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Tuesday, March 04, 2008

A Q&A with Investigative Journalist and Author M. William Phelps

If Looks Could Kill: Money, Marriage, Adultery and... Murder by M. William Phelps

On June 16, 2001, a motorcyclist drove up to Jeff Zack's car, parked outside of BJ's Wholesale Club in Akron, Ohio, and shot him in the face. Although the shooting took place in broad daylight and in view of many witnesses, police were unable to make an arrest for nearly a year. Zack led a messy life, and had more than a few enemies. However, when the circumstances surrounding Zack's death began to unravel, police discovered a trail of deception, manipulation, and betrayal.

Zack had been involved in a long-term affair with wealthy Akron socialite Cindy Rohr-George, the wife of a restaurant owner and mother of seven. George was eventually arrested for conspiring to kill Zack with John Zaffino, also her lover. However, the wild testimony that emerged during the trial, and its shocking outcome still have Akron reeling.

M. William Phelps, investigative journalist and author of Murder in the Heartland and Lethal Guardian, conducted over 100 interviews and studied police reports connected with the case. In If Looks Could Kill, he cuts through the sensationalized myths surrounding the case -- gun smuggling, drug dealing, and domestic abuse, for starters -- to discover the truth.

Phelps was kind enough to chat with me via email about his research for the book, upcoming projects, and the dangers of cybersleuthing. The insights he shares about the case, and about everything else, are incredibly interesting.

This is a case where what is known, or what is thought to be known, has been constantly changing since Jeff Zack's murder, nearly seven years ago. At what point did you begin to follow the story, and what in particular interested you about it?

Actually, the facts have stayed pretty much the same throughout. It’s the interpretation of them through the media and the Georges which beckons confusion for everyone. But the case itself has never changed. This was a classic whodunit.

In my author’s note, I talk about how I became involved. Without giving it all away: I was on an Ohio radio show promoting Murder in the Heartland in 2006 when this story—and a very important source—literally dropped into my lap. (There’s always someone out there that wants to get the truth out!) What interested me about this story at that early stage was the fact that when you look at it, you’d think the logical way for this to unfold would have been: Cindy George, beautiful wife of a wealthy (much older) restaurateur, mother of seven kids, becomes bored with her life, finds a lover and together they murder the husband and take off with his money. That is a classic true crime plot (something Ann Rule, in other words, would be all over).

But that’s not what happens here, as you know. The story unfolds quite a bit differently from the norm. This hooked me right away. I am always looking for classic cases with a special twist that changes the entire dynamic of everything and everyone involved. And let’s be honest: whenever you have good looking rich people in a suburban setting, adultery, steamy sex, drugs, guns, murder and two trials, you’ve got one heck of a true crime case that is very marketable. And what most budding authors in this genre don’t understand is, marketing is a major part of choosing cases (which is another conversation all together, maybe for another time).

Regardless of her guilt or innocence, I'm amazed that George's family members remained so loyal to her throughout the trial, her imprisonment, etc. In your research, what kind of person did you find Cindy Rohr-George to be?

A master manipulator. Someone who understands and even studies others’ weaknesses to use that knowledge to her advantage. Those pregnancies of Cindy’s where she was bedridden taught her a valuable lesson for later on: people who love you will do anything for you if they believe you’re sick and/or hurting.

Cindy was able to draw on the sympathy of those around her and use that to her advantage for whatever purpose she needed. Remember, Cindy was from a just below middle class family in North Canton, a neighborhood of rather post-World War II cookie-cutter homes. From early on, because she was so stunningly gorgeous (although this is certainly not the case now), things started to come to Cindy. As she grew, she wanted more and more and more. Look at it this way: the garage attached to the house Cindy lives in with Ed George and her seven children outside Akron is bigger than the house she grew up in.

The George family are devout Catholics. All the kids went to Catholic schools. They all went to Mass regularly. They love her. They believe in her. They stuck by her—and still do—because that is what Jesus Christ would want them to do. And again, this divine devotion is something Cindy used for her own selfish needs.

How did the people of Akron respond to the George and Zack families during all of this? How did people seem to feel about the outcome of the trials?

People are devastated that Cindy got out of prison and can never be tried again. They feel her wealth bought her a get out of jail free card. Akron has a reputation for being a “money can buy you happiness” city of wealth and status. There’s always been some sort of controversy brewing in town. I spent a week there while I was in Ohio researching If Looks Could Kill and experienced it myself. There’s an “us against them” feeling in town: Us being the working class, Them being the rich. Moreover, Ed George knows a lot of people. He has been in the restaurant/cabaret business for decades. When you know that many people, things come a bit easier to you. The world you live in treats you differently.

The Zack family left the area. Now that is a family I feel for. Bonnie Zack and Jeff’s son and Jeff’s family in Arizona really didn’t ask for any of this. They were drawn into a mess of a life Jeff created. As a cautionary tale, this case proves—if nothing else—how infidelity in a marriage can truly cause a ripple effect that is, in many ways, being felt years after the actual affair ended.

Also, how did they respond to you when you began your research - how willing were they to discuss Zack's murder?

It’s the same with every book. You have those who will talk and those who absolutely won’t. Then you have those who sit on the fence and watch, listen, and ultimately come to you when they feel you’re doing a decent enough job and your only goal is to tell the truth.

The Georges, of course, wouldn’t talk to me. As I point out in the book, the Georges carefully picked who they spoke to—and wouldn’t speak to anyone until they needed a certain “story” to get out into the press—and timed those interviews with pivotal moments in Cindy’s case. Cindy gave one newspaper her only face-to-face interview, where she spewed all sorts of rhetoric that she had never said before.

