The dimly lit interview room at the jail was full of shadows. The only light shone down on a row of tiny cubicles. Night after night, I sat down in one of the cubicles, put a grungy black phone up to my ear, and looked into the eyes of a monster. A piece of scratched glass the only barrier between a psychopath and me. Video cameras perched up high above us, recording every move and probably every word.
From the first interview with Curtis Dean Anderson, my goal had been to get him to slip up and confess something that might indicate whether he had also kidnapped Xiana, the little girl missing from Vallejo. But I soon realized I had to develop a rapport with this man so he would trust me enough to reveal his secrets.
I told him maybe he would feel better if he told someone about his crimes, someone like me, someone who wasn’t a cop.
He looked me dead in the eye and said, “I’ve been keeping in stuff worse than that for more than twenty years.”
“Like what? What is worse than that?” I asked. “When you tell me that it makes me think you’ve been killing people for twenty years.”
He took a small pencil and wadded up piece of paper out of his shirt pocket. He slowly smoothed the paper out, scribbled something, and then held it up to the glass for me to read:
1st kidnap 1981
He’d been doing this a long time. Our conversations made it clear he had zero remorse or empathy. He was a stereotypical psychopath and a predator, a killer. When he told me there had been others, I continued to try to get information about Xiana, in the hopes she was still alive somewhere. But I also tried to get him to tell me about his other victims. He kept promising to reveal details, but never did, stringing me along for months, using elaborate grids to point out areas where the bodies were supposedly hid. But he was slippery and never gave any concrete details. At least not to me.
He also loved taunting Xiana’s aunt, telling her he had taken Xiana. She told me he had given her at least one piece of information that only Xiana could have told him.
For months, I visited him in jail, accepted his collect phone calls to my desk phone at the newspaper and read the letters he mailed me. I developed a rapport with a monster. He was the one we are taught to be afraid of. He was the embodiment of pure evil. I listened to his terrible stories and took notes. But what disturbed me the most was my ability to go sit there and talk to him night after night trying to get information out of him.
It frightened me because I was talking to a killer like I would have a conversation with anyone else. But I had to. I had to put on a front, as if we were friends, to get him to trust me. So, I did it. Sometimes I wonder if I lost a piece of my soul by doing this: smiling at him and encouraging him to share his sick stories with me.
But my motivation was the purest sort: justice for his victims.
He eventually was convicted of kidnapping the little girl who escaped and sent away to prison. He continued to write me letters full of misspellings and nonsense. One letter contained a three-page list of the books he had read. Most, like “Helter Skelter,” were about horrific killings.
He later confessed to killing and kidnapping Xiana and that sentence was added to his previous one.
The Xiana story faded away; as all these horrible stories about kidnapped children tragically and eventually do, fading from the news and the public eye, but never from the lives of the people who loved them.
I moved to Minnesota and started my own family.
One day I got a call from a reporter at my newspaper. Curtis Dean Anderson had died in prison, of natural causes, they said. Police were saying he had confessed to killing other kids during his time in prison. They say he claimed to have taken Amber Swartz, as well.
When I moved to Minnesota I had carted a giant box of file folders and reporters’ notebooks having to do with Curtis Dean Anderson and Xiana. I thought one day I would write a nonfiction book. But then I sat down at the computer and something else emerged – a story about an Italian-American newspaper reporter named Gabriella Giovanni whose sister had been kidnapped and killed when they were children.
Giovanni hasn’t yet dealt with the trauma of that in any meaningful way. But then she is forced to when a little girl disappears on the way to the bus stop and she is assigned the story. When a man is jailed on kidnapping charges, Giovanni is caught up in the web of trying to get him to confess to taking both her sister and the still missing other girl. In the end, the kidnapper is released from jail on a technicality and goes after Giovanni.
Blessed are the Dead is my attempt to honor these girls — Traci, Christina, Polly, Amber, Nikki, and Xiana — who have marked me forever and at the same time, purge this monster — Curtis Dean Anderson — out of my head. So I won’t have to think about him anymore.