A Brutal Crime and the Unraveling of Truth From Fiction

Sandra Bertrand

 

When a horrific event—in this case murder--touches your life, how do you handle it?  In writer Stephanie Kane’s case, first you fictionalize it and then because it has haunted every waking hour, you publish Cold Case Story, outlining the scores of details behind the crime, as you see it. 

Based on the brutal murder of a housewife in the Denver suburbs in 1973, that housewife was the mother of Stephanie Kane’s fiancé.  Kane, born in Brooklyn, was a freshman at the University of Colorado at the time. The Saturday morning Betty Frye was killed, Kane and her boyfriend received an awkward call from Betty.  The couple were getting married in two weeks and didn’t know if she was coming to the wedding.  Two hours later, Betty was dead.

For almost 30 years, Kane thought about the phone call.  But that wasn’t all that consumed her thoughts.  Later that fateful Saturday, the couple were visited by Betty’s husband Duane, who brought them a six-pack of beer, sporting a head bruise, and wearing an uncharacteristic dirty shirt.  As these and other details began to accumulate during the investigation, did she think that Duane was the killer?  Not exactly. And no one asked about what she observed that afternoon.  But she never doubted it. As for Duane Frye, in spite of mounting evidence of guilt, charges were dropped because of a few contradictory points.

In the ensuing years, after graduating from law school, Kane became a corporate partner at a Denver law firm, then a criminal defense attorney. An award-winning mystery writer, in 2001 she published Quiet Time, a fictionalized version of Betty’s murder.  It wasn’t until she was contacted by a cold-case cop in 2005 that she was forced to reexamine her role, and in January 2007, Frye was rearrested. 

Robert McKee, a leading teacher of screenwriting technique, is frequently quoted in Cold Case Story. “Text is the sensory surface of a work of art—what people see, say and hear.  Subtext is the life hidden beneath the surface.”  It is that subtext, the mountain of details that Kane lays out for the reader that make her account so riveting.  We are placed front and center from the first accounts of the crime through the reopened investigation.

 

 

A common instance of crime scene staging in domestic homicides is when the spouse is moved to another location.  According to Richard Walton, author of Cold Case Homicides: Practical Investigative Technique, if the body is found at the unaltered scene, “the perpetrator will immediately become the primary suspect.” 

In this case, Betty was found face down in the garage with garbage cans filled with an unlikely collection of the so-called burglar’s loot and a couple of TVs nearby. Sendle, the lead cop in the original investigation, told Kane that he knew the killer was no burglar from the beginning.  Frye’s coverup was sloppy.  Such items as an open bottle of shampoo, a pair of clip-on RayBans, an electric shaver and three electric clocks were found in the cans.  The clocks, the most damning of evidence, were unplugged from the walls, showing the time of the murder.

Another fascinating detail were the RayBans.  Why would a burglar steal clip-on sunglasses?  When Frye was interviewed, he was asked if he wore sunglasses.  Yes, he said, reaching into his shirt pocket.  Sendle said he would never forget the look on the man’s face when he saw they weren’t there.

Wendell Rudacille is an investigator and polygraph examiner, who wrote a text analysis, Identifying Lies in Disguise.  In 2013 when Kane went through the Frye case files, she read his study.  For Betty’s 44th birthday, Frye gave her a secondhand convertible.  The morning she was murdered, and he brought the car in to the Chevron dealership, he referred to it has “my car.” Rudacille was convinced from that statement that Frye already knew she was dead.

There are many such incidences in the overall investigation that grip the reader’s imagination and make this follow-up study to the novel compelling.  It is Kane’s overriding need to confront the truth that matters.  Kane breathes convincing details into the real-life relatives and other characters whose lives were overturned by the killing. 

 

 

We learn that Frye’s daughter posted a $100,000 dollar bond for his release, while Betty’s sister was elated at the case’s reopening.  Shortly before her death, Frye’s mother told her daughter that her son had confessed to her about the murder. That and other evidence from the court records solved the 33-year-old case. 

In 2013 Frye committed suicide.  Kane tellingly includes an 1830 quote from the great lawyer Daniel Webster: “There is no refuge from confession but suicide, and suicide is confession.”

I still wanted to know if Cold Case Story was the final chapter of this saga for Stephanie Kane.

Highbrow Magazine:  Do you feel now that now you are finished with not only the fictional account but the factual story of the murder itself, that you have permanently closed this chapter of your life? Memory is the one thing a writer carries with herself for a lifetime, one of the tools of the trade, you might say.  Are there any lingering doubts or do you feel it has been a complete catharsis for you?  

Stephanie Kane: From the day Betty was murdered in 1973, I’ve been driven by one thing: the need to know what happened. To come to terms with my own role in her death, I had to know who killed Betty, and how and why she was killed. You can’t come to accept what you don’t know. 

Catharsis came in the 1990s, with Quiet Time’s first draft, which I wrote in a dozen first-person voices to capture what I imagined others thought or felt. Acceptance took much longer, but each accounting brought me a step closer to what I needed to know. The information dictated the format, but Cold Case Story comes full circle. Drawing from transcripts, it quotes people whose voices I’d tried to summon. Their real words erased my doubts.

Each time I rewrote Betty’s story, once details were on the page they began to fade. I no longer had to remember them. The record endures, but I’m not the recordkeeper. Now the story belongs to whoever reads it.

 

Author Bio:

Sandra Bertrand is Highbrow Magazine’s chief art critic.

 

For Highbrow Magazine

 

Image Sources:

--Courtesy of the author

--Linnaea Mallette (PublicDomainPictures.net, Creative Commons)

 

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