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The Serial Killer Whisperer: How One Man's Tragedy Helped Unlock the Deadliest Secrets of the World's Most Terrifying Killers

The Serial Killer Whisperer: How One Man's Tragedy Helped Unlock the Deadliest Secrets of the World's Most Terrifying Killers

3.8 16
by Pete Earley

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From New York Times bestselling author Pete Earley—the strange but true story of a man who suffers a traumatic brain injury and as a result is given the ability to converse with the world’s most terrifying criminals.

After suffering a horrific head injury, fifteen-year-old Tony Ciaglia discovered he could no longer control his emotions or social


From New York Times bestselling author Pete Earley—the strange but true story of a man who suffers a traumatic brain injury and as a result is given the ability to converse with the world’s most terrifying criminals.

After suffering a horrific head injury, fifteen-year-old Tony Ciaglia discovered he could no longer control his emotions or social responses and found himself incapable of feeling disgust at the antisocial behavior of others. Eventually therapy and medication helped Tony largely overcome his emotional instability, and when his therapist suggested he develop a hobby, Tony acted on a whim and wrote to an imprisoned serial killer. To his astonishment, the killer wrote back.

Tony’s hobby eventually turned into a full-blown obsession, and soon he was corresponding with dozens of serial killers who revealed heinous details about their horrendous crimes—even those they’d never been convicted of. The killers opened up to Tony; they trusted him, considered him a friend. Unable to feel disgust at the revolting stories, Tony began to fear that the potential for killing without guilt lurked within him, and he became suicidal. Ultimately, Tony found redemption and purpose by helping law enforcement officials solve crimes his connection uncovered, and before long, investigators from around the country were calling on him for assistance with cold cases.

The Serial Killer Whisperer is not only the story of how Tony learned to use his gift in the interest of justice, but it is also an inspiring—albeit sometimes terrifying—tale of healing and closure for a man who has struggled to lead a normal life.

Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly
Tony Ciaglia’s life changed forever when a traumatic brain injury at 15 left him uninhibited and struggling to control his temper and emotions. Searching for a way to connect, Tony turned to the unlikeliest of pastimes: writing letters to serial killers. Edgar winner Earley (Comrade J) intersperses Tony and his family’s continuing struggles to adjust to life as a TBI survivor with excerpts from Tony’s pen-pal correspondence. While he received letters from over 30 killers, his primary communications were with Arthur Shawcross, Joseph Metheny, and David Gore. Shawcross and Metheny describe in lurid detail the pleasure they derived in raping, torturing —and often eating—their prostitute victims. Tony’s brain injury made it impossible for him to judge the convicts’ heinous actions and the closer he became to his “best friends,” the more convinced Tony became that he could help bring closure to families by drawing out details from the killers about unsolved cases. While Tony’s recovery story is inspiring, the sheer amount of graphic sexual sadism and violence is overwhelming: the warning “not for the faint of heart” is an understatement. (Jan.)
From the Publisher
"For [listeners] of true crime and psychology and others interested in the workings of the brain." —Library Journal
Library Journal
Earley (Crazy: A Father's Search Through America's Mental Health Madness) here tells the story of Tony Ciaglia, an average 15-year-old boy whose life was tragically transformed after he suffered a traumatic brain injury (TBI) while operating a Jet Ski. After the accident, Tony's TBI caused him to become easily obsessed, and when he stumbled across information about a serial killing case online, he soon initiated correspondence with dozens of convicted serial killers, who also exhibited feelings of isolation and rage. Curiously, his therapist condoned the letter writing. His hobby became an obsession that continued well into his thirties, and he meticulously maintained a scrapbook of each killer's letters, even visiting some of them in prison. The effects of Tony's TBI—being both totally tolerant and obsessive compulsive—helped him gain their trust and listen without judgment to the sordid details of their murderous sprees, including torture, rape, murder, and cannibalization. He was then able to help police detectives with their investigations, bring closure to the mother of a missing child, and ultimately find a purpose in life. VERDICT For readers of true crime and psychology and others interested in the workings of the brain.—Krista Bush, Shelton Public Sch. Lib., CT
Kirkus Reviews
A highly disturbing, in-depth look at notorious serial killers. As a young Texan, Tony Ciaglia enjoyed a rambunctious childhood, but a near-fatal jet-ski accident left him comatose at 15. Suffering from brain damage, he was prone to angry rages, depression and obsessions, such as one with an Internet site advertising serial killer "murderabilia." After intensive research and with his therapist's blessing, Ciaglia mailed 41 introductory letters to—and received responses from—a laundry list of killers, including "Cross Country Killer" Glen Rogers, who meticulously described the details of his first murder. Regular communication emerged from the best of the worst: child rapist and cannibal Arthur Shawcross, neurotic sexual sadist David Alan Gore and Joseph Metheny, a career murderer who unremorsefully "enjoyed" the butchering and necrophilic molestation of women. Investigative journalist Earley (Comrade J, 2008, etc.) documents Ciaglia's intensive interplay with a brilliant combination of scrutiny and unobtrusive narration, allowing the verbatim letters to do the book's grisly spadework. The letters incrementally ramp up to reveal the killers' shockingly intimate secrets, including stories of their traumatic childhoods, admitted details on abandoned case files, specific directions to shallow graves and the grotesquely detailed procedurals of a kill. Ciaglia's involvement with these killers, many of whom were sympathetic to his plight, escalated to penitentiary visits, the attempted exhumation of unrecovered remains and, finally, assistance with police investigators working on cold cases. Definitely not for the faint of heart, this as a macabre, stomach-turning glimpse at true crime's most evil villains.

