Only his readers know for sure... and he has plenty
By Robert Downes 5/4/09
By day, Glenn Puit spends his time as an environmental reporter, sifting through reams of boilerplate reports and conducting interviews with bureaucrats and eco-activists to promote a greener world. But at night, chances are youll find him wading knee-deep through the bloody history of the Las Vegas underworld -- a place where psychopaths present a smiling face to the world, yet roil with killer impulses; a world where upstanding citizens and pillars of the community set their colleagues on fire in the desert, or bash the brains out of their loved-ones.
Why and how does Puit manage to live in this Jekyll and Hyde universe of good and evil? Because as an impassioned crime writer and journalist, Glenn Puit has set a modest goal for himself: My dream is to be number one on the New York Times bestseller list, he says. In order to do that, you have to set your sights extremely high. It would mean selling tens of thousands of books in a single week.
And thats not implausible, because Puit has already sold tens of thousands of books in the nonfiction true crime genre. Books like Witch, a harrowing tale of murder and satanism which has sold 48,000 copies; or his forthcoming book, In Her Prime, about the murder of Nevadas most powerful female politician, which his publisher, Berkley Books, expects to become a national bestseller.
These, and two other books, Fire in the Desert and Father of the Year, have made Puit a rising star in the world of true crime literature. In fact, a blogger on a literary website recently gave him the highest possible accolade: The King of True Crime.
Probing the sleazy underworld of Las Vegas is a far cry from Puits day job, which involves reporting on environmental issues for the Michigan Land Use Institute (MLUI) through its Great Lakes Bulletin News Service. (One of his recent stories, Coal Controversy, about a proposed electrical power plant in Rogers City, ran in the March 9 issue of Northern Express.)
Hes literally all over the map, living in the Houghton-Hancock area in the Upper Peninsula with his wife and kids, while working out of the MLUI offices in downtown Traverse City. Meanwhile, his thoughts are often 1,700 miles to the southwest in Sin City.
But Puit has one foot in both worlds. Before moving to Northern Michigan, he spent 12 years as a police beat reporter with the Las Vegas Review-Journal, covering violent crime and homicides.
Most people in Michigan dont know my background, but when I left Las Vegas, I was probably the top hard news reporter in the city, he says, adding that he earned awards as the citys top print reporter on two occasions.
I covered the police, the district courts, and almost exclusively the capital murder trials of Las Vegas, Puit says. That included two quadruple-murders and the death of Tupac Shakur, among others.
That kind of emotionally-draining slog through the pits of human behavior has left Puit with a brass-armored outlook on his profession: Im someone who believes in the power of journalism to effect change, he says. I believe its the most honorable trade: standing up for the victims of violent crime, but also standing up for those whove been falsely accused and convicted.
THE BACK STORY
Puit spent 17 years in hard news reporting before moving to Northern Michigan. Born and raised in the Finger Lakes area of upstate New York, he earned his degree in journalism from Indiana State University and inadvertently stumbled upon his dharma as an author.
The path I took to writing books was something I never dreamed about, he says. I came to books through journalism.
His first big break involved a tie-in to the Oklahoma City Bombing of 1995. Back then, he was working his first job as a police beat reporter for the Morning News, a small-town daily in Florence, South Carolina.
At the time, there was a big mystery as to who was John Doe #2 in the bombing, he recalls. Everyone knew that Timothy McVeigh had been captured, but no one knew who his accomplice was.
One of his sources in law enforcement said that the suspected John Doe #2 lived in Florence. So I went and knocked on the door of his trailer, and his wife said, Yes indeed, hes my husband.
Puits story identified Todd Bunting as the man who accompanied McVeigh to a Ryder Truck rental shop in Kansas. The truck was loaded with a fertilizer bomb and detonated next to the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building, killing 168 and injuring more than 800 -- the biggest act of terrorism in America this side of 9/11.
Puits small-town newspaper story rocketed to national prominence and was reprinted in newspapers such as the Los Angeles Times and aired on the evening news with Peter Jennings. It also earned a laudatory piece in the American Journalism Review.
That acclaim led to a prestigious post at Las Vegas biggest daily newspaper, where Puit spent the next 12 years learning everything there is to know about cops and criminals.
Why does Puit write true crime thrillers about Las Vegas instead of his new home in Michigan?
I know the city well and spent a lot of time there. Another reason is that people are fascinated with Las Vegas -- it has an incredible history and its easier to market books about the city to publishers.
It helps that Las Vegas is literally writhing with twisted crime stories and Puit can pick and choose from among dozens of gruesome cases and demented killers hes covered. He already has a fifth and sixth book up for consideration.
And unlike many true crime writers who are basically amateurs, Puit has literally been there in terms of having spent years as a police and courts reporter. Hes covered cases like that of a cabbie who was robbed and then doused with gasoline and set on fire; and a quadruple murder shotgun rampage; or the case of a mistaken identity in drug robbery that resulted in the murder of several 16 and 17-year-olds.
People dont understand what an emotionally difficult thing it is to go to work each day and go to to court to cover this kind of thing, he says. Ive been witness to some of the more abhorrent criminal behavior trials that you can imagine.
That compost of criminality has proved a rich soil for bestselling stories.
His first book, Witch, for instance, put Puit on the track of a satanic killer named Brookey Lee West -- a person who believed she had the gift of premonition and could cast magic spells.
I knew early on that this was a very interesting case, he says. It started with a discovery in a storage shed in Vegas and something that smelled really bad. They found a 67-year-old woman entombed in a garbage can with books on satanism scattered around.
