His books describe hunters fed to pigs, DNA collected in a roller rink and a woman's body parts transported on her children's sled, but perhaps the most unlikely plot line in Tom Henderson's world is his entrance into true crime writing.
In 1999, one of the book world's more prominent agents called him looking for someone to write the story of a suburban defense attorney who had had an affair with a judge and then was convicted of killing his wife. Yes, the agent Jane Dystel, who repped Barack Obama's first book, called Henderson after a former colleague of his recommended him for the task. The case was so attractive to the publisher, they had the agent seeking a writer.
"It's an unreplicable model," says Tom Henderson, banking reporter at Crain's Detroit Business by day, author of books about some of Michigan's most notorious crimes by night and weekend. "Twelve years ago, Jane called me saying she was calling on behalf of St. Martin's Paperbacks True Crime Library and asking if I wanted to do a book. The odds of a freelance writer getting called by a reputable agent for a mainstream publishing house? Those are worse odds than winning the lottery."
But Henderson had lucked out and continues his streak, albeit on others' misfortunes, which he's sensitive to.
He's authored five true crime books since that telephone call. First he wrote A Deadly Affair, the story Dystel requested, the story of Mick Fletcher, the death of his wife from what he argued was a self-inflected gunshot wound and his affair with then-Warren District Court Judge Susan Chrzanowski. Then Henderson wrote Blood Justice, about a serial killer from Flint who stalked and sliced up women.
His third and most popular book was Darker Than Night, the story of two Detroit-area deer hunters who disappeared in northern Michigan, and a Michigan State Police detective's reopening of the case 20 years later to solve it (turns out they were fed to pigs). The hero of the story is Robert "Bronco" Lesneski, a Michigan State Police lieutenant who was reassigned to the East Tawas post and inherited the then 18-year-old case file. An unassuming guy, Bronco couldn't let go of this unsolved crime, and in his spare time spent years earning the trust of the only witness to the crime, who finally testified against the perps.
The fourth in his library, Afraid of the Dark, was the story of Mark Unger, the Huntington Woods man convicted of killing his wife in northern Michigan.
Now, just in time for summer reading, Henderson brings readers Blood in the Snow, narrating the investigation and trial in the death of Macomb County's Tara Grant, who was murdered by her husband, Stephen. In what was a well-publicized 2007 case, Stephen Grant made tearful public pleas for her return — after having killed her, dismembered her and distributed some of her body parts by sled at Stony Creek Metro Park, all the while lusting after the couple's au pair.
It's the third book about the case but it's also the only one that had police cooperation.
And that makes all the difference. For those metro Detroiters who remember then-Sheriff Mark Hackel's numerous, choreographed news conferences, Henderson's book offers behind-the-scenes insights. He crafts a story of the Grants' marriage, their relations with family members and later, displays how those personalities manifested themselves during trial preparation.
In all, it's a wild ride of a read that's still compelling for local readers who remember only too well the chilling story.
Henderson spoke with Metro Times about his latest book and his true crime writing.
Metro Times: Do you have a favorite of the five books you've written?
Tom Henderson: I do: Darker Than Night. The evildoers were completely out of a Coen brothers movie. It was Fargo pre-dating Fargo. And there's a great cop in "Bronco" Lesneski. If I could make up people like that, I would be a novelist and make a lot more money. It's hard to say it's a fun book given the circumstances and families' lives being ruined, but it was kind of a fun book to do.
MT: Some of your books show clear guilt for the perpetrators and others are more questionable cases. Are those different in how you approach them?
TH: The ones I enjoy, if that's the right word, are the ones that are obviously seriously defective human beings who are doing bad things to other people and getting caught. Bad people, really seriously bad people, getting caught by good police work and getting put where they belong.
MT: How has the genre of true crime changed in the roughly 12 years you've been in it?
TH:The recession seemed to have hurt books sales a little bit and the whole getting away from print media. People don't seem to have attention spans any more. I think in general there are still big sellers in Tom Clancy and John Grisham and James Patterson. If you're down the food chain a little bit, I think what's happening is it's not that people aren't buying them as much it's that sellers of books aren't ordering them as much. I hope it's just a blip and it will come back.
MT: What are readers looking for in a true crime book?
TH: I used to read them before I started writing them. I think you're looking for a beach read or something to read on an airplane. They're looking for a sense of justice. True crime typically isn't done unless there is something that's really bad to make it book worthy. It also has to be solved. You want to know who the villain is and have an ending. You read it as if you're reading a novel, and you almost don't know how it's going to come out even if you do.
MT: What's the key to the research?
TH:If you can establish some relationship with the attorneys and the lead cop on the case. Getting the cops on board isn't always so easy, cops tend to not necessarily be enamored with reporters.
