Ultimately, you are an ambulance chaser," Sheila Weller says about writing true-crime books. She ought to know, since for a decade she's chased a succession of figurative (and lucrative) ambulances. Her most recent book, just out from Pocket, is Saint of Circumstance: The Untold Story Behind the Alex Kelly Rape Case: Growing Up Rich and Out of Control, a book that's already prompted new tabloid headlines on the basis of information Weller turned up. Curiously, it's Weller who's seemingly being chased when PW arrives at her apartment with its two-floor living room and high windows overlooking Greenwich Village. She's just had an angry phone call from one of the people she portrays in the book, and she is visibly disturbed. "The thing I hate most is to hurt a source," she says.
Whether she has actually compromised one of her sources or only fears she has is not clear. Nonetheless, she has touched on a vexing problem in true-crime writing -- confidentiality boundaries. She thought she had covered things, she says, by using pseudonyms -- 19 of them -- for the approximately 50 people she interviewed for the Kelly book. One of the parties quoted by name is upset, however, and is making reasonable points to that effect.
Not yet ready to discuss the issue (indeed, eager to drop it completely), Weller suggests leaving the premises. There's construction going on next-door, she explains, but it's apparent that she wants to exit the house for some neutral place, which turns out to be a nearby sandwich shop.
Only when Weller relaxes over a bowl of tomato soup does she begin to chronicle her working methods. In Saint of Circumstance, she has synthesized with impressive thoroughness the complex story of the remorseless Alex Kelly, convicted of a 1986 Darien, Conn., rape only this past June after two trials. Using interviews, testimony and legwork, she nails the unpretty story of a sexually marauding, drug-dealing, former high-school wrestler whose family secretly supported him when he jumped bail in 1987 and escaped to Switzerland where he skied and otherwise enjoyed himself for eight years. She re-creates the drama surrounding his victim, Adrienne Bak Ortolano, who spent a decade in legal pursuit of Kelly and broke her anonymity after the conviction. Weller also integrates the information gleaned from Becky Hahn Nathanson, the Darien policewoman who initially became involved with the case when she spotted Kelly speeding on his motorcycle, flagged him over and then couldn't forget how inexplicably cavalier his parents seemed about his behavior. In researching the case, Weller talked to a sequence of friends, girlfriends and victims who were finally ready to break the silence of a supposedly placid upper-class Connecticut community.
"I'm not afraid to run up big phone bills just calling information,'' Weller says, elaborating on her methods, which, for Saint, included six months of fact-marshaling. "I'm a news-gathering organization," she says, adding that the fast turnaround she faces on these books makes her magazine deadlines seem "luxurious." Once she forges into her work, she spends as much or more time touch-toning -- "cold calls, cold calls!" -- as she does attending trials.
During the second Kelly trial, she recalls, "another journalist said to somebody: 'I thought Sheila Weller was writing a book. Why isn't she in the courtroom every single day?' And I thought, if I had two more months before deadline, sure I would have been at the trial.''
Getting "the story behind it" is something Weller does so proficiently that Pocket has now published three of her books, including Raging Heart: The Intimate Story of the Tragic Marriage of O. J. and Nicole Brown Simpson (1995). After she's committed to a book, Weller throws herself into the exhaustive process, aided by an assistant for scut chores like cutting up transcriptions so that events can be organized chronologically. This is time-consuming work, and the Kelly project was Weller's toughest, more demanding even than Raging Heart. "Darien was a closed-up town," she emphasizes. "The friends of the victims had this pristine case waiting for 11 years,'' and they were reluctant to jeopardize it by talking about it before the trial.
Elaborating on her methods of gathering information, she says: "You get a lot of turn-downs. A hundred people say no, and then one person wants to talk." With Saint, the breakthrough came when she was led to one particular young man. "I was given his name and phone number from somebody who was a tangential source, but he just happened to know a person who was close to -- I don't want to say more than that," she checks herself. "We went to this other man's very funky apartment, and suddenly the curtains started to part. He wanted the story told. I started hearing names and I kept saying, 'Who's that?'"
With these new leads, Weller turned up two more rape victims and one woman who had broken free before Kelly could harm her. As it happened, prosecutors had never uncovered this evidence of Kelly's other crimes, and it's this material that adds punch to Weller's narrative and that earned her the lead story in the Oct. 3 issue of New York magazine.
Policewoman Nathanson, whose interest in Kelly continued after their first encounter, proved crucial. "When I got to Becky I really knew I was in there," Weller says. She mentions that there is a "hero cop" in all her books, which include Marrying the Hangman: A True story of Privilege, Marriage and Murder (Random, 1992) and Amy Fisher: My Story (Pocket, 1992), which she coauthored with Amy Fisher, the notorious "Long Island Lolita" who shot the wife of her lover J y Buttafuoco. "I like cops," says Weller.
"Obviously, there are corrupt cops in this world, but the majority who aren't really see the worst that has happened in the story you're trying to get. And there's an earnestness of presentation. When you do this kind of book, you're accustomed to interviewing people who love to put themselves more deeply in the drama than they really are. Cops are just the opposite."
