I have covered war, feeling the zip of bullets overhead, the giant-footstep boom of a mortar landing, the heat of an explosion. I’ve been inside drug dens and on police stakeouts. I have watched two men die in Virginia’s electric chair, seeing the death grip on oak, the smoke rising.
Yet nothing compares to personal encounters with people who have done something so horrible, so evil, that it defies understanding. People who can look you in the eye and describe what it was like to use a high-powered rifle to shoot a stranger in the head, how desperation can lead to animalistic rape, how pedophilic obsession can infect, fester, destroy.
Malvo, a serial killer. Aaron Thomas, a serial rapist. Kevin Ricks, a serial child molester.
Over the past three years, I’ve studied and reported their crimes, reached out to them and engaged them in lengthy conversations. Those depths are dark.
It’s easy to assume that these men are fairly similar: sinister, remorseless, the personification of evil. After all, how else could they have done such things?
Yet, after speaking with them, I know that behind the unforgivable crimes of murder, rape and molestation are three very different men, with distinct motives and rationalizations for doing the unthinkable. They did have one thing in common: They desperately wanted to talk about how their lives had unraveled. They wanted to explain, face to face, how and why they became who they are.
‘I was a
I tried several times to speak to John Allen Muhammad, who orchestrated the 2002 sniper shootings in Maryland, Virginia and the District, before he was put to death in 2009. But he never wrote me back and never granted anyone a real interview.
Malvo, however, responded quickly to my letter last August as I was preparing to write about the 10th anniversary of the killings. Before submitting to a lengthy telephone interview, he wrote to me and asked to meet in person.
After a flight to Tennessee and a drive north into the Virginia mountains, I reached Red Onion State Prison, at the end of a road lined with strip-mining operations and nestled into a picturesque valley. It houses some of Virginia’s worst criminals, but the setting is almost serene.
I was not allowed to bring anything into the visitation room other than the clothes I was wearing. No pens, no pencils, no paper. Upon meeting Malvo, I explained this to him, and he agreed to allow me to quote him from memory, something I am never comfortable doing. I also interviewed him in four separate, recorded telephone calls the following day.