by Diana Bulls
Fresno true crime writer James A. Ardaiz joins us here at KRL this week for an interview, along with a review of his book, a chance to win a copy of the book (details at the end of this post) & information on his upcoming book talk at the San Joaquin Valley Chapter of Sisters In Crime on February 2, 2013. More info on how to reserve your spot at the meeting can be found on the SinC event page.
Hands Through Stone by James A. Ardaiz
On Friday evening, September 5, 1980, Death, cold and merciless, walked into a small country store. When he left, three young people lay dead on the concrete floor and a fourth barely escaped with his life.
So begins the strange saga of the Fran’s Market Murders and the story of Clarence Ray Allen, considered one of the most sinister criminal masterminds in American history. Chronicled by former prosecutor James Ardaiz, this true story rolls out like a finely plotted mystery. It follows the dogged investigative work, the endless interviews, and all of the steps taken by dedicated law enforcement personnel in order to build the case against Clarence Ray Allen–a man who was already serving a life sentence in Folsom Prison for the murder of Mary Sue Kitts.
Clarence Ray Allen, posing as a legitimate businessman, oversees a gang of thieves. Things begin to go wrong for him when he initiates the murder of 19-year-old Mary Sue Kitts, his own son’s girlfriend, in 1974. He goes to trial and is convicted of her murder in 1977. Six years later, his “dog” Billy Ray Hamilton, fresh out of Folsom Prison, walks into Fran’s Market for the sole purpose of carrying out Allen’s plan for revenge. Hamilton’s callous murders are the first in a long and bizarre string of events that eventually tie Clarence Ray Allen to the crime.
In January 1981 Allen was convicted of the Fran’s Market Murders and sentenced to death. Twenty-six years later, the State of California executed Clarence Ray Allen by lethal injection–the last man to be executed by the State of California.
James A. Ardaiz is a former presiding justice of California’s Fifth District Court of Appeal. From 1974 to 1980, Ardaiz was a deputy district attorney prosecuting homicide cases in Fresno County. He tells the story in a straight-forward and engrossing manner. It isn’t the murderers who are spotlighted in this book–the reader connects immediately to those in law enforcement who have to deal with a hideous crime scene and callously executed victims.
Ardaiz deals sensitively with the feelings and emotions of the victim’s families, as well as those of his law enforcement co-workers. In fact, he has dedicated this book to the men and women who wear law enforcement badges, citizens who do their duty through the legal process, and the district attorneys who bring the cases to trial.
Ardaiz also shares his own feelings as a prosecutor who was unable to protect one of his witnesses, and the overwhelming responsibility he felt for representing that witness’ parents when the time came for Allen to be put to death.
This is a fascinating and engrossing book. Ardaiz handles the story sensitively and with a gentleness one doesn’t expect from a “hard-nosed” prosecutor. I highly recommend reading it.
Interview With James A. Ardaiz
Diana: I found the book fascinating to read; was it easy for you to write?
James: I have always enjoyed writing although most of my work over the years has been for professional legal publications. Because the book used a narrative non-fiction technique, it was more like writing a mystery novel even though the narrative was true. Fleshing the story out in terms of background and imagery is more difficult than simply relating facts so I would say the technique is much more difficult than simply writing non-fiction. But I felt it brought life to the story and I have been very pleased by the reaction.
Diana: I believe the Mary Sue Kitts murder was your first “big” case as a prosecutor. Can you share your feelings about being assigned the case back in 1977?
James:It was my first high profile murder case. At the time I was excited about being given such a complex and important case. I really didn’t think much about the effect it might have on my career. It was the challenge of the case that held most of my focus. For me the challenge has always been the thing I react to more than anything else.
Diana: Was it difficult for you to work with the detectives assigned to the case, considering they felt you were not very experienced?
James:Once they realized I wasn’t going to tell them how to do their job and that I respected what they did we got along fine. I listened and I asked questions. I took their advice. By the time it was over, we were friends and those friendships have lasted to this day.
Diana: Describe your feelings at the end of the Kitts murder trial.
James:I felt satisfaction that Allen had been sent to prison for life. I felt good about the way the case had been handled and I felt that we had brought a measure of justice to Mary Sue Kitts. I put Allen out of my mind and moved on to the next case. I thought it was over. I am the kind of person who finishes something and then closes the door.
Diana: What were your initial feelings when you realized that the Mary Sue Kitts murder and the Fran’s Market murders might be related?
James:I can best describe it by saying it was like getting punched in the gut. The reality of it took a while to sink in. Things like that happen in movies and on television. They don’t happen in real life. Then there was anger and commitment. I was angry that this happened and I wanted to make sure we got the people responsible so I was very focused.
Diana: How do detectives and other law enforcement personnel cope with their emotions after working around a crime scene like that at Fran’s Market?
James:You try to detach. You have seen enough crime scenes that the shock of the blood and the violence is something you are generally past. You have to separate yourself and compartmentalize. Experienced investigators have to avoid thinking of the victim as a person while they are working the scene and tend to view everything as evidence. Being angry or emotional doesn’t help when you are looking for clues or trying to think clearly. After you sit down and have a chance to start putting it together and dealing with the family you allow yourself to have feelings but you really try to avoid emotional involvement. I think most law enforcement personnel look at it as trying to get justice for the family and the victim within the system. Successful investigators are very focused people. But it takes its toll. There is no question about that. My wife has listened to me at book signings and she said that I talked about things she never knew. I am sure that is true and I responded by saying the same things most people in this line of work would say, “You didn’t need to hear about that and I didn’t want to bring it home.” So you try to keep that part of your life separate.