I had a lot of anonymous sources come forward during the process and give me some solid information. But let me say this: the documents I was able to obtain—which no one beyond key law enforcement has yet to see—tell quite the story, and truly show who is lying and who is telling the truth, not to mention how far the Akron PD took this investigation. The Akron PD got pretty beat up during the trials. The Akron PD Crimes Against Persons Unit, however, did one of the most thorough jobs I have ever seen in a murder investigation. They left no stone unturned. And the truth is, whenever they turned a stone over, Cindy’s face was right there staring back up at them.

You had mentioned in an email to me something about Iranian gun smugglers potentially being involved in this story. You see, that was a tale put out there. I got to the bottom of it and found it to be a lie. Wait until you see the credibility of the person who made this accusation. You won’t believe it. Jeff Zack was a lot of things and not a very nice person. But he was not a gun smuggler or drug dealer. Nor is there any evidence that Jeff Zack ever abused Cindy George, as she now claims.

Do you think the book is closed on the Cindy Rohr-George and John Zaffino cases?

Yes. From Cindy’s position it’s a done deal.

Although, I do think John Zaffino will, someday, come forward and tell all he knows. I spoke to John. I detail that correspondence in the beginning of the book. John is a funny guy. Brute of a man. Drunkard. All those things you’d expect a killer of his caliber to be. I tell his complete story—which is very interesting. Makes you wonder how Cindy ever ended up with John and, more important, why. Where they meet, for instance, is as telling as a phone conversation they have one night as John is standing in the Cuyahoga Falls National Park woods with a gun waiting to kill Jeff Zack.

Many of your books, this one included, have taken on very recent criminal cases as their subjects. However, you have a book on the American spy Nathan Hale coming out, and I read on your website that you're working on two other Revolutionary War-era subjects. That's quite a departure - could you talk a little about your interests here?

I also co-wrote a book with Thomas Craughwell titled Failures of the Presidents (it’ll be out on September 1). I don’t consider my subject choices as much of a departure as others might. When you write books for a living you need to focus on a lot of different aspects of the publishing business. You have to view your work as a job, and pay attention to what the market demands. For me, I follow my heart and see if that fits into what publishing is looking for at the time. I consider myself a nonfiction book author and journalist. Period. If someone wants to label me a true crime author, that’s fine. I don’t mind. But I just follow my heart and listen to what my business manager, Peter Miller, tells me. Peter is my coach. We talk about ideas and he advises me on which way to go.

I approached Nathan Hale the way I approach any other project: studying documents and getting the story into my head and then going out and finding other “sources” to fill in the gaps. Whether we’re talking about a police report or a journal from 275 years ago, it really makes no difference when you approach it as a storyteller and writer.

There has not been a biography of Nathan Hale written for some eighty years, so my book will be the first “true” biography of an American icon we have all heard of, but know very little about.

I am interested in whatever moves me. I like to tell people that my literary calling is American history. But I also write about contemporary true crimes cases (my day job, if you will). Some authors choose to teach at colleges and write books in their spare time. I choose to write all day (and night, lately). To me, one is not more important than the other; but all of us have our own vision of who we want to be, and we try to live that out in what we do. I am so grateful that I am able to get up every morning and do this for a living. I never forget that. I thank God for that blessing every day and for also having so many loyal readers. I worked hard, sure. But I’m also very lucky and very fortunate to be able to do this. And I never forget that.

I'm also curious, what do you like about the process of historic research versus investigative journalism? What challenges do you find with each?

The two are interconnected. I think “investigative journalism” sometimes is viewed as some sort of mysterious, intriguing job we do while wearing a trench coat, fedora and sunglasses, sneaking around, meeting people in back alleys. I’ve done my share of digging through Dumpsters and meeting people secretly, etc. But a lot of this is reading documents and putting the pieces of a puzzle together via interviews. The other part is getting your hands on documents others haven’t seen. For example, in the Cindy George case, I was able to get hold of hundreds of pages of documents no one outside law enforcement had ever seen. This changed to the entire scope of my book.

The challenges I face are the same: getting people to help. If people aren’t willing to open up and lend a hand, you’re stuck.

The other part of this is staying away from the Internet. Too many people today think that investigative journalism is about searching the Internet for Websites and old MySpace pages and emails and things left behind in Cyberspace. And granted, some of that may help. True investigative journalism is about picking up the phone and calling people and tracking down documents and sources and filing F.O.I.A.s until you just cannot stand to write another one. Cybersluething and investigative journalism are two totally different things and shouldn’t be confused.

One of the worst things you can do for a story is rely on what cyberspace provides. I cannot stress this enough in today’s Internet world of instant information. I would suggest, for anyone looking to grasp a further understanding of what I mean, that you read James B. Stewart’s book, Follow the Story. I don’t know him, by the way. So I’m not shilling for a friend. But in that book, you’ll notice that the Internet is not even discussed as a serious investigating tool for a working journalist. We have to watch out with what’s happening right now. Information is too interchangeable and stepped on. You do not know what you’re getting off the Internet. I’ve gotten hard copies of magazine and/or newspaper stories and matched them up to their Internet counterparts and noticed that they’ve been changed or added to or even edited. That scares me. Moreover, how can we rely on a MySpace page as fact? Anyone can publish anything about anyone. There’s no fact-checking process involved with this sort of research—which is really terrifying from a true journalist’s point of view.

IF LOOKS COULD KILL is being released today. For more information, visit M. William Phelp's website.

1 comment:

amery2u said...

I just finished the book today; phenomenal writing, reporting, and .. yes... outcome~!