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Wages of Sin

Suzy Spencer

Reviewed by David Garza, Fri., Dec. 1, 2000

Book Reviews

Wages of Sin

by Suzy Spencer

Pinnacle Books, 384 pp., $6.50 (paper)

In January 1995, a charred and mutilated human body was found in a barbecue pit at Pace Bend Park, just outside of Austin. The body was so badly disfigured that those who found it doubted whether it was really ever human. The head was not intact. The hands had been removed in an attempt to hide the identity of the victim, a young Austin man named Christopher Hatton. But, "It was very human," local author Suzy Spencer writes in her true-crime narrative Wages of Sin. That brief sentence, a rare injection of emotion in Spencer's journalistic style, conveys the silent urgency, if not the very need, for the author's retelling of the mysterious and unspeakable murder. "There is no reason to write true crime unless we can learn something from it," she writes.

To arrive at the lessons of Hatton's murder, Spencer unravels a complicated and well-researched tale of broken families and squandered dreams. After finding physical evidence at the crime scene, the Travis County Sheriff's Office would discover that Hatton's drug-dealing roommate William Busenberg and Busenberg's girlfriend Stephanie Martin were responsible for the murder. Hatton appeared to have stolen about $6,000 from Busenberg, so one of the two suspects shot Hatton in the head at close range, one of them sawed off his hands, and one of them set his corpse on fire. With both suspects changing their testimony and polygraph tests showing mixed results, it would remain a mystery as to who exactly was responsible for what.

While Spencer is meticulous in recounting the life experiences of each of the figures in the crime, from Hatton's broken dreams of becoming a Navy SEAL to Busenberg's wild stories of being a super-rich CIA assassin, her chronicle is most successful in its complex portrayal of the elusive Stephanie Martin. Martin, an exotic dancer at an Austin strip joint, spent most of her early years in Oklahoma praying to God and going to church. She also believed all of Will Busenberg's CIA lies. That innocent side of her, which she struggled to maintain even as she grew mischievous in later life, would be completely overshadowed by her relationship to Busenberg and her work. When she stood as a defendant in the Hatton murder, she wasn't a woman on trial -- she was a stripper on trial. Nobody, certainly not the press, would grant her the privilege of full dimensionality as Spencer does in her book: "At school, Stephanie was voted 'most likely to become a bus driver.'"

There is a danger, of course, in being swayed by Martin's apparent humility. Spencer is sober and responsible in her analysis of Martin's participation in the crime, and while it seems plausible that Busenberg pulled the trigger and forced Martin to help him with a cover-up, Spencer refuses to make her own judgment. One fact that neither of the accused dispute: Martin, no matter how coerced or how deep in shock she was at the time, was the one who took Chris Hatton's hands. She also had become so fascinated by Busenberg's outlandish tales of patriotic heroism that she expressed interest in joining him on a CIA murder. How these childish fantasies ended with Chris Hatton's body being dumped in a barbecue pit is perhaps beyond explanation. The lessons that Spencer wants her readers to learn, in the end, may be as hard to accept as the questions that will never be answered.Wages of SinSuzy Spencer

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