THE CRIMES OF JOSEPH WAMBAUGH : A Fascination With Sociopaths Lures the Cop Novelist to England--and a High-Tech Detective Tool

JAMBOREE ROAD IS ONE OF THOSE Orange County boulevards that looks as if it was paved yesterday and scrubbed by hand this morning. Its manicured blacktop climbs a coastal rise past decorator palm trees and a BMW dealership and drops down into the quiet of Newport Beach as neatly as the last line in a song about love being the answer. From Jamboree Road, it’s not far to where Joseph Wambaugh lives, on an island of multimillion-dollar homes that have yacht slips in back. Here, surrounded by a harbor full of pleasure boats and the joyful noise of ice cubes kissing the sides of cocktail glasses, Wambaugh goes into a room, alone, seven days a week and contemplates what terrible things human beings are capable of.

Out of such contemplation and the compulsive writing that has accompanied it since 1971 have come 11 books about crime and the often anti-heroic foot soldiers who battle it somewhere this side of Dirty Harry. Wambaugh, who was a cop himself for 14 years with the Los Angeles Police Department, regards dimly the action-packed majority of Hollywood’s cop movies and refers to them generically as “comic books.” His taste is for the plausible, the ironic, the real, and, definitely, the dark.

Suicidal cops, sociopathic killers, charred corpses, lifeless violated teen-agers all inform a world view whose cosmic message is that life is often a series of bad accidents waiting to happen.

His latest book, “The Blooding,” is another of his true crime stories and the second in a row in which he has left his familiar Southern California locale, this time going as far as the placid Midlands of England. In a cluster of villages in Leicestershire, where unsolved murders are nearly unknown, he tracks the investigation into the rape-slayings of two 15-year-old girls, in 1983 and 1986. It turned out to be the first murder investigation on record that was resolved through the use of the revolutionary new forensic technique called “genetic fingerprinting.”


This time, the cops are English, and they defer to science when all else fails, but one thing remains the same: Wambaugh’s fascination with the inner workings of the criminal mind. Like his first nonfiction novel, “The Onion Field,” and his last one, “Echoes in the Darkness,” “The Blooding” takes the reader through the menacing terrain of the sociopathic killer, where conventional notions of good and evil go begging in the night.

What sort of man is drawn so relentlessly to this netherworld of pain and degradation?

He is, for one thing, not a man who encourages public exploration of that question. Like a lot of writers whose work requires them to sift through the secret lives of others, the 52-year-old Wambaugh is wary of anyone’s measuring the dimensions of his life. He rarely gives in-depth interviews, and his publisher and publicist seem to know little about his personal life.

Shy, emotional, prickly, earnest, humble and conscience-worn, Wambaugh is a loner who has made his way up from the working class of Southern California to become one of the region’s most important writers, maybe even its most original literary creation: the cop novelist. His richly told tales routinely reach the best-seller lists and are taken seriously by respected critics. “I think I’ve gotten better reviews than I deserve,” Wambaugh says with typical humility.


His past five books have sold an average of 1.5 million copies each, which is short of Sidney Sheldonville (where sales can reach 5 million copies) but sufficient to translate into royalties of what one publishing industry source roughly estimates at $1 million per book. Wambaugh is adamant about not discussing his income other than remarking: “I don’t make as much as a mediocre ballplayer.”

But Wambaugh’s popularity as a writer doesn’t translate into a life filled with people. He doesn’t claim to have or need a lot of friends; he doesn’t use a literary agent, and he even likes to play golf alone. His one intimate companion on this unlikely journey has been his wife of 33 years, Dee, who still retypes his manuscripts and handles all his finances. They met while attending Chaffey High School out on the flats of Ontario and married while he was serving in the Marines after graduation.

“I am of the proletariat,” he once explained proudly. And in all his books, Wambaugh has reserved a certain scorn for the trappings of sophistication. Even FBI agents who wear three-piece suits are considered questionable. Yet it goes without saying that he is possibly one of the few members of the proletariat currently living behind the gates of Linda Isle.

