anyone—a neighbor, coworker, or even a family relation. Each of these seemingly harmless people may prey continually on others around them.

Antisocial personality disorder is described as an ingrained behavioral pattern that consistently disregards and violates the rights of others. The most extreme examples of these are regarded as ‘sociopathic’ or ‘psychopathic’. According to Dr. Robert Hare, 1% of the general male population, and 15 – 25% of the male prison population are psychopathic. A clinical assessment of psychopathy is based on the person having the full cluster of psychopathic traits—at least to some degree—based on a pattern of lifetime behaviors.

This also means that there is a significant percent of the population that aren’t necessarily psychopathic but who do display some of the traits and still thrive in society. These types are listed as Borderline, Antisocial, Avoidant, Dependent, Histrionic, Narcissistic, Obsessive-compulsive, Paranoid, Schizoid, and Schizotypal Personality Disorder. Some of the traits include pathological lying, lack of empathy, or guilt which, at worst, can still lead to violent crime or, at best, create a chaotic work environment. If you’ve ever been in the presence of someone with a borderline or full-blown personality disorder, it’s easy to detect something is amiss without necessarily understanding the science behind their psyche. But what if you’ve ever been the target of such an individual?

Since moving to New York City in 2011, there were a few crimes that shocked me, however, the shooting at the Empire State Building in 2012 stood out from the rest. I was walking to my office building in Midtown Manhattan when I received an alert on my phone.

Jeffrey T. Johnson deceased at the crime scene in front of the Empire State Building in NYC, 2012.

August 24th, 2012: the day of the shooting

Steven Ercolino was headed to his office inside the Empire State building where he worked as Vice President of Sales at Hazan Imports. What he didn’t know was that his former colleague, Jeffrey Johnson, was hiding behind a white truck with a handgun, waiting for him.

Johnson fired the first shot at Ercolino’s head and the helpless victim crumpled to the sidewalk. Johnson then stood over the dying man and shot him four more times. Witnesses described the shooter as eerily calm as he turned and walked east on 33rd Street then turned north onto the bustling Fifth Avenue.

Johnson, who was carrying a black canvas tote bag, pulled out his .45 as he spotted two cops who were posted outside the Empire State Building. The officers ordered him to “freeze” and drop his weapon, but Johnson raised his gun instead. The cops opened fire — hitting Johnson seven times. Johnson — who was pronounced dead at the scene — had no arrest record or history of mental illness. He legally purchased his .45-caliber pistol in 1991 in Florida, while he was living there but never registered it in New York.

Before the carnage, an office grudge festered

Following the bloodshed, there was only one question on everyone’s mind: what was Johnson’s motive for killing his former boss? With no arrest record or history of mental illness, it’s difficult to understand or to have predicted his actions. The two worked together at Hazan Imports—a company that sells bags and belts—up until two years before the shooting when Johnson was laid off. According to several people at the company, Johnson was a “meticulous” and “eccentric” designer who never got along with Ercolino, a “laid-back” salesman. Another Hazan employee who was standing next to Ercolino when he was killed, stated, “There was bad blood between Steve and Jeff, for no particular reason. Jeff just did not like Steve.” Said another, “You chalk it up to two guys being around each other too much.” Johnson and Ercolino’s bad relationship had gotten physical in the past, with the two regularly shoving and elbowing each other in the office hallways. Later, a few months after Johnson lost his job, he returned to the building and the two had a physical confrontation, with Ercolino who grabbed Johnson by the throat and threatening, “If you ever do anything like this again, I’m going to kill you,” according to an eye witness.

Johnson’s building superintendent and neighbors described him as a quiet and polite man who was seen every morning wearing a suit, greeting his neighbors and getting takeout from a nearby McDonald’s, then usually remaining in his apartment for the rest of the day. On the morning of the shooting, Johnson reportedly emerged from his building at the usual time and in the usual attire, according to his superintendent, Guillermo Suarez, 72, whom everyone calls Bill. “He said, ‘How you doing, Bill?’ and he never came back to the building,” Mr. Suarez said.

Theories of crime, including Strain theory could be applied to this case; read (Merton, 1968), (Agnew, 1992), and (Blau and Blau, 1982), who describe various social-psychological factors which can trigger criminal behavior.

Was Johnson pushed over the edge? After feuding with Ercolino and eventually being fired by him, Johnson’s ego was bruised. His mother described conversations she’d had with her son in the year or so leading up to the shooting that illustrates a depleted man who was disappointed at how his life had turned out; he wanted to support his parents ‘as a son should’ and was unable to do so. He also mourned the loss of his favorite pet within the same year, and received an eviction notice after he couldn’t afford to pay rent. All of these factors, more than likely, contributed to his actions that fateful day.

It’s also probable that Johnson had a personality disorder that went unnoticed throughout his life and during his interview process at Hazan Imports. Instead, he was dismissed as ‘eccentric’ by his colleagues. But his particular set of personality traits, coupled with a hostile work environment ultimately caused him to react with violence. After considering the testimonies of former colleagues and acquaintances, police determined that revenge may have been Johnson’s primary motive.