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Read an Excerpt

The Serial Killer Whisperer

  • July 23, 1992

    A half-dozen boys running barefoot down an embankment into a cove at Possum Kingdom Lake. It was shortly after four o’clock. The afternoon temperature had just peaked at 93.9 degrees. Unlike most man-made reservoirs in Texas, which were muddy, the water in this twenty-thousand-acre playground was clear blue. It was home to Camp Grady Spruce, a popular YMCA getaway about a hundred miles west of Dallas.

    Tony Ciaglia, Andy Page, and Grant Cooper were among the first to reach the Yamaha WaveRunner jet-ski there. The boys had met three years ago when they were assigned to bunks in the same tent. They had been inseparable ever since. Best buds forever.

    This was the first summer the camp had owned WaveRunners, and anything fast and exciting was a welcome respite at the conservative religious outpost, which traced its roots to 1949. Only in the last nine years had girls been permitted to attend the camp’s two-week sessions. The boys formed a line behind the WaveRunner and with a twist of the throttle, the WaveRunner’s powerful 650-cc engine roared to life. The first rider burst from the cove, sending a rooster spray rocketing from the tail of the red and white machine.

    “Tony’s counselor had the day off,” Chris would later recall, “but it was hot and the boys wanted to take a WaveRunner out onto the lake, so they asked another counselor. He gave them the key and then disappeared, leaving them unsupervised.”

    WaveRunners were supposed to be ridden only as far as a red buoy bobbing about two hundred yards offshore. After reaching the buoy, the rider returned to shore to let someone else take a turn. Andy was next in line with Tony and Grant behind him. But as the WaveRunner was returning to the cove, Andy yelled to a younger camper named David standing on the dock close to them. He was waiting to go waterskiing. Andy asked David if he wanted to switch places.

    David did. He jumped into the lake and got to the head of the line at about the same time as the returning WaveRunner. He climbed aboard the WaveRunner and took off.

    As the others waited in the waist-deep water for their turn, Grant splashed Tony and asked, “Have you asked her yet?”

    “When we get done here,” Tony replied, smiling.

    “You’d better hurry up.”

    Tony had a crush on Kelly Christiansen, a fellow fifteen-year-old from Dallas. Blond. Cute. He wanted to take her to the Friday night dance, the last social event before camp ended. Unfortunately, so did Andy. They’d been competing for her affections while Grant played the neutral friend, watching amused from the sidelines.

    Tony had first noticed Kelly last summer, but she’d not shown any interest in him or any other boys. Tony had promised himself that this summer would be different. He’d searched for her as soon as his family pulled into the Southern Methodist University parking lot twelve days earlier. It was where campers boarded commercial buses hired to transport kids in Dallas to the camp. Seats in the buses were assigned alphabetically. Because “Ciaglia” followed “Christiansen,” Tony had known Kelly would be sitting near him. He’d get an uninterrupted, two-hour head start over Andy.

    Tony had been so eager to talk to Kelly that he’d scooped up his gear from the back of the family’s Plymouth minivan and started running across the SMU parking lot without saying goodbye to his parents or Joey, his kid brother, three years younger. Joey also was going to camp—but at a different site.

    Once inside the bus, Tony slipped into his assigned seat and immediately leaned forward to speak to Kelly. That’s when he heard someone rapping on the bus window. Everyone did. It was Al, signaling Tony to come outside.

    Tony trudged down the aisle, and when he got outside, his parents—both Al and Chris—hugged and kissed him. Tony was totally humiliated. He could feel all of the kids inside the bus watching him. He wanted to yell, “My dad’s Italian, okay? That’s what Italian families do! They kiss and hug whenever they say hello or goodbye.” Just like in The Godfather.

