Stephen G. Michaud's very first reporting assignment was a 1971 interview with Rudolph Wanderone, the legendary pool shark better known as Minnesota Fats.
The story was not a success.
"Fats was neither fat nor very interesting," Michaud recalls. "I could not pry a worthwhile sentence out of him. As interview subjects go, he made a good pool player."
Michaud has since confronted significantly tougher subjects -- among them the infamous sexual sadist Mike DeBardeleben -- and under far more stressful circumstances -- he spent a hundred hours interviewing serial killer Ted Bundy on Death Row. Yet though Michaud's best known for his detailed explorations of the criminal mind, he never expected his career path to lead in that direction.
A Vermont native, raised in the Pacific Northwest, he graduated with a bachelor's degree in history from Stanford in 1970, assuming at the time he would go on to law school. Instead, Michaud migrated from Palo Alto to New York City, where he took what he believed was a temporary job as a research assistant in the Newsweek magazine library.
Three years later, while on assignment to the magazine's Houston bureau, he reported his first major crime story, the so-called "Candy Man" serial murders of 30 young men and boys.
From then until he left Newsweek Michaud covered everything from the U.S. space program to underwater archeology, including a number of strange and sensational crime stories. Among them: The August, 1975, kidnap in New York City of Seagram's heir, Samuel Bronfman II and, later that year, the brutal stabbing murder in Philadelphia of Jack Knight, the 30-year-old heir to the Knight-Ridder newspaper fortune.
In 1977, Michaud joined Business Week, also in New York City, as Research Editor, in charge of the magazine's science and technology coverage. He produced a series of cover stories for the magazine on topics various as industrial innovation, solar energy and weather forecasting, and was about to make another major career move -- to Tokyo, for McGraw-Hill World News -- when Ted Bundy fell into his lap, figuratively.
"I received a call from my agent," he remembers, "who told me that Bundy was interested in cooperating on a book. Ted, who lawmen suspected in as many as 150 murders from Seattle to Miami, adamantly insisted he was innocent on all counts, which seemed a dubious proposition. Nevertheless, I was intrigued at the possibility he could be telling the truth, and that a thorough re-investigation of his case might prove that.
"Without giving the project much more thought, I canceled Japan and quit Business Week. I also induced my onetime mentor at Newsweek, Hugh Aynesworth, to join me in the project. I would interview Bundy on Death Row while Hugh, one of the very best investigative reporters around, would undertake a complete review of the evidence against Bundy."
Michaud and Aynesworth quickly came to two realizations: Bundy was guilty as hell and he had no intention of admitting it, at least not openly. However, they did see a possible way to finesse the situation.
Although Bundy was not ready to say, "I did it," he clearly wanted to discuss himself and what he'd done. So Michaud offered him a way to do that, to "speculate" about the murders, and the person who committed them, in the third-person.
"Ted jumped at the suggestion," Michaud recalls. "It wasn't long before we were deep into his macabre world, exploring regions of the criminal psyche I hadn't guessed existed."
The Only Living Witness, Michaud and Aynesworth's portrait of the killer, was published in 1983 to widespread critical praise. The New York Daily News called it one of the ten best true-crime books ever written. Criminology professors made it required reading.
Gratifying as the response was, reporting and writing The Only Living Witness was a grueling four-year experience, a daily diet of death and deranged desire. Michaud wanted a respite from such projects, so he turned his attention writing freelance pieces for The New York Times Magazine and other periodicals, as well as ghost writing.
His first ghosting effort was Witness to War, a memoir of Dr. Charles Clements' year spent treating civilian victims of El Salvador's brutal civil war. His second book, entitled Insider, was an account of life among Cuba's revolutionary elite as recalled by Jose-Luis Llovio-Menendez, a former high official in Fidel Castro's communist government.
Michaud and Aynesworth later wrote two book-length collections of true-crime stories, Wanted for Murder and Murderers Among Us, before embarking on their second major project together, "If You Love Me You Will Do My Will."
The story of a fabulously wealthy, and devout, South Texas widow and the charismatic Trappist monk who for a time captured her heart, and her money, "If You Love Me You Will Do My Will" was called "a masterful job," in Barron's; "Intricate, well-written," in Legal Times ; and "a fascinating tale of chicanery," by the Dallas Observer.
In 1989, Michaud became an editorial consultant to the famed Media Lab at MIT. That same year, Ted Bundy was executed and Michaud and Aynesworth published an edited transcript of their interviews with Ted, called Conversations With A Killer. The book was a New York Times best-seller.
In 1994, Michaud published Lethal Shadow, an account of uber criminal Mike DeBardeleben's extraordinary life of crime, from counterfeiting to rape and murder, including flam-flam jobs, kidnappings and bank heists.
There ensued two collaborations with profiler Roy Hazelwood, a former member of the FBI's "Hannibal Lecter Squad": The Evil That Men Do, published in 1999, and Dark Dreams, issued in the summer of 2001. Kirkus Reviews called Evil, "a gritty, gut-wrenching trip into the world of sexual crimes ... not recommended for reading at bedtime, or when one is at home alone in the house."
Dark Dreams was an Edgar Award finalist.
The Vengeful Heart, a collection of shorter pieces Michaud wrote with Aynesworth, also was issued in 2001.
Taking a break from the crime beat, in 2000 Michaud helped Dr. Beck Weathers write Left For Dead, the Dallas pathologist's stirring memoir of his battles with depression, a decades-long struggle that culminated near the top of Mt. Everest in early May of 1996 in a calamitous blizzard that killed eight climbers. The 2015 movie Everest is largely based on Left for Dead.
Straying even further from crime and criminals, Michaud in 2000 published his first children's book, The Miracle of Island Girl, the first in a projected series of true-life animal tales for children, aged four to eight. A planned volume two is tentatively entitled Percy the Pelican Finds a Home.
In 2003, he teamed again with Hugh Aynesworth to write Breaking the News: A Reporter's Eyewitness Account of the Kennedy Assassination and its Aftermath. Michaud later extensively revised Breaking the News, which was reissued as Witness to History under Aynesworth’s name in 2013, the 50th anniversary of the Kennedy assassination.
Next came Patriarch with Frank Yturria, then The Devil's Right Hand Man with Debbie M. Price, and Whisper of Fear with Rhonda Saunders, which was published in November, 2008. The Amazing Life of Frank D. Yturria: A South Texas Cowboy, yet another collaboration, is scheduled for publication in 2016.
Defying the Nazis: The Sharps' War, which Michaud ghostwrote for Artemis Joukowski, was published by the Beacon Press in September, 2016. It was the official companion book to a PBS documentary of the same name, produced by Joukowski and Ken Burns, that aired at that time.
Michaud now lives in Maryland, where he is working on the biography of Charles Stillman, a Connecticut Yankee who became enormously wealthy trading contraband Confederate cotton along the Rio Grande during the Civil War. Michaud and historian Ann Pfau also are at work together on A Hundred Percent American Girl, the story of Mildred Gillars, the American actress who gained infamy as the World War II Nazi radio siren known as Axis Sally.
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