Diana: How did you cope?
James:The hardest thing for me wasn’t the crime scene. That was a horrible thing to see but I had seen horrible things many times. It was hard to look at Bryon and it was hard to talk to his parents because I knew them. After that, I simply blotted everything out in terms of emotion. I was simply relentlessly focused. When I realized why the crime had happened I had to allow myself to accept that I couldn’t have stopped it and it wasn’t realistic to have expected it. But I won’t say that I didn’t feel a certain sense of responsibility. It had been my case that was the motive and I had told Bryon and his parents that he would be fine. Other people around me felt the same way. We talked it through. We just never forgot it.
Diana: For a case as complicated as this one, what is the most important task of the investigation team?
James:Keeping all the parts organized. You see a clue here, an inference there, a hint from another case. Part of what allowed us to be successful was our institutional memory of the Mary Sue Kitts case. My investigator, Bill Martin, and I saw things quickly because we knew the players in the other case and it made sense to us much faster than it would otherwise. In any major case like this, you have to have one or two people that keep focused on all the parts and pull them together. Otherwise, it just becomes unconnected dots.
Diana: Describe Clarence Ray Allen’s demeanor with detectives and in count.
James:Allen was a predator. He never displayed any emotion at any time that I saw. I came to realize he could order a killing just like ordering a meal and give it about the same amount of thought. He looked like a grandfather or your older neighbor but he terrified people. With detectives, he wasn’t intimidated at all. He would just look at you and you could tell he was simply like a patient predator waiting for his opportunity. When he was in court, he was a watcher. I said in the book that when he was in court “he was like a reptile sunning himself on a rock.” I think that is a fairly apt description.
Diana: Would you consider Allen to be the closest you have ever come to knowing a cold-blooded killer?
James:Yes. Very few murders are actually premeditated murders, meaning calculated and considered beforehand and then carried out in a cold-blooded fashion. I handled a large number of murder cases. I only saw a few actual premeditated murders and of those, almost all had a certain amount of emotion involved. With Allen, there was no emotion. He understood what he was doing and he did it. Other than thinking about how to do it, I don’t think he gave a moment’s thought to the fact he was ending a human life.
Diana: You attended the Allen execution because Ray & Fran Schletewitz couldn’t be present to “see justice done” and in doing so came to realize that Clarence Ray Allen made you a victim as well. Have you been able to come to terms with this?
James:I have come to terms with myself in the sense that I realize more about what kind of person I really am. Allen’s conduct literally pulled life out of so many people in terms of changing the life they expected or thought they knew. It wasn’t just the three kids who died or the young man who was so grievously wounded or the death of Mary Sue. People who knew and loved these people suffered terribly and the process sucked out part of the enjoyment of their life that they should have had. I had to accept that I couldn’t have stopped this and shouldn’t have anticipated it. It didn’t change the fact that he had made me feel pain at what had happened and had drawn me into his conduct also. But each of us, my investigators and myself, felt deep responsibility to these families and to those kids. In that sense we had to come to terms with how to react to all of it. If you are a responsible person, you feel a certain amount of guilt. You can’t help it even though you know you shouldn’t. The fact that at his execution I felt a certain amount of pity was actually reassuring in an odd sort of way. It told me something about myself.
Diana: Have you also been able to accept, what you considered to be, your own responsibility in Bryon Schletewitz’s death?
James:I accept that I couldn’t have changed any of this because I had no reason to expect it. But I think about those kids and their families. I don’t give any thought to Allen. He was the one who victimized everyone connected to him. It wasn’t the other way around.
Diana: Would you say that writing this book was a cathartic experience for you? How did it help?
James:By the time I wrote the book I had already gone through any cathartic process that was going to occur for me. I am introspective by nature. I think a lot about why things happen. I felt like what I was doing was chronicling experiences for others to understand and experience. I wrote the book to help people see and understand the reality of things most people never see. I wanted people to know what it was really like to go through a case like this, for the victims, for their families, for the investigators and the district attorneys. I didn’t write the book in order to purge my self of emotional feelings. But I had to make myself relive it in order to adequately describe the emotions of each aspect of the case. That in itself was an emotional experience
Diana: Would you consider this your most memorable case? And if so, why?
James:In my career I’ve handled thousands of cases as a prosecutor and as a judge. Certainly this case stands out because it was so unusual and because of its history. But like most people who work on cases like this, what I remember are emotional bits and pieces of cases. I remember faces of victims and parts of crime scenes. I remember the commitment that I gave to each of my cases. To this day, I will have people come up to me and say, “You prosecuted the people who murdered my brother or my father or my friend.” What is important to me is that they say “thank you.” It was important to me that Tricia Schletewitz, Bryon’s sister, came up to me the night of the execution and said that her parents always spoke well of me and that they knew I had been there for them. That is what is most memorable to me.
To enter to win a copy of Hands Through Stone, simply email KRL at life@kingsriverlife[dot]com by replacing the [dot] with a period, and with the subject line “Hands”, or comment on this article. A winner will be chosen February 2, 2013. U.S. residents only.