Murder, Mayhem, and the Underbelly of Life

Friends in Low Places

by Claiborne Smith

When she was alive, Regina Hartwell would greet her eventual killer by saying "What up, Jay?" even though the killer's actual name is Justin Thomas. Regina wasn't overly concerned with calling people by their rightful name.For Justin, it doesn't matter now what he was called. Convicted in 1996 for "stabbing Regina Hartwell with a knife, a deadly weapon," as his indictment so unambiguously states, and then torching her Jeep and body in a field just outside of Bastrop, Thomas has about 27 years until he can apply for parole.

Suzy Spencer, the author of Wasted, a new true crime book about Regina Hartwell's 1995 murder in Austin and what led up to it, says, "that's the way she spoke, she kind of talked in a shorthand and she always gave everyone nicknames. His family always referred to him as Justin, to me at least." As far as greetings go, Regina's is more indicative than most of the person saying it; it makes its point in as truncated a fashion as possible, in as few words as necessary.

Regina Hartwell actually comes across in Wasted as someone who had the "wonderful heart" attributed to her by various people. Still, she tended to make her point. When she threatened Justin by telling him that she knew just the person in law enforcement to tell about his drug dealing, she made her point too abruptly. That was on June 28, 1995, the day before Regina was murdered. She called her law enforcement friend, whom Spencer refers to in Wasted as "Anita Morales":

"'You better not tell anyone this, but I need somebody I can talk to. Who do you know in narcotics?'

'I know lots of people. Why?'

'I want to bust that fucking bastard Justin. I'm sick and tired of him. And this time, he's crossed the line. He's demanding that Kim spend more time with him, and she's already spending way too much time with the mother fucking son-of-a-bitch.'"

Regina didn't come from money, but she inherited more of it than she knew what to do with after her abusive mother died in an accident at work in 1982, when Regina was 12. On the day before her murder, Regina may have been genuinely concerned about Justin's drug dealing but probably wasn't -- she was doing drugs at the time. She was, however, obsessed with Kim LeBlanc, the woman both Justin and Regina were dating. (Kim did testify in Justin's trial that "'when I say I was dating Regina, I didn't go out with anybody else, ever. That would have been bad.'") Kim met Regina on July 4, 1994 at Club 404 and "was outgoing ... tiny, pretty, well-toned, and brunette, just Regina Hartwell's type." It didn't matter to Regina that Kim might be straight. Or that she was only an incoming freshman at UT. Spencer describes Kim as being "much like the Lake Travis region she grew up in -- beautiful on the surface, stone hard just below, dangerous water down deep. Like the region, she seemed to have it all." Spencer writes that "whatever [Regina] had to do to get her way, even if it was pay for everyone, she would do it. But if Regina Hartwell didn't like you, she had enough friends that she could make everybody in the whole gay community hate you. In spirit, at minimum, she ran the downtown Austin gay club scene. Money did that." It's apparent from their first introduction in Wasted that Kim and Regina were a toxic, lethal mix.

In testimony she gave at Justin's trial for Regina's murder, Kim very narrowly defines her relationship with Regina as being "sexual," but she didn't refuse Regina's advances, the drugs she offered, nor, eventually, all the financial support Regina lavished on her. Regina carted Kim and their friends off to New York for a New Year's stay at the Plaza Hotel. Regina paid Kim's rent, bought her a diamond ring, and set up a $5,000 mutual fund for her. During Justin's trial, an attorney asked Kim if she ever felt "'uncomfortable accepting all these monies, gifts and so forth from Regina?'

'Yeah, ah, in the beginning, because I've never been around anybody with a lot of money, and in the end because I realized I wasn't a lesbian. And, yeah, that was the source of a lot of discussions between her and I.'

'Why did you continue to take money from her?'

'Because I didn't want to go back home.'"

While working as a receptionist at World Gym in Oak Hill in May 1995, Kim "whispered to herself, 'The next guy who walks around that corner, I'm going to ask him out.'" The corner offered up Justin Thomas, and he and Kim developed "a pretty intense relationship" by Kim's own acknowledgement in court. Although Kim twice "broke up" with Regina, on the day Regina was murdered she was still heavily involved with both Justin and Regina. Kim signed a confession at the Austin Police Department stating that in the late morning of June 29 Justin left Kim's apartment "'to take care of something that I asked him to do. I asked him to get her out of my life. I asked him to help me kill her. When he left to go over there, he did not say what he was going to do, but we had an understanding of what he was going to do.'" Kim later changed the words "kill her" to "help me out of this situation."

At one point in Wasted, an attorney familiar with the trial is quoted as saying, "'My God, this is a book. It has everything. I mean everything. It has drugs. It has sex. It has lesbians. It has murder, loyalties, mixed loyalties, betrayals. It is a microcosm of the seamy side of life.'" If that statement seems schismatic, at once humorous, snide, and serious, there are many other sentences in Wasted that follow suit. It's rather amusing, for example, to know that lawyers dubbed this case "Beauty and the Beast," taking their cue from the relationship between the petite Kim and 6'4", massive Justin, while reading exchanges like this one between Kim and one of Justin's lawyers:

"'It's pretty fair to say that his feeling on his part was that he had fallen into a bed of roses where you were concerned. Isn't that true?'