The house is a new one, the third he has owned in Newport Beach. The Wambaughs move around a lot. Since rising above a burglary detective’s salary with the publication 18 years ago of his first novel, “The New Centurions,” he and Dee and their three children have lived in three houses in San Marino, three in Newport Beach, one in Indian Wells and one in Rancho Mirage, where he sometimes spends the weekends. He attributes the moves simply to “a certain amount of restlessness, I guess.”

“It’s one of the complications of having so many choices available to you,” is the way Dee puts it. She says a move often proves just the necessary impetus to dislodge a new book from her husband’s imagination.

The Good Life but Troubles

BUT LUXURY HOMES ASIDE, the last few years have been sometimes agonizing ones for Joseph Aloysius Wambaugh Jr. In 1984, his 21-year-old son, Mark, and a companion were killed when their Jeep went out of control and struck two oncoming cars on the road from Ensenada to Tijuana. The tragedy made a private man even more private.

“I just don’t talk about that,” Wambaugh says when the subject of Mark comes up. “Never. I don’t even talk about that privately.”


Later that same year, he was hit with a libel suit by one of the San Diego police officers he wrote about in “Lines and Shadows,” his account of the short-lived undercover task force that battled Mexican bandits who prey on illegal immigrants at the border. (Each of his three nonfiction novels before “The Blooding” has attracted at least one lawsuit.)

And “The Blooding” has stirred up more trouble for him, this time in England, where the parents of one of the victims, upset about the graphic murder details revealed in the book, have complained to authorities. The complaints have led to an internal-affairs investigation to determine whether local police improperly provided privileged information to Wambaugh.

“I’m very, very sad and distressed,” he says about this. “This has me so upset, I can’t tell you. The last thing I ever want to do in the world is get policemen in trouble.”

Indeed, Wambaugh’s empathy for police officers, particularly middle-aged officers with the night sweats, stands out as his most distinctive literary trait, along with the black humor he says he picked up years ago after reading and rereading Joseph Heller’s “Catch-22.”

It was Truman Capote’s “In Cold Blood,” however, that showed him the way to “The Onion Field,” which recounted the murder of a young Los Angeles detective, the breakdown of his surviving partner and the tortuous legal march to bring the two killers to justice. Wambaugh has wanted to write about real crimes and real people ever since, despite the creative restrictions of nonfiction and the increasing threat of lawsuits attached to these kinds of books.

“It was like working on a real case,” he remembers about “The Onion Field.” “Trying to uncover truths that nobody had uncovered yet and have some things make sense.”

Yet after that book was published to wide acclaim in 1973, he returned to fiction in “The Choirboys” and “The Black Marble.”

“It’s very hard to find nonfiction cases that are interesting,” he explains.


“There has to be something that I think I can uncover in the course of an investigation and writing about something. In the Pitchfork case,” he says, referring to “The Blooding” crime, “it was a chance to write about a classic sociopath in a country where they don’t even use that word. I don’t know if in England they just don’t have as many as we do.

“And the discovery of genetic fingerprinting (was appealing), of course,” Wambaugh continues. “It’s momentous. It’s the biggest thing to happen in forensic science in my lifetime. There’s no limitations on what’s going to happen with this. A hat found at the scene of a crime belonging to a murderer could now theoretically positively identify the murderer from all other human beings on the face of the Earth on the basis of sweat. I mean, that’s theoretically possible. It’s unbelievable.”

A Real-life Mystery

COLIN PITCHFORK is the name of the 25-year-old baker who raped and strangled the two schoolgirls in the village of Narborough, which Wambaugh describes in his book as a place of “reassuring granite churches and mossy slate roofs, turrets and parapets glowing rosy and amber in the setting sun.” After the first victim, Lynda Mann, was discovered one morning in a thicket near the grounds of a psychiatric hospital, the people of Narborough and two neighboring villages were horrified. This sort of thing just didn’t happen there. A police inquiry that grew to include 150 officers turned up nothing but false leads as families worried for the first time about their daughters walking home from school unescorted.