Fahim Saleh: beheaded and dismembered

After a chilling crime was committed in July this year, the words ‘reserved’ and ‘non-violent’ were used to describe 21-year-old murderer, Tyrese Devon Haspil. His aunt expressed he was “sometimes troublesome but never having shown any inclination toward brutality,” after he tased, stabbed, beheaded, and dismembered his employer, Fahim Saleh, in his Manhattan apartment.

LEFT: Personal assistant, Tyrese Devon Haspil. RIGHT: Entrepreneur and Tech CEO, Fahim Saleh.

According to Paul Babiak and Robert Hare’s book ‘Snakes in Suits‘, and mentioned in a 2019 Forbes article, it is estimated that the rate of psychopathy in the executive suite is 3.9%. Since the release of the book, there has been much disagreement over the extent of the presence of psychopaths in corporate America with most other estimates landing between 8% and 12%. People with these traits are good at “impression management” and know how to get people to like them. Studies show that some are quick to anger, though when climbing the corporate ladder they are more likely to use charm and flattery on superiors in order to propel their careers.

Haspil’s background revealed that his family history includes mental illness. And after his mother died, he was passed around family members until finally being placed in foster care as a young teen, after which, his father passed away. Haspil is described as, “never showing his emotions,” and it’s noted by his aunt that, “His behavior, the way he was, he acted nonchalantly. He would do whatever he wanted.” Travis Hirschi’s Social Bond Theory states that persons who have strong and abiding attachments to conventional society (in the form of attachments, involvement, investment, and belief) are less likely to deviate than persons who have weak or shallow bonds. The theory provides some insight behind Haspil’s extreme decisions since, as a child and adolescent, he failed to form these bonds which are imperative for building relationships and understanding consequences of one’s actions.

Ryan Andres, a classmate of Haspil at Valley Stream Central High School on Long Island, said he never saw any flashes of violence or anger in his former friend. “As far as I can recall, he was always pretty friendly with everyone,” Andres, 22, recalled.

The day of the crime

Police believe that 21 year old Tyrese Devon Haspil murdered his boss, 33 year old Fahim Saleh on Monday, July 13th after following the tech CEO to his Lower East Side penthouse in New York City, immobilizing him with a taser, and stabbing him to death. Surveilance footage revealed that he returned the next day, August 14th, to conceal the crime. But not before using the victim’s credit card to rent a car, and purchase an electric saw and cleaning supplies. His plan was interrupted that same day when the victim’s sister visited the apartment to check up on her brother, and Haspil ran off. The electric saw used to dismember Saleh was still plugged into an outlet, and some of the remains had been stuffed in bags, according to NYPD officials.

So what was Haspil’s motive? After investigators read text messages exchanged between Haspil and his employer, Fahim Saleh, it was revealed that he had embezzled tens of thousands of dollars from the former tech CEO. And to their surprise, Saleh offered Haspil an out, stating that if the money was paid back in full he would not report him to the police.

This detail, investigators believe, was the deciding factor in Saleh’s death. Haspil most likely determined that murder was his best course of action in a twisted version of what economists call a cost-benefit analysis. In his situation, he believed that committing a violent crime was easier than paying back the money he stole. Unfortunately, it’s clear that Saleh hired and trusted the wrong person; a stone cold psychopath.

Haspil being led out by detectives in NYC after killing his boss.

Conclusion

How can we predict anti-social behaviors in society and, in this case, the workplace? Are there specific markers identifiable early in childhood or adolescence? Awareness and education is where it needs to stem from, particularly if and when children are not receiving the mental nourishment and positive stimuli required for healthy thought and decision-making processes. The sad reality is that the system is broken, and people who truly need help are not receiving it. It should be a societal and individual requirement to better understand if not, possess a certain level of emotional intelligence in order to maintain a peaceful existence. After all, aren’t emotions what make us human?

Where do we start? So much emphasis is placed on IQ tests (intelligence quotient). Instead and/or additionally, developing and introducing in-depth EQ tests (emotional quotient) into schools, beginning at nursery level and continuing into elementary, would benefit as a tool of identifying EQ levels in individuals. These should transpire into adolescence as a continued form of measurement in order to positively assess and improve areas of cognitive development into adulthood. Higher education should require students to study behavioral sciences, just as they’re required to study english and math, in order to learn the importance of hypothetical reasoning and hone the skills needed in key decision making.

Mental health awareness and support networks need to be considered essential in the workplace. Therapists or in office counselors should be available to provide a safe space for employees when needed with regular in-person check ups during key personal/career oriented transitions. Upper management must be carefully selected and educated in these areas including a wide range of sensitivity training.

If we can achieve these positive societal steps hopefully, the stigma surrounding mental health will lift and eventually fade once it’s recognized as a serious issue and tackled accordingly. Increasing awareness through continued education at all stages of life is the best way to enact positive change.