Now that she's finished writing about him, Weller notices that her attitude toward Kelly has changed somewhat. "I'm thin-skinned for the work I do," she confesses. When she was "dredging up really unpleasant stuff," she was angry that Kelly was getting away with it. Once Kelly was convicted, she says, she found herself feeling rather sorry for him. "What I think happens is that you really do feel that you caused the conviction. I'm saying that with a smile. I'm saying that it's a totally irrational thing."
Melodrama Began at Home
Writing high-profile exposes was not Weller's original career plan. She was raised in Los Angeles as one of two daughters of Helen Weller, a Hollywood reporter whose neurosurgeon husband left the marriage in a turn of events so lurid that it might have sprung from one of Weller's own books. He had an affair with Weller's aunt and the situation led to a face-off on the Wellers' front lawn: after her uncle aimed a gun at her father, the latter suffered a heart attack. Weller -- eventually disinherited by her father because, at 12, she took her mother's side -- admires her mother, whose last job was filing National Enquirer copy.
Weller didn't set out to follow in her mother's footsteps. Although she admits inheriting from her parents "a natural sense of melodrama," she went to Berkeley to study sociology and anthropology before becoming a writer. "If you came from L.A. and you went to the Bay Area," she reports, "you didn't want to do anything showbizzy, anything slick. You were coming from a very discredited world with pink telephones... the thing to do was to become an academic."
Instead, Weller came to New York where, in the late 1960s and early '70s, she says, "it was hipper to be a waitress than a writer." While slinging hash, she got assignments from the alternative magazine Eye and eventually graduated to slicks, where she wrote celebrity cover stories for women's magazines and a novel called Hansel and Gretel in Beverly Hills, which agent Elaine Markson took to Morrow in 1978. During this period, she also covered feminist issues for Ms. -- not, she says, because she was driven to but because "that's what's out there to do. Women talk about themselves a lot." In 1981, she married writer John Kelly (currently working on a medical procedural), the next year had a son, Jonathan Daniel, and soon became "a nursery mom."
Then she virtually tripped over her first true crime book, Marrying the Hangman, in which she reconstructed events surrounding the murder of Greenwich Village mother Diane Pikul by her husband, Joseph, who, in a bizarre turn of events, was granted custody of the children.
Weller's best friend, another nursery mom, was also a good friend of Diane Pikul, and Weller had been hearing about the Pikul family troubles for some time. "Suddenly, "she recalls, "I'm in the middle of this melodrama of Diane's murder. We formed this little committee to protect the kids before I even thought of writing about it."
After Weller wrote a piece for Ms. on the custody issues raised by the Pikul case, she was asked to collaborate with another writer on expanding it into a book. The attempted match was not successful. When Weller learned that the other writer intended to continue with the project without her participation, she was galvanized into action. "I got my knives out and decided that this was my story,'' she recalls. She sent her proposal to agent Ellen Levine, who sold the book to Joni Evans at Random House, where Susan Kamil edited it.
At the time, Weller was writing a novel she was reluctant to put down, but she soon realized that crime would be her metier. When, in 1993, the editors at Pocket Books asked her to be co-writer with Amy Fisher, she regarded the offer as "a dream assignment." Now that she "has a little distance on it," she doesn't like listing the tell-all book among her credits. "When you say Amy Fisher, it's like a punch line. People laugh.'' She admits to "euphemizing" to protect the Fisher family. She remains grateful to Fisher herself, however, for "being very honest with me. She said, '[The shooting] was my idea. J y went along with it, but I came up with it.' " Weller has fewer kind words for O.J. Simpson, whose story she undertook because she felt proprietary about the Los Angeles she knew. "I think it's pretty clear he committed those murders," she says.
With four true-crime books behind her, Weller is not sure that she will keep writing in the genre. Yet it's likely that publishers will continue to approach her for similar assignments. She is enthusiastic about working with Ellen Levine, of whom she reiterates the sentiments she has included in the acknowledgments of every book: "When you're talking to her, it's like you're her only client." Weller is just as pleased with her editor, Nancy Miller and the staff at Pocket Books, which she dubs the "M.A.S.H. unit," for its crash production methods.
Whether by design or chance, Weller's books have a unifying theme: the victimization of women by men. "I would love to find a story to break this paradigm," she observes. "Here's what I'm comfortable saying. I think I write pro-victim books. If I could write a pro-victim story where the man was the victim, that would be very interesting."
Being exposed to some very seamy characters seems not to have dampened Weller's outlook on human nature. Just as she denies that she has ever wrestled internally with the traumatic scenes of her childhood, she claims not to have been affected by the subjects of her books.
"I don't think of them as sordid,'' she says. "Maybe this is my own defensiveness. Sometimes, these crimes are grisly, but to me the story is also about the people who are near these people, and how these things can develop in a very normal social milieu. And they all do."