Man of murder

Skip Hollandsworth lives a life of crime without ever breaking a law. The Texas Monthly executive editor and author has made a career in revealing the lives of the state’s most eccentric and violent offenders. His article, “Midnight in the Garden of East Texas,” about a charismatic funeral director who murders an elderly woman, hit the big screen as “Bernie” starring Jack Black, Shirley MacLaine and Matthew McConaughey. His latest book, “The Midnight Assassin,” highlights a 19th-century serial killer who slayed servant girls and socialites in Austin. But at home in Preston Hollow, he’s the crotchety neighbor who wishes the speeding teenagers would slow down.

Did you ever imagine that your career would revolve around crime?
Never. It remains a mystery to me why I decided to write crime stories. I am the son of a minister. I had no dark side to my personality. I was just this normal white bread guy. Then, one day, I read a story about a talented man who had all these artistic qualities. He had been arrested for picking up prostitutes in South Dallas, shooting them in the back of the head and cutting out their eyeballs so perfectly that when he shut their eyes, you couldn’t tell they were missing.

I could just not stop thinking about this man — how such a talented, accomplished person would have this depraved part of him that would make him step over the line and do something unfathomable. “How does a man get to the place in his life where he wants to cut out the eyeballs of women and keep them?” I went on a yearlong journey to try to discover his life and what happened that made him act this way. I ended up, at one point, taking my stepdaughter, Hailey, to an abandoned house that he once owned, and we broke in to see what we could find. (Watch the video for that spellbinding story)

What intrigues you about crime?
I think what intrigues me about it is how people who seem to live normal lives suddenly and inexplicably step over this invisible line into doing things they probably couldn’t even imagine themselves doing. How does someone get to the point where they want to murder a loved one or rob a bank or go on a serial killing spree? It’s a source of never-ending fascination to me.

Of all the stories you’ve done, what has shocked you the most?
Well, it’s hard to beat a guy who cuts out eyeballs. The rich guy in Houston that had his wife shot in front of their children. A lot of domestic murders I don’t get — why a husband would go to such extremes.

Have you found any answers?
No. That’s why I keep my job. There’s no answer yet.

How did you learn “Murder in the Garden of East Texas” would become a movie?
The phone rang, and he said, “This is Richard Linklater.” I knew who that was, but I thought it was a joke. He said he wanted to turn this article into a movie. I went, “Well, go for it.” We went to the trial of Bernie. We wrote a screenplay. He actually wrote most of it. It sat on a shelf for 10 years, because producers and studios kept going, “A gay funeral home director shooting an elderly woman four times in the back. A crazy district attorney who is obsessed with bringing him down. This story is too over the top.” They didn’t think it was really real, but every bit of that movie was real.

What crime story has been the hardest to shake?
It’s the one I wrote that led to the book, “The Midnight Assassin.” That’s the story I’ve obsessed about since 1998, so nearly 20 years. It’s the story of Austin in 1885 just as it was transforming itself into a glittery, gilded-age city. Suddenly, the bodies of women were showing up in backyards, mutilated and murdered. Axed to death. Dagger marks up and down their bodies. Ice picks driven through their ears. It was a tale that had been lost to history. I stumbled across the story and thought, “How in the world did this emerge?” There’s a mystery at the end, and I’m still obsessed with figuring out what happened and who did it.

Was that your favorite piece that you wrote?
My favorite story was one that occurred two blocks from here. In 1973, a boy, John McClamrock, at Hillcrest High School was in a football accident and became a quadriplegic. Instead of being taken to an institution to live out his days and die, his mother took him home and took care of him for the next 33 years. I thought this is a story about courage and loyalty and duty — the ability to make a life out of what seemed to be nothing.

How was this story different from the rest?
What drew to me the story was that it was about a normal man who decided not to give up and to make something of his life. It was about trying to find the secret of how to live a good life, despite every obstacle thrown in your way. That’s the total opposite of a murder story. This is a story of goodness and achievement.

What was growing up in Wichita Falls as a preacher’s kid like?
My father was a minister who had Presbyterian churches in North Carolina, Kentucky and Texas. For mystical reasons, he went from Lexington, Ky., to barren Wichita Falls, Texas and thought he had found the promised land. This is a man who grew up in the Smoky Mountains. He passed that love onto me.

Wichita Falls is full of really fascinating characters from rich, eccentric oilmen to sports stars to funny housewives. I got to watch it firsthand, because I was living in a preacher’s house where people came to talk to my dad. My sisters and I would quietly sneak down the hall to pick up the conversations he was having. So that’s what journalism is. You pick up conversations. You pick up the truths of people’s lives.

Did you always want to be a journalist?
I went to college on a music scholarship. I was the Yo Yo Ma of Wichita Falls, thinking I was really special. Then I got to TCU in the music department and saw people who had been practicing hard. I was talented, but I didn’t really practice much.

When did you move to the neighborhood?
I came to Preston Hollow in 1992 and stayed. I first came into an apartment on Bandera in the Carlton House. Then I moved to Norway, and the last few years I’ve lived here on Glendora. I’m not very geographically ambitious.

When you’re not engrossed in crime, what do you do?
I’m living the life of a suburban schlub. I watch TV, and I watch movies, and I go out to dinner.

The time is beginning to come where I can lay in bed with my grandchildren and tell them stories. Sort of my favorite thing to do in life is make up ghost stories for children. They don’t take on the violent level that my real stories do.

I used to go to Preston Hollow Elementary when my youngest daughter, Tyler, was there. I made up an entire series of tales about people who lived in the basement at Preston Hollow Elementary. I thought they were riveting, educational, entertaining, helped children with their imaginations. Then one parent had her child removed from the class, because I was causing too much anger.

What do you love and hate about the neighborhood?
What I like most about the neighborhood is talking to people on the street when we walk our dogs. What I like least is the property taxes that keep going up and up and, sadly, up. There used to be a time when I was part of the new Preston Hollow crowd, and now I’m one of the old coots.

What would you change about Preston Hollow?
This sounds so ridiculous because of my past life, but I’d like for the young teenagers to stop driving so fast. The little cute children that have grown up on the street are now teenagers in sports cars. It is a calamitous life to walk outside