The investigation continued for three years, and because no strong local suspects emerged, speculation increased that the killer was a drifter who had moved on. Until one day, the raped and bruised body of another girl, Dawn Ashworth, was found near the psychiatric hospital. This time, suspicion centered on a young, slow-witted hospital employee who, under fierce interrogation by the police, confessed. Except that he didn’t do it, as was proved by a new kind of blood test pioneered by a geneticist working at nearby Leicester University.

The then-experimental blood test is capable of identifying a person’s unique DNA pattern, which the police sought to match with the DNA pattern taken from samples of semen recovered from the two girls. In an effort to catch the killer, more than 4,500 men from the villages volunteered to provide blood samples--or be “blooded,” as the police called the procedure. Pitchfork, however, eluded the test by having someone else provide a blood sample for him. It wasn’t until his surrogate later blabbed in a pub that Pitchfork came under suspicion and was arrested. Before he was finally given the test, he confessed; subsequently, his DNA fingerprint was found to match the semen samples.

Wambaugh has reassembled these events into a suspenseful whodunit, marked by his characteristic portraits of harried police officers chasing after shadows and vivid descriptions of the crimes. But he found that his methods, honed after years of practice, came into question in Britain, a country where murder mysteries are beloved as long as they’re fiction and true crime stories are considered unseemly.

Wambaugh thinks of himself as something of an Anglophile and enjoys British soap operas on public television, (“My wife says I watch anything with an English accent”), but he says he began to lose his patience with the English when he discovered that they weren’t eager to cooperate in such a book.

“We think we’re alike. We’re not at all. Not only are they reticent, but they’re deliberate, slow to the point of being ponderous in everything they do. You have to get a decision like ‘Will you give me an interview?’ and they want to think about it for three days, and then after three days, they may call and make an appointment for a fortnight hence. And you don’t have a fortnight hence. You’re sitting in a hotel room freezing to death in February in the Midlands, and you have to try to make the English move.”

“The Blooding” may be notable for its unveiling of a forensic technique likely to make the cerebrations of Sherlock Holmes seem more dated than ever, but it is also another encounter with the blank horror of the sociopathic killer, someone who kills mechanically and without remorse.

Wambaugh has been drawn to sociopaths (the term is synonymous with psychopath) since he traced the lives of Gregory Powell and Jimmy Lee Smith, the Onion Field killers. Sociopaths turn up in his novels as well.

“They have no capacity for love--to give or receive love,” he points out. “More importantly, they have no capacity for guilt. So once you understand them, you can quit making unrealistic assumptions. You have no idea how tired I get of reading in the newspaper that at the sentencing, ‘the defendant showed no remorse.’ Of course, they show no remorse. There’s no remorse in their makeup.”

Colin Pitchfork, after raping and strangling his second victim, went home and baked a cake for his wife. He came from a good family, as did the two convicted killers in “Echoes in the Darkness,” who were, in fact, suburban Philadelphia schoolteachers.

Sociopaths are biologically different from other people, psychiatrists tell us, which is not to say they don’t know right from wrong. Legally, they’re considered sane. “They’re cortically under-aroused and don’t react to punishing stimuli,” explains J. Reid Meloy, author of “The Psychopathic Mind” and chief of forensic mental health services for San Diego County. “We think there’s something wrong with the limbic system of the brain, which is the source of emotion and the ability to bond.”

Wambaugh says: “I’m very interested in the concept of the sociopath--very interested--because my conscience has bothered me all my life. Talk about regrets--I have about 20 every day. I was educated in Catholic schools, and they did that to me. So I have to cope with a conscience all the time. And I’m interested in a creature who has none of that.”

Wambaugh, who is Irish and German, was an altar boy during his early years in East Pittsburgh. He was an only child--his father was a policeman and a steelworker--and came to California with his parents when he was 14.

Despite his Catholic upbringing, Wambaugh doesn’t like to talk about good and evil, especially in connection with a man like Colin Pitchfork.

“I don’t deal with that if you’ll notice. I don’t know about evil and good. I gave up on that a long time ago.”