'Fallen into a bed of roses?' questioned LeBlanc.

'Fallen into a bed of roses,' the attorney repeated. 'He was pretty crazy about you, wasn't he?'

'He seemed to like me, yes,' said Kim."

There are so many

(perhaps unintentionally) mercurial moments in Wasted, that they could be endlessly sifted through an analytical sieve for their richness. Wasted is a tragicomedy, a book with a "message"; in places, you don't know whether to laugh or cry. Spencer says Wasted is about "abuse and denial and whether it's drug, alcohol, sexual, emotional, physical abuse, if you deny it, you're doomed. Like Regina ended up dead, Justin's in prison, and for better or for worse whatever Kim is, she finally admitted and faced her abuses and now she is a functioning member of society who is sober, who is married, and perhaps has finished up her college degree."

Wasted is everything a true crime book should be: lean, fierce, and unsparing. It's factual, gory, and macabre. Sentences like "Yeah, Regina could be a bitch, controlling, obsessive, possessive, but she'd never killed anybody," are not infrequent. Long tracts are given over to the procedural minutiae of DNA testing and evidentiary matters. Spencer constructed a collage of photos of the people she was writing about, to remind herself that they were (and are) "real," but that hardly seems necessary when an author's research strikes so close to the bone. "One of the days when I was going through the evidence, and like I say all the evidence is in these brown manila envelopes, and I'm just reaching in and pulling stuff out not realizing what it is, and I pulled out a vial and it was marked 'Regina Hartwell's Blood' ... and then I pulled out another vial and it had her muscle tissue in it. It brings home that this was a real human being."

So how does an author transmit a message to readers who are probably just reading a book for literary rubbernecking? "Well, you know, when you're talking about things like Hard Copy and Montel Williams [both shows, in addition to Roseanne, have expressed interest in featuring the book] and just the fact that you're writing a book that is kind of flashy trash. ... You never can tell what's going to seep through.

"I didn't used to have this morbid interest. I was not brought up this way. ... I wanted to be the female Larry McMurtry. I say it was cosmic, that's how I got into this." It may have been cosmic, but Spencer signed a contract with her publisher, Kensington Books, after Kensington's editor-in-chief, Paul Binaf, called Spencer after reading a letter about the case Spencer had written to Monica Harris, formerly an editor at Kensington. (Kensington publishes one true crime book a month). Karen Haas, who edits all of Kensington's true crime books, says that Kensington seeks out "stories that have a unique hook to them." In Spencer's case, what won Kensington over was "the interesting triangle" of a straight man and a lesbian being involved with the same woman. "Unintentionally, you feel very sympathetic with [Justin]," Haas says. "Suzy didn't try to make him sympathetic. It just comes out of the book all on its own."

Except for the work she's doing promoting her book, Spencer is finished with Wasted. Kensington offered her a contract to write another true crime book and she would have signed it "if I had really strong, passionate feelings about that book the way I did this one, but it's about another Austin murder. I refer to it as 'the Southern Baptist Killer Stripper,' which I know is a trashy way to refer to it but one thing I've learned from this is they all have these little trashy slogans. Sort of a slugline, you know?" She's working on a novel that she describes as being "more tabloid trash than I thought it was now that I've gone back and looked at it.

"It's a story of three thirtysomething best friends in East Texas who think they have their lives all together and then are discovering that nothing is together." Work on the novel doesn't involve reaching into brown manila envelopes of evidence. Nonetheless, it seems apropos for Spencer to say that she visits East Texas "only for funerals."

Suzy Spencer will read from Wasted at Borders, Thursday, November 5, at 7:30pm.

Katherine Dunn's seminalGeek Love may be partly responsible for jump-starting the past decade's newfound love of freaks and carnies, but it was the Seattle-based Jim Rose Circus Sideshow that clinched the deal and brought the long-dormant idea of Human Marvels back to the fore. Since the group's inception in 1991, we've seen The Enigma starring on The X-Files, the whole of Rose's sideshow on Sally Jesse, and Joe "Mr. Lifto" Hermann and wife Katzen guesting on, of all things, The Maury Povich Show. (Austinites may also note that Lifto and Katzen are currently residing in town while running one of the several piercing/tattoo joints down on Sixth Street)

That aside, this weighty volume chronicles the first four years of the "glass-eating, bile-drinking, meat-skewering, stomach-pumping, sword-swallowing, mental-floss" troupe, firmly sticking to what author/road manager Gregor calls "the original line-up." Slug the Sword Swallower (later to become The Enigma), Rose, Mr. Lifto, Matt "The Tube" Crowley, Bebe Rose, Dolly "The Doll Lady," and Tim "Torture King" Cridland criss-cross the country and then the world as their fame (and egos) grow, following the carny circuits of old and trying to up their "faint counts" (as in how many people faint at a particular show).

