Crossing boundaries: A journalist chronicles her friendship with a serial killer

Michael Ross murdered eight young women and raped even more. He was sentenced to die on a bitter-cold night in January 2005. As a small army of law-enforcement officials prepared for the state’s first execution in 45 years, reporter Martha Elliott tried to prepare for the loss of a subject who, against journalistic standards, had become a dear friend. “I’m afraid this is going to happen,” she said to one of Ross’s lawyers. “And I really don’t want to watch.”

Protests from state officials postponed the execution that night. When it was all but certain that Ross would live a little longer, he and Elliott discussed the twisting ride they had taken since meeting a decade earlier, when she started covering the case for a legal newspaper. It had changed them in many ways, perhaps even spiritually, Elliott wrote. Before she left the prison, the two put their hands to the Plexiglas that separated them. “And even though I hate roller coasters, I wouldn’t have missed this one for the world,” she told him. “I’m going to miss you.”

Elliott’s new book, The Man in the Monster, details Ross’s life, trading the whodunnit true-crime trope for whydunnit. She uses a decade of interviews with Ross and others involved with the case, journal entries, and court and medical documents to try to explain why a farmer and Cornell University graduate became a serial killer. But the book gives equal attention to the journalist’s personal and professional processes and crises, many of which are linked to the friendship she formed with Ross before his execution, which ultimately occurred in May 2005.

Elliott’s book is the kind of longform, long-term journalism that feels refreshing amid the digital whirlwind of brief rundowns, aggregation, and personal essays. But as she chased the story, she encountered an old problem: she became a character herself, setting off ethical landmines through her friendship with Ross and her disdain for the death penalty—the book’s two principal subjects. Elliott grappled with how to trust a man known for manipulation. And Ross had good reason to shape Elliott’s narrative. The world had declared him inhuman, and he wanted to alter the record. While Elliott struggled to find the truth, some readers and critics have said that she ultimately buckled under Ross’s control.

The writer ultimately tires of the subject’s self-serving story, and substitutes a story of his own.”

Sign up for CJR's daily email

Elliott is far from the first writer to take on a long-term project about a killer, or to be accused of blurring ethical lines. While reporting In Cold Blood, Truman Capote was said to have manipulated his murderous subjects, though the extent to which he did so is unclear. In The Journalist and the Murderer, Janet Malcolm delves into the relationship between the writer Joe McGinniss and Jeffrey MacDonald, a physician charged with, and ultimately convicted of, killing his pregnant wife and two children. “For almost four years—during which he corresponded with MacDonald, spoke with him on the telephone, received his tapes, and, on two occasions, visited him—he successfully hid the fact that in the book under preparation he was portraying MacDonald as a psychopathic killer,” Malcolm writes. She saw the men’s relationship as a “grotesquely magnified” glimpse into the typical encounter between journalist and source: “The writer ultimately tires of the subject’s self-serving story, and substitutes a story of his own.”

From the outset, Elliott resolved not to manipulate Ross in this way, by pretending to be his friend. Instead, over the course of the project, she and Ross actually became pals. “I don’t know when that line got crossed,” Elliott tells CJR. “It may have been when I was writing the book and when I realized how important it was for him to not be remembered by the worst thing he ever did.” Yet the book suggests their friendship formed early on; it just took the author time to accept. While she doubts his motivations on one page, the next paints Ross as a reformed and sympathetic partner in her quest for the truth. Elliott says she shows readers this internal tug-of-war in the name of transparency, but it works to underscore the possibility that she’s been duped by a man she trusted.

Their relationship is also how she landed a publisher. The prominent place Elliott initially gave to the legal issues surrounding the death penalty and mental illness turned off editors. Only after Elliott shifted her focus to her friendship with Ross did she land a deal with Penguin Press. Even then, her editor cut nearly 200 pages from her first draft, ridding The Man in the Monster of many details about Ross’s court proceedings. Elliot was told that a book that exhaustively explored legal developments wouldn’t grab the average reader the way a journalistic memoir on Elliott’s relationship with a reviled killer would. Indeed, the book’s marketing campaign highlights the “complicated friendship” between the two as much as the “in-depth view into Ross’s life and motivations.” The book’s back cover displays praise from several notable writers struck by the friendship, including New York Times journalist and author Steven Greenhouse, who says, “Elliott has done something no other journalist has done—she devoted 10 years getting to know a serial killer, giving the reader a rare glimpse into the mind of a man, a ‘monster,’ who killed eight women.