He recalls when he first became aware of sociopaths as a policeman: “I’d be putting guys away who were going to prison for a long time for doing horrible things. And certain symptoms kept showing themselves.” Excessive manipulation was a common feature. “And I just came to realize in a very fundamental way that these guys were different. But evil didn’t seem to do it for me. I was brought up to believe that evil took some energy in itself. You had to make a conscious choice to do this bad thing.

“But I realized with these guys that they weren’t making choices of any kind. They were doing what came natural to them when they raped, when they killed. That’s when I started looking into this business.”

A Misunderstood Loner

THE VIEW FROM the Wambaughs’ outdoor deck is across lower Newport Bay toward a piece of the coastline where an enormous home is being built right on the water. The sight of the ungainly structure draws a mutter of annoyance from the author, who is dressed in dirty jeans and a black hooded sweatshirt. He leans back in a deck chair and sips from a can of beer.

Joe Wambaugh is usually annoyed--and often angered--by something. His books boil with contempt for the vanities and venalities of Southern California and the world; his soul-bandaged heroes are usually tripping over one moral outrage or another. There are his storied battles with Hollywood--he once took out a full-page ad in Daily Variety excoriating Lorimar Productions and director Robert Aldrich for manhandling his book “The Choirboys.”

His wife, Dee, says he is sometimes misunderstood. “He does march to his own drummer. He’s not usually willing to play along with games and make busywork and meet for lunch to be stroked or do any stroking. He’s very blunt and brings things right out in the open and is very decisive. It’s hard for him to fit into group efforts--like film making. He’s a little different.

“I’m a lot more relaxed and easy and flexible and bendable, and he’s not, but I admire his qualities.”

“She’s the easiest person in the world to get along with,” Wambaugh says of Dee, who grew up the daughter of an ironworker in Claremont. “She likes everyone, and everybody likes her. It’s not the same with me, for sure. She doesn’t worry about anything, and I worry about lots of stuff.”

What has Wambaugh worried right now is lawsuits against nonfiction crime writers like himself. He has yet to lose in court, but the suits have cost him time and money. One suit, in which defense lawyer Irving Kanarek charged that he was unfairly portrayed in “The Onion Field,” went on for 12 years. Wambaugh shakes his head slowly, and his green eyes flare again. “For 12 years, you’re sending checks to a lawyer. It’s unbelievable.

“They get somebody I’ve written about to take a shot at me--these . . . contingency lawyers. The fact is, they have nothing to lose. They sue me, I prevail. I get nothing except legal fees.”

The suit by former San Diego Officer Kenneth Kelly over “Lines and Shadows” was filed in 1984 even though Kelly had signed a so-called personal depiction waiver, as did the other 12 members of the department’s experimental border task force. (All were paid $5,000 to $10,000 for their stories.) Kelly’s suit claims that the author “exaggerated or invented” portions of the book and distorted the facts to make him look “frivolous, flippant and irresponsible toward his job as a law-enforcement officer.”

In the book, Wambaugh described how Kelly and others in the squad routinely sedated themselves after nights of war zone terror with the aid of dizzying amounts of liquor and women other than their wives.

After Kelly’s suit was tossed out by a lower court judge the following year, it was reinstated in 1986 by a state appellate court. It is scheduled to go to trial in September, 1990.

Wambaugh is also being sued by Jay Smith, the Pennsylvania high school principal convicted of murdering a young woman and her two children in Upper Merion Township. Smith, who has never admitted guilt, has taken issue with Wambaugh’s conclusions in “Echoes in the Darkness,” including the author’s description of him as “having a face like an obscene phone call.”

Writers and Pressed Suits

PEOPLE, WAMBAUGH chooses to point out, rarely see themselves as others see them. He warned the San Diego officers in advance: “I’m going to portray you the way I see you after my total investigation, and you might not like it. In fact, I guarantee you that none of you will like everything.”

“When ‘The Blooding’ comes out,” he says, “maybe someone over in Leicestershire will sue me. I don’t know. But I don’t settle. I’m one of the few writers who can afford to fight these things. So I feel an obligation to do it.”