    He’d returned to his seat red-faced, without saying a word.

    Despite that rocky start, this summer had been Tony’s best. He, Andy, and Grant were CITs, counselors in training. The younger kids looked up to them. It was their year to be the cool, older kids who taught the newbies the camp’s traditions.

    Waiting for his turn on the WaveRunner, Tony appeared to be a teenager who had, as Texans liked to put it, “life by the horns.” He’d won more gold medals that week than anyone else in a camp Olympics. Even better, he’d sat next to Kelly several nights during dinner.

    Molly Ray, another camper swimming in the lake, noticed Tony and Grant waiting in line for the WaveRunner to return. She thought it was odd because campers were supposed to sign their names on a clipboard the night before if they wanted to ride a WaveRunner. She began swimming toward the boys to claim a turn.

    Because Tony was facing Grant in the water, he had his back to the lake and didn’t see the WaveRunner as it rounded the red buoy and began racing back toward the cove. But other kids did. The WaveRunner’s young driver was not slowing down. David apparently planned to make a sharp turn at the last possible second and splash the older boys with the wake.

    But the young driver had overestimated his skills. He couldn’t accomplish the maneuver as planned.

    Grant Cooper looked up from the water just as the WaveRunner smacked into the back of Tony’s skull.

    “It whacked him hard,” Cooper said later. “He took the brunt of it. I tried to duck and turn, but it hit me on the side of my head and I went under.”

    Molly Ray would still remember the scene years later. “I saw this flash—this huge thing—suddenly shoot by me as I was swimming. The next thing I noticed was bright red in the water and, I thought, ‘Oh my God! That’s blood. That’s blood in the water. Oh my God! That’s from the WaveRunner and it almost hit me.’”

    Grazed on the side of his head, Grant Cooper next remembered waking up on the shore. “I don’t remember getting out of the water or how I got to the shoreline, but when I came to, I was walking around in circles and people were yelling at me because my head was bleeding. I had a gash on the side of my head and a concussion.”

    Grant looked for Tony. “He was floating facedown in the water where we’d been standing. People were rushing to drag him out. I remember thinking, ‘Oh shit! Tony’s not moving. I think he’s dead!’”

  • What People are Saying About This

    From the Publisher
    "For [listeners] of true crime and psychology and others interested in the workings of the brain." —Library Journal

    Meet the Author

    Pete Earley, a former reporter for The Washington Post, is the author of eight works of nonfiction, including the bestsellers The Hot House and Family of Spies and the multi-award-winning Circumstantial Evidence.

    Audie Award finalist Alan Sklar has narrated nearly two hundred audiobooks and has won several AudioFile Earphones Awards.

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    Serial Killer Whisperer 3.8 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 16 reviews.
    motor2me More than 1 year ago
    As a retired big city homicide investigator who worked as the OIC on three serial killer investigations in which the perpetrators were apprehended, including John Eric Armstrong mentioned in the first chapter, the title intrigued me enough to purchase it. I appreciate and applaud the remarkable comeback from his injuries, however, I must confess corresponding with serial killers would not be the route I would let my TBI son to indulge in. First off, they are notorious liars. I think any reader familiar with this subject would recognize from the first letters how self-absorbing and evil they really are. And the description of their sexcapades? Come on, obviously false and maybe titillating to a TBI victim, but certainly not to any rational person let alone parents who would keep there child involved in such obvious garbage. How could his mother allow such descriptions of sex and death continue to inundate this kid, much less sit around the kitchen table for all to hear with no one objecting? Please..... Also, who dreamed up "Psycho Sailor" for John Armstrong? Certainly no one here in Detroit. And just one mention of him and nothing later on in the book? My feeling is that this was dangerous territory for a TBI victim but hopefully he will move on to more rewarding adventures in life. As for the book, poorly written. Sorry I spent my money.
    Anonymous More than 1 year ago
    I liked this book, it is very graphic though.
    102102 More than 1 year ago
    What an amazing true story. Such an emotional roller coaster. It's a book you must get. You have to read it to believe it. It's one of those stories that if someone told you, you wouldn't believe it.
    donnareads911 More than 1 year ago
    Reads like a horror novel, but horribly true and very unsettling. Although not a way I would choose to deal with the issue with my child, the full circle and ending is justifiable. Intense insight into a killers' mind. Truely, not a place I care to go again. Read - but with caution!
    Pilatus More than 1 year ago
    Well done and a glimpse into the twisted minds of some pathetic individuals.
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    Anonymous More than 1 year ago
    Excellant book, its a must read for true crime buffs
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    Milagro54 More than 1 year ago
    Not anything like I expected. I finished the book in hopes of finding something interesting but that never happened.