A College Crime in Kentucky

Book review: Bluegrass: A True Story of Murder in Small-Town Kentucky, by William Van Meter

After finishing Hillbilly ElegyI was still in the mood to read about Appalachia, so Bluegrass seemed a good option to check off my reading list. I’m not sure how I found itbut I love stories from the lesser known corners of America and true crime, so in searching relevant reads in this vein, it must’ve popped up. This is a difficult-to-stomach story that took place the year I started college. I have a vague memory of hearing news about it, although I’m not completely certain I’m not getting it tangled up in memory with another event.

Katie Autry, a college freshman at Western Kentucky University in Bowling Green, was raped, stabbed, sprayed with her own hairspray and set on fire in her dorm room, with the sprinkler system rigged so as not to kick on. Beyond awful. She survives her burns long enough to spend a few days in hospital, but ultimately succumbs to them. She was a typical college student, a partier but also a worker. She’d come through a rocky upbringing along with her sister, torn between a troubled mother and the confusion of a foster family who loved her, but who she seemed to see as an either/or option with her biological family. She had the potential to get herself together after her hardships and have a happy, successful life and career, until she fell victim to bad circumstance and someone’s horrible actions.

DNA evidence pinpoints one suspect only, but through police coaxing, he fingers a second suspect who was marginally involved in that night’s partying, but has no connection to Katie, her dorm, or anything else in the case. He still endures imprisonment, a trial, and is deemed guilty in local perception. Reading interrogation dialogues between investigators and the acquaintance who implicated him is sickening, they’re so clearly leading just to get the guy to admit his own involvement. It’s awful.

The oddest, most unfulfilling part of the book was how flat the personality of Stephen, her killer, comes across. A young boy himself, he’d dabbled in some illegality but it seemed a mighty leap to make to get to this horrific, particularly barbaric crime. Something felt very lacking, and seemed like a missed opportunity on journalist William Van Meter’s part. The stories were told somewhat flatly, in a reported tone, without much digging beneath the surface. In such a weird case with bizarre circumstances and lack of clear precedence in the perpetrator, I think more journalistic effort was warranted.

But the story itself is interesting, enough that it kept me glued to the book from start to finish. I would’ve liked a deeper, more explored narrative, but for a straightforward true crime story, it’s engaging enough.

On a side note, check out this alternative cover/title combo from another edition of the book released by St. Martin’s True Crime:

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I loathe that cheesy, ultra-dramatic true crime packaging, with a forgettably melodramatic title, breathless summary recitation of subject matter, tagline that could fit a teen slasher movie, and cover that belongs on a supermarket checkout rack. Yuck. I love true crime that’s more journalistic in scope, written with a literary bent and a walkthrough of the justice system. It helps us understand and process these current events that happen around us that otherwise are shocking and scary without clear social context.  But I hate when they’re packaged like this, shlocky and sensationalist, the literary equivalent of rubbernecking. How unfortunate that a book that was about halfway to being a good entry in the genre got a makeover to look like this.

One last bit of bitching: I noticed a Goodreads reviewer posted this: “Not to blame the victim, but she was engaging in risky behavior and associating with some unsavory characters.” Ok. So, blaming the victim, is what that is. What college kid, or non-student, for that matter, doesn’t end up “associating” with some unsavory characters somewhere along the way? Go to any college party and there are unsavory characters lurking. This VICTIM got a ride home with a decidedly non-unsavory character who happened to also give a ride to an unsavory one who came back later with bad intentions, and she was failed in terms of security and protection by her university dorm. Fuck this reviewer and everyone else who has this bullshit mentality! Then every week in the news we have people screaming about the implausibility of rape and assault victims coming forward years later or not following through to prosecution. Idiocy like this is the problem. I don’t understand how she could actually read the same book I did and come to this conclusion. End rant!

Bluegrass: A True Story of Murder in Small-Town Kentucky
by William Van Meter

first published January 2008 by Free Press

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