His obligation has extended to testifying on behalf of other writers as well. A year and a half ago, Wambaugh testified for Joe McGinniss, author of “Fatal Vision,” when McGinniss was being sued by Jeffrey MacDonald. MacDonald, the North Carolina doctor convicted of murdering his wife and family, claimed that McGinniss had initially assured him that he believed in MacDonald’s innocence and so had breached their contract when he wrote in his book that MacDonald was guilty.

The case resulted in a hung jury and an out-of-court settlement, a conclusion that Wambaugh considers astonishing and alarming. In the end, only one juror voted for McGinniss.

On the witness stand, Wambaugh explained how, while conducting interviews for “The Onion Field,” he did what many writers and police investigators have done since the beginning of time, which is saying things “that will lubricate the flow of conversation.”

He replays his testimony now: “If I sit down with a subject who’s a manipulative sociopath and a murderer, and he says to me, ‘I’m going to tell you this whole story, but you do believe me when I tell you I never committed any crime, don’t you?’ What am I supposed to say? ‘No, I think you’re a lying sonuvabitch?’ The truth? Of course not. I say something like, ‘It’s very possible’ or ‘I might reserve judgment.’ ”

Wambaugh becomes incensed all over again as he remembers this. One woman on the jury, he recalls, acknowledged that she’d never read a book of any kind.

“I don’t know if those jurors believed Joe McGinniss, William F. Buckley and Joe Wambaugh--but they didn’t like us. They liked that sociopath who slaughtered his family. They didn’t believe he did it,” Wambaugh says. “They looked at that handsome, articulate, Princeton physician, and they said, ‘How can anybody who looks like that slaughter his own little children?’

“Because the average person just does not have any conception of what a sociopath is. None. They can’t conceive that a human being who’s educated and articulate cannot have any conscience. It’s too tough a concept,” he says.

Press accounts in England at the time of Pitchfork’s arrest and conviction looked for signs of evil in the young baker’s eyes and in his smile. In “The Blooding,” Wambaugh seeks to correct such errant notions while explaining that Pitchfork’s startling indifference to the proceedings against him should be understood simply as clinical behavior.

And behavior, oddly enough, that the author says does not make him angry. Colin Pitchfork, he argues, is no worse morally than the next person.

“That’s right. In terms of making moral judgments. I don’t make them. I would be the first one to lock them up if I could convict them of something, realizing that they ain’t gonna get better. They’re not going to get ‘cured.’

“But when I recognize somebody is a sociopath, I stop getting mad at the guy. It’s a clinical definition. He’s fish, and I’m fowl.”

Crimes of the Free

MURDER IS RARE in England contrasted with the United States, where the FBI estimates that there are 350 serial killers at large and where semiautomatic weapons fire is now commonly traded by rival youth gangs.

Joseph Wambaugh, the poet laureate of the police, must have his own thoughts about this, about the solution to sociopaths and gangs and mass murderers, about the steadily increasing cases of predatory violence in the land of baseball and immigrants’ dreams.

He thinks about this a moment and says: “We have an extraordinary amount of freedom. There’s an extraordinary amount of freedom to commit crime. Societies that have less freedom have less crime. We might have to curtail our freedoms to a certain extent. We can’t be so free to do everything we like perhaps. “

As the discovery of genetic fingerprinting turns another page in the Orwellian book of the future, this former cop reads into it only good news.

“Before you and I leave this valley of tears, I assure you that there will be DNA banks. The ACLU will yell about it--they’re already yelling about it, saying it smacks of Big Brotherism and all of that. But you know you can’t stop it. It’s too valuable and important. It’s going to happen. It just eliminates lengthy criminal trials . . . that go on for two years and cost the taxpayers millions of dollars. Guys are already pleading guilty when faced with this, all over America.”

It’s enough to make one of Wambaugh’s mournful cops raise a glass and push back the darkness for another 20 minutes. Man being what he is, maybe you can’t ask for anything more than that. The quality of optimism is necessarily strained. Next case.