The investigation turned up Brookey Lee West, a successful Silicon Valley tech writer who was raised in a crazy family.
Her dad was a high priest in the satanic religion and her mom had spent 11 years in prison for killing her own mother... The interesting thing is, I wasnt sure that I wanted to write this book at first. I covered the trial and looked at the photos and the hair stood up on the back of my neck.
When a colleague suggested that the case would make a great book, Puit decided to spend $5,000 of his own money and a year of his life researching the case and interviewing people all over California.
But that was only half of the effort: I learned that to get published nationally, you cant do it without a (literary) agent, he says. I spent months preparing a book proposal.
You might think that a police reporter with 12 years experience in Las Vegas and a sure-fire story would get the red carpet from publishers, but that wasnt the case. Six publishers passed on Witch before Berkley Books accepted his manuscript after a bidding war with an eighth publisher.
The end result was a real barn-burner of a book and a fascinating study of how someone becomes capable of killing their mother, Puit says.
UPS & DOWNS
Since then, Puit has had a masters-level class in the foibles of publishing. His second book, Fire in the Desert, was about two drug-addled fitness celebrities who incinerated their assistant in a Nevada car fire. A small publisher sold 7,000 copies of the book, which Puit says is a good showing at that level, but not what he aspires to.
Unless youre getting your book in every Barnes & Noble and Borders store in the country, youre nowhere. And at most youve got two to four weeks to do well with sales or youre dead.
Fortunately, he now has a track record, and readers who like the true crime genre are fiercely loyal, especially once they find an author they like. Puit has also had some interest from Hollywood in filming Witch. His name is getting out there and he has a new book coming out in November, with other projects in development.
Given all that, what brought him to Northern Michigan?
It was mentally and physically exhausting being a reporter in Las Vegas and I had two children and wanted to do something different, he says. So I took some money from my book sales and decided to invest in real estate.
He and his wife, Tina Lee, discovered the Upper Peninsula and built a house on Lake Superior and brought their kids, Garrison, Glenn Jr., and Gracie Lee to a new life in the north. Literally from the first time we came to Northern Michigan it seemed awesome -- spectacular. I decided with my wife that we wanted to raise our children in Northern Michigan. I wanted them to have the kind of life I grew up with.
The offer of an investigative reporting job at the MLUI clinched the move for the Puits. Today, his work is highly respected in the environmental community, reporting on issues spanning hundreds of miles across the state.
But the holy grail for Puit is to write a true crime thriller on par with Truman Capotes In Cold Blood (about the murder of a Kansas farm family by two drifters) or to see Witch transformed into a film along the lines of Monster, which starred Charlize Theron as a serial-killer prostitute.
And not just that, but the work he aspires to is that of pure journalism, using his words, facts and reporting skills with the precision of a scalpel to draw blood on the page of his books.
The true crime genre has been marginalized by a number of sensationalist publications, Puit notes. But my books involve real journalism, and thats what makes them popular. In Cold Blood, for instance is one of the most compelling books out there; it has an ability to move the reader because its true.
Its the kind of quest that drives him to work from 10 p.m. to 2 a.m. every night, seeking the one big book that looms ever closer.
Ive yet to hit the bestseller list, but its been a good year for me and when that day comes, I will feel successful in this endeavor. As Ive gotten better at this, Ive come to realize that the skys the limit. A blogger recently referred to me as the king of true crime and it made me think theres a real possibility that I could dominate this field.
Meet Glenn Puit in person at his book signing: Friday, May 8 at Horizon Books, downtown Traverse City, from 7-9 p.m. He also has a Petoskey book signing: Tuesday, June 2, from 1-3 p.m. at McLean & Eakin, 307 E. Lake Street, Petoskey. The events kick off a series of book signings across the country. On May 9, hell be at a prominent book store in Chicago.
A Crime Writers Caseload
Heres the rundown on Glenn Puits literary output in the true crime genre, with some thoughts on the killers hes interviewed:
The story of Brookey Lee West, a Silicon Valley tech writer who was a self-proclaimed witch, raised in a satan-worshipping family. Wests dysfunctional life led her to kill her own mother, whose body she stuffed in a garbage can.
She was clearly mentally ill. The first time I met her, she was charismatic and provocative. The second time she was bizarre and not right, and the third time completely crazy -- manic with delusions.
Fire in the Desert:
Fitness guru and Mr. Olympia contestant Craig Titus and Kelly Ryan, Miss Fitness USA, were among the most respected members of the health and fitness community in the nation... until they bound and gagged their 28-year-old personal assistant and set her on fire in the trunk of a Jaguar out in the desert.
They were two incredibly successful people in the health profession who flipped out on drugs.
Father of the Year:
Vegas businessman Bill Rundle was just an ordinary, upstanding citizen. Hed even been named the citys Father of the Year, based on an essay written by his 11-year-old son before his tragic death in an auto accident. But behind the mask was a psychopathic killer who built a life on a web of lies.
Bill Rundle was one of the most intelligent people I ever met, but he applied all of that intelligence to scamming people and ripping them off. He killed his wife (and perhaps his elderly mother) but we talked for eight hours and I walked out of there thinking, what a nice guy. He was a very charming and likable individual.
In Her Prime:
The Murder of a Political Star
Kathy Augustine was a housewife who ran for political office in Nevada. She wound up being the states highest-ranking female politician and a candidate for the U.S. Department of Treasury... until she was poisoned to death by her husband, a critical care unit nurse. (To be published in November.)
Her husband was filled with hatred for his wife and used a drug thats extremely hard to detect.