Essentially an extended tour diary, Gregor's detailed descriptions of roadshow camraderie and the attendant pitfalls of non-stop touring and hucksterism are genuinely affecting throughout the first 200 or so pages. It's after that that things begin to wear thin, not only for the reader but also for the Sideshow itself. There's a bit of the feel of a barely concealed hatchet job here, with the target being Rose himself, who is portrayed more and more as an egocentric controller as the journey progresses. By the time the group embarks on their final American tour in the waning months of 1993, most of the crew are eager to move on to new pursuits and Rose is reduced to acting like a frantic 12-year-old with too many toys and not enough playmates.

Psychic road-rash is nothing new and tour horror stories abound, but Circus of the Scars is notable for the detail it brings to the experience. There's more than almost anyone would ever want to know here, ranging from grimace-inducing tales of botched stunts (as when Rose ingests one too many lightbulbs and begins hemorrhaging) to stories of backbiting galore.

Kudos, however, to Gregor's inclusion of some possibly ghostwritten asides called the "Tunchi Diaries" (the book is unclear on their origin) which illuminate the history of sideshows, from the conjoined Texan twins Daisy and Violet Hilton to such midway mainstays as the human electrode and others.

Hardly as scandalously scarifying as its advance hype would have it, Circus of the Scars is instead a minutiae-crammed chronicle of the rebirth (and re-death) of the great American sideshow that offers more straight dope than any freakshow junkie could ever hope to metabolize. -- Marc Savlov

It was the crime that had all the tabloids buzzing. In 1836, a beautiful young prostitute was found in her brothel bed with three deep gashes in her skull. Her body was partially charred from a hastily set fire. Hours later, one of her regular clients, a 19-year-old clerk from an established Connecticut family, was arrested for the crime. There was great public support for him before his trial and equally great disdain for him after his acquittal. He then emigrated to Texas and changed his name. Officially, the killer has never been found.

Patricia Cline Cohen's The Murder of Helen Jewett is not interested in proving who killed Jewett (the case against Richard P. Robinson, the man tried and acquitted, is quite convincing) but occupied with depicting the world of New York in 1836 -- the penny newspapers and their circulation wars, the influx of teenage boys into the businesses and boarding houses of the city, the world of 19th-century America's demimonde, and the moral campaigners fervid campaign against it. It is a distant, fascinating culture which is also very familiar. For example, media watchdogs may be enlightened to learn that the modern tabloids are probably no more lurid than their 19th-century predecessors.

What kind of woman was Helen Jewett? How did Robinson's case end in such a swift acquittal? These are the questions that Cohen tries to answer. Helen Jewett does appear to be atypical of the local brothel inhabitants. She was intelligent, independent, and well-read (her room at the brothel featured a picture of Byron on the wall and numerous novels and books of poetry). She brought suit against those who abused her and exercised considerable autonomy when choosing her clients. Richard Robinson was not typical of his type either. He was a remarkably arrogant young man with a prodigious sense of personal entitlement. After he and Jewett met, they began a lengthy correspondence which demonstrates how thoroughly engaged with each other they were and eventually reveals a compelling motive for the murder. Jewett knew that Robinson was embezzling from his employer and she threatened to blow his cover. Robinson must have been somewhat aware of how the courts would weigh his life against Jewett. Consequently, he smuggled a hatchet into the brothel one night and with it killed Jewett.

Robinson's supporters were hardly shy about voicing their contempt for Jewett. They were outraged at the idea of comparing the relative worth of a corrupt prostitute like Jewett to her once avid client. He even had a set of groupies, young clerks like himself, who adopted his dandyish style of dress and indulged in bullying random prostitutes and brothels. Probably because of his own inner revulsion of Jewett, the district attorney did not use her eloquent correspondence to create a sympathetic portrait of her to the jury. The prosecution reviled the prostitutes of the brothel and impeached their testimony solely on the basis that such moral degenerates could not be taken seriously. The judge expressed the identical sentiment in the instructions he gave the jury and Robinson was freed after 18 minutes of jury deliberation. After the trial, due to new revelations in the tabloid press, public opinion turned against Robinson and he emigrated to Texas, changed his name to Parmalee, and became a rather important businessman in Nacogdoches. He died of yellow fever 20 years after the verdict on the crime that people associated with him to the end.

Cohen's book is meticulously researched and dutifully analytical. But her academic fervor for explication can bog down the story. It becomes tiresome when she explicates every letter in the correspondence after it has been printed in its entirety. But overall the book is compelling. Cohen's major accomplishment in her work may be that it shows modern readers how deeply ingrained many of our oldest assumptions and prejudices about men, women, sex, and violence are. The mystery is what we stand to gain by preserving them. -- Stacy Bush

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