MT: But Blood in the Snow is the only of the Grant books that the cops assisted with. How did that happen?
TH:At first, one of the lead detectives on the case, Brian Kozlowski, wanted nothing to do with me or the book. There had been two other books on the case that have come out that he gave absolutely no cooperation. The sheriff's department didn't help at all. I knew that, but I reached out to him and I got an e-mail telling me basically to fuck off and that he had no use for any media slime. About a week later he sent me an e-mail and said he was going to be available. I showed up and he was very friendly. I asked him early on, "What changed your attitude here?" He had gone out and bought Darker Than Night. He hunts near where it took place and knows the area, so he thought it was true to what he knew. He also loved the way Bronco was portrayed and suddenly thought, "I could be the next Bronco."
MT: So is he?
TH: Yeah, he is. He is cool, and he is a character and a half. He is another character you're not going to make up. He looks like he's leading a motorcycle gang or a murder-rape cult. He would put the fear into anyone seeing him walking down the street. But he's a great cop, very helpful. His one partner, she praised him as being a sweetheart or a softie or something but then said, "Don't put that in the book. He'll come to me and say, 'What the fuck?'"
MT: But the other parts of these stories, beyond the police investigations, are the victims and their families. How is it getting them to work with you?
TH:That's the tough part. The bottom line is you're the guy knocking on the door saying, "I know your life has been ruined, but I would like to make some money off it, so would you help me?" People are far more gracious than they should be by and large. For victims' families, for the most part, it's cathartic; they like talking about their loved one.
MT: You also cover the perpetrators' backgrounds and their families. How is that?
TH: Everybody is reluctant at first, but I tell them, I need your help to do it as well as I can and as honestly as I can. That works. Even the people that get accused or get convicted, I tell their family, I swear to you I will bend over backward to make this person seem human. Everybody is human. I will put a human face on this person who has been portrayed in the media so far as completely one-dimensional and heinous. If anybody has any doubts — and they have — I send them a copy of Blood Justice. Because the serial killer in there is truly a twisted individual, but I was very fair to his family — and other media outlets weren't — and I was very fair to his wife, who deserved none of the blame she was getting. And I was fair to him. He was a serial-killing maniac, but he was also the best dad in the neighborhood and had his traits. It made him all the more interesting, but anybody who read that books would say this is clearly somebody who bent over backward to be fair to all involved.
MT: So you find inspiration in the work and not terror?
TH:Yes. Especially among the dedicated investigators. People get jaded and think: Yuck, cops. But these guys are true blue. This stuff is important to them. Solving it is important to them. It takes them years, but they keep at it. I think, shit, if something happened to my wife or mother or brother, I'd want somebody like that working it, 15 years later, as hard as they could!
MT: Did writing Blood in the Snow affect you any differently?
TH: Yes. Tara Grant went missing and then some of her body parts were found in the house and some of them were retrieved from Stony Creek. Some of them were never found. My dog and I were running a lot out at Stony Creek. I run her off leash. Her favorite thing is to bring back bones. She's always bringing me bones back with a big smile on her face. My wife said, "You are not running with that dog at Stony Creek anymore." We knew she'd find the missing finger or something. And I'd say "good dog" and hold my hand out and she'd spit out the finger. It kind of temporarily ended our running at Stony Creek.
'Like the Keystone Kops'
In this passage, Stephen Grant, at a hospital in Petoskey, makes his confession to Macomb County detectives Brian Kozlowski and Pam McLean about how he disposed of his wife, Tara, after he killed her and dismembered her body:
"It was like the Keystone Kops," [Grant] told Kozlowski and McLean. "The sled took off and now I'm chasing after the sled with Tara's remains and cut-up body in it down a hill."
And so he's chasing it down the hill and at the bottom the bin hits a log. It tips over as a chunk of green plastic breaks off, the lid pops off, and body parts go flying out all over the place. He freaks out, turns tail and runs up the hill and out of the woods and back to the Trooper, and he drives home.
He parks the Trooper in the garage, gets a bottle of Simple Green from a shelf and sprays the mat in the cargo area, then walks in, sits down on the couch, hits the remote to watch the local news. He sits there in a daze until eventually he hears [the au pair] Verena and the kids moving around in their rooms.
She comes out. "You were up early," she says.
"What do you mean?"
"I heard you rustling around. Were you out?"
"No, I've been here the whole time," he says, freaking out again. Is she suspicious?
A few minutes go by. Enough time so he can say matter-of-factly he's gotta go. Says good-bye to her and the kids and this time leaves in his truck, no worries with the Jeep about getting stuck in snow, and drives as fast as he can back to Stony Creek, and drives off the road and into the woods.
From Blood in the Snow by Tom Henderson