A poet reinvents the true-crime potboiler -- and finds herself featured on '48 Hours'
In "Jane: A Murder," poet Maggie Nelson (right) explains her rationale for writing a true-crime book about the 1969 killing of her aunt (left) that doesn't focus on the killer: "It is Jane's murder / that interests me. / His crimes do not."
THROUGHOUT HER childhood, Maggie Nelson knew her aunt Jane had been murdered in 1969, four years before she herself was born, but the subject was never discussed. She didn't know any of the details, other than that the crime was eventually attributed to a serial killer convicted of the ''Michigan Murders" in 1970.
''I felt very haunted by it," says the Los Angeles-based Nelson, author of two previous poetry collections. As a grad student at City University of New York in the '90s, she started researching the case. Her aunt had disappeared one March evening while finishing her first year of law school at the University of Michigan. She was found the next day laid out on top of a grave in a nearby cemetery, carefully covered with a raincoat, her shoes and her dog-eared copy of ''Catch-22" placed neatly beside her. She'd been shot twice in the head.
The result of Nelson's research was ''Jane: A Murder" (Soft Skull Press), published last spring, which melds the true-crime potboiler with serious poetry to produce an entirely new and complex story - one that focuses not on the titillating facts and morbid pathologies found in mass-market true-crime paperbacks, but on Jane's life before her murder, the decades-long aftermath of the crime, and nagging questions about what actually happened that night.
Ironically, just as Nelson finished the book, new evidence and a new suspect emerged in the 35-year-old case. Which is how she found herself in the unique position of being filmed reading her poetry for a special report on the case by CBS's ''48 Hours" that will be broadcast next Saturday. (A&E's ''Cold Case Files" is also producing a show about the case to be broadcast early next year.)
There were many reasons for writing ''Jane," Nelson said in a recent interview. For one thing, she found it painful to read true-crime melodramas about the case, such as ''The Michigan Murders" (1976), which had as a subtitle ''The true story of the savage coed killings - by the boy that could have lived next door."
''Most of these stories focus on the horrific act and person who committed them but don't have anything to do with the life before," she said. ''I wanted to use poetry as a means of transferring what happened into something that wasn't exploitative, something more personal that takes the story back from the tabloids."
Nelson found no previous models for her endeavor, and noted that ''poetry's a hard medium for delivering information." To solve that, ''Jane" opens with four harrowing prose pieces imagining her aunt's reaction after being shot. She also uses a collage of cultural sources, high and low, from William James and Virginia Woolf to true-crime books to gritty newspaper accounts of the killing to Jane's own diary.
Just as ''Jane" was headed to the printer last fall, the Michigan State Police called Nelson and told her that her aunt's case had been reopened. It seems that DNA from Gary E. Leiterman, one of the first felons to take the state's newly mandatory DNA test, matched samples found on Jane's clothes.
But the DNA results created an even bigger mystery. Police actually found DNA from two people on Nelson's aunt's body, the second being a drop of blood on the back of Jane's hand that was matched to John David Ruelas, a man currently serving a life sentence for killing his own mother-but who was only 4 years old on the night of Jane's murder. Exactly how that happened is unclear, but jurors found enough evidence to convict Leiterman.
''The case is solved, but there are still a lot of questions," says Detective Sergeant Eric Schroeder, who has been working the case for the Michigan State Police for the past decade.
Nelson agrees. ''When I'd finished, I thought I'd put the story between two covers and into some sort of container," she says. ''But life itself always exceeds those containers."
Christopher Dreher is a writer living outside of Boston. E-mail email@example.com.