Wanted in Indiana

Wanted in Indiana: Infamous Hoosier Fugitives by Andrew E. Stoner is a compendium of crime cataloguing the changing landscape of deviant behavior and law enforcement activity in Indiana.

His book contains 37 accounts of deviant activity over eight decades.

Here's an email Q&A with Stoner, who one might call an undercover author. His day job is teaching communications studies at California State University, Sacramento. On his way to a PhD from Colorado State University, Stoner attended Franklin College and Ball State University in Indiana and held gigs as a newspaper reporter and as a civilian PIO for the Indianapolis Police Department.

RITA KOHN: Over the span of 1920-1999, criminal activity changes from blowing up safes and counterfeiting U.S. currency to drug and hate crimes, and technology changes from wanted posters in post office buildings to television shows airing cold cases.  Throughout, however, is the ability to escape incarceration and go undetected for decades before happenstance connects a person with an unfulfilled sentence. As you were researching what made you do double-takes on how the escape was possible; how living free could go undetected; why in some cases freedom actually led to exemplary living and pardons were given.

ANDREW STONER: Certainly, the type or nature of criminal activity changes as does society. I think our naivety about crime also changes, we get more cynical or more accustomed to criminality as time goes by —  very little surprises us anymore. Across the decades, these stories share the same sense that being on the run from the law is not an easy or enviable life. Those who eluded capture for long periods appear to share one common denominator —  keeping a low profile, a small, even common life, free from continued criminal engagement. That holds true for fugitives who fled far from Indiana, and from those who hid in plain sight, such as the woman who lived for many years within the shadow of the Indiana’s Women’s Prison from which she escaped.

KOHN: Crime reporting is a front-page newspaper reader lure. Alongside is reader disinterest when the case grows cold. Readers move on to the next sensation. What's your take on this phenomenon from your experience as both a newspaper reporter and a police department spokesperson dealing with the media?

STONER: As I noted, I think we’ve become less shocked or surprised that criminal activity is taking place, often right alongside us. As a result, the type of crimes that gather our attention these days are truly shocking and abhorrent in nature. Murders, undoubtedly multiple murders, still capture much attention, as does the cruelty often associated with such crimes. I’m not sure that journalists can ever fully abandon the adage, “if it bleeds, it leads” approach because it remains a proven method by which to draw and keep an audience. It’s also an essential aspect of our society that we can’t ever truly escape.

KOHN: On page 110 you describe the February 7, 1988 television premiere of ‘America's Most Wanted." A cold Indiana case happened to be the first segment. Beyond the straightforward facts you itemize, what did you learn about the producers' choice to open with this 14-year-old story? And, here's a bit of serendipity: The TV show ran for 25 seasons until it was canceled in 2011. Just days before your book arrived in my mailbox, "America's Most Wanted" relaunched on Fox-TV. Any comment on your part? (Full disclosure: I did not watch the program in its first iteration and have not tuned in now.)

STONER: The case of David James Roberts, the first capture of “America’s Most Wanted,” was a made-for-TV story. Everyone associated with Roberts reported how charming and articulate he was, how his violent and evil tendencies seemed rather out of character for him. He was truly a wolf in sheep’s clothing. This may have even contributed to his escape. He not only convinced a co-conspirator to plant a gun for him at the former Wishard Hospital (in order to effect his escape), he may have won over the confidence of prison guards that he was not much of a threat. This is despite the fact that he had killed a family of three and left an infant baby to die on a cold night after violently raping his mother. I watched the reboot of “AMW” and while the technology to recreate “augmented realities” of what fugitives may look like many years after their original capture was impressive, the show seemed to be missing the same edge and excitement it once had when John Walsh was involved. Perhaps they will recapture that excitement as time goes on and if Walsh returns.

KOHN: True crime has been your main genre over your span as a published author.  From what you have observed through your meticulous research, how can we as regular citizens pay closer attention within our families, among our friends, to keep those among us from choosing a way of life that falls within criminal behavior? As a corollary, society seems to sanction building prisons over developing programs to assist families and individuals in gaining ways to live fruitfully. Is there a book in waiting with your insights for how we as a society can move from crime-ridden to citizen/community caring about and for each other through positive interrelationships?

STONER: I am not sure I have any particularly new insights on how to avoid a life of crime, other than what sociologists and criminologists have noted for years. There are many contributing factors, such as substance abuse of all kinds, and early childhood abuse and neglect. Almost every criminal story starts with at least one or both of those elements in place. There are exceptions, however. In more contemporary times, we have focused more on issues of poverty, early mind development and impulse control, and mental illness as serious contributing factors to whether a person not only falls into criminal activity, or is victimized by it. I can recall, by the way, during my years in state government, hearing discussions in social services about data related to absenteeism, tardiness, behavior, and poor academic performance in elementary school-age children. Some experts were suggesting these were predicting factors for what sort of correctional infrastructure would be needed in future decades. I had the reaction of many, how sad that we know what may lead some children to become criminally involved adolescents or adults, but getting people to pay for prevention rather than treatment is extremely difficult.

KOHN: Launching two books during this year-long time of COVID-19 has necessitated a very different paradigm of meeting with the public. Aside from the print reviews [this now is NUVO's second column with your new and newest] what's possible for connecting?

STONER: The pandemic has truly ruined the normal interaction with readers, people I know and those I meet because of one of my books. Book signings are out for now, as are presentations, and it’s just one of the millions of casualties of life we have all endured. I do often hear from readers via email and social media, and that is enjoyable. I’m doing some presentations via Zoom as well. I look forward to the day when I can interact directly with readers —  their reactions to the words I have written are always of interest to me. I’m hopeful that things will get better soon —  and we all might as well catch up on our reading while we socially distance ourselves! 

A big “thank you” for reviewing this book.

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