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The Tragedy of True Crime

Wildoner collage

The Tragedy of True Crime

When you write about true crime, other people’s pain becomes part of your work.

After Bob Wildoner, a 76-year-old Vietnam veteran, disappeared in a remote corner of the Mojave Desert, and months passed without a single clue, the case seemed like it would make for an intriguing story.

Was Bob a victim of foul play? Did he wander into the wilderness?

On a sunny Saturday in early 2023, I drove to Bob’s house in Apple Valley, California, to interview his wife Cindy Lee and his best friend Chuck Stowman.

I rolled into the driveway a few minutes late. When Cindy opened the door, it was apparent she’d been waiting for me.

Spread out on the kitchen counter were photos of Bob, documents about the case, and maps of where he disappeared.

As Cindy and Chuck reminisced about Bob’s love of free-flowing banter and campfire songs, I began to feel the emotional weight of the case.

His nickname was Badwater Bob. He could repair a motor and strum a guitar. Vacations were about the journey, not about Point A to Point B.

Bob proposed to Cindy on a camping trip to Death Valley. He chose a place called Artist’s Palette, where the rocks boast rainbow colors.

There were tears in Cindy’s eyes when she told me: Bob made the ring himself and hid it in a parts box.

In May 2021, when Bob left home on a solo trip to the hot springs in Saline Valley, a place far off the grid, Cindy and Chuck weren’t concerned. Bob had visited there many times.

A witness reported seeing Bob’s pickup truck pull in after dark. Next morning the truck was still there but Bob was gone – as if he’d been swallowed by the moonless night.

When a search and rescue effort failed to turn up any sign, for Cindy the joy of knowing and loving Bob transformed into the anguish of loss without closure.

Put another way: It’s sobering to interview a wife who lost her husband but doesn’t know how it happened, or even when. Can you imagine becoming a widow bit-by-bit?

That’s the thing about true crime: it’s real. True crime may sometimes be packaged as entertainment, but inside the ribboned box you’ll find unalloyed suffering and irredeemable loss.

Seems to me that writers about such subjects ought to respect what’s at stake. As a baseline, perhaps we should swear allegiance to the Hippocratic oath: “First do no harm.”

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