Rather than a selling point, this friendship would be a clear conflict of interest in beat reporting, whether it be with a politician, business leader, or athlete. There’s too much room for ethical lapses, misplaced trust, and perceived bias. Ted Conover, a renowned immersive journalist and New York University professor, says the need to build rapport with longform subjects invites ethical ambiguity. A romantic relationship, he says, is an obvious misstep. Friendship, though? Conover has grown “friendly” with sources, including a hatchet murderer turned tech entrepreneur. But as vital as rapport is to this work, it does not demand such intimacy. The journalist’s commitment to a subject need not exceed transparency and straightforwardness. “When you’re investing books’ worth of time in somebody’s life, they deserve to know where you’re coming from, even if that reduces your power in some way,” he says.

manmonster.jpg

Elliott opened up to Ross in a way expected of a source, not a journalist. She told him of an assault and attempted rape she suffered in college. She opined about her evolving faith and her takes on life and death. She sacrificed time with her children during vacations, holidays, and mornings before school. At one point, her son called her “the worst mother in the entire world,” because she’d rather chat with a serial killer than her kids. She also paid for trips to visit him in prison and spent thousands of dollars in collect telephone calls out of her own pocket.

The give and take between Elliott and Ross isn’t journalistic in the traditional sense. But it does illuminate what it’s like to befriend a serial killer—a situation inconceivably foreign to most people. Her candor jeopardizes the seriousness of her journalism, yet it gives readers something that a straight-reported piece couldn’t.

As much as journalists may deny it, emotional stories stir up feelings in reporters. Pamela Colloff, an editor and longtime writer for Texas Monthly, says she struggles with getting caught up in these types of stories. The key, she says, is to find a way to work those emotional responses into the story. She aims to mold a narrative that lets readers reach these conclusions on their own.

Elliott, too, guides readers to her takeaways: that Ross was a human being, not a monster; that the courts don’t handle mental illness well. But the seasoned journalist—she also taught for 10 years at the Columbia Journalism School—begins The Man in the Monster by disclosing her friendship with Ross and anti-death penalty views, a reminder of conflicts of interest that she repeats throughout the book. By exposing her biases, she gives readers the chance to make their own decisions about the story she tells.

Elliott’s lifelong anti-death penalty views predisposed her to connect so deeply with a man on Death Row. She planned to write one article for the weekly Connecticut Law Tribune, of which she was the editor, when she began reporting on Ross’s death penalty case in 1995. He had been taking female hormones in the years after his 1984 arrest to combat his diagnosis of “sexual sadism.” The treatment destroyed his fantasies of rape and murder, and he grew remorseful for his crimes, Elliott contends. By the time the state had overturned his first death sentence because of legal complications, Ross had vowed not to return to court. In what he labeled an effort to spare his victims’ families the pain of another trial, he volunteered to be executed.

“When you’re investing books’ worth of time in somebody’s life, they deserve to know where you’re coming from, even if that reduces your power in some way.”

Elliott’s focus soon shifted from the legal debacle to creating an “intimate portrait of a serial killer.” In doing so, Ross’s actual motivation for surrendering his life took on a greater role, though it remained hazy. He had long harbored suicidal thoughts, and he wanted others to believe, as he did, that he was mentally ill. He also wished to be remembered for a noble final act. Those selfish desires might have driven his willingness to die. To Elliott, however, Ross appeared sorry for his crimes. She weighed his possible reasons for accepting the death penalty for years, discussing them with Ross, his victims’ family members, and others. She eventually came to believe that both her interpretations and Ross’s claims were true to some degree, a conclusion she would have missed had she wagered all her trust on the killer.

The state ultimately denied Ross’s request for voluntary execution and sent him before a jury, which once again sentenced him to death. He didn’t appeal the decision. Coupled with Elliott’s outside reporting, the final months of Ross’s life gifted the writer some of her biggest takeaways. “There’s something about knowing you’re going to die that allows you a certain amount of freedom in what you’re going to say [rather] than when you think you have decades to go,” she says. It was then that he opened up about his faith, the sole topic he’d initially deemed off-limits. Whether Elliott gained that access as a reporter, rather than a friend, is doubtful.

Meanwhile, Ross viewed himself not merely as a source but a second-string investigator. He yearned to understand why he’d committed the gruesome acts of his past, but he couldn’t even recognize the faces of the women he’d killed. His insights into his behavior, both during his killing spree and beyond, were likely clouded by lies, denial, or an inability to remember. “I knew he had a perverted view of the world, in terms of how he perceived himself and others,” Elliott says of Ross. Rather than strive for a seamless narrative, Elliott uses these gray areas to build a book that spurs conversations about the craft and refuses to define Ross in simple terms.

Elliott says she set out to document the legal complexities surrounding mental illness, but she soon saw the story as a chance to put “a face on the death penalty.” She couldn’t have done that in a journalistically sound way without her mountain of reporting. But traditional reporting alone wouldn’t have yielded such intimacy with Ross. His death makes it impossible to gauge his reaction to Elliott’s book, but she’s confident he wouldn’t object to the content. After reading it, one victim’s mother told Elliott she wished the state hadn’t executed Ross, so researchers could have studied his mind. One of the victim’s siblings came to see Ross in a different light, as well. “If she can come to that—and if her daughter can come to the point where she says, ‘I forgive him’—I think I’ve done something,” Elliott says. Such an outcome might satisfy a friend or anti-death penalty advocate as much as it would a journalist.

Has America ever needed a media watchdog more than now? Help us by joining CJR today.

Jack Murtha is a CJR Delacorte Fellow. Follow him on Twitter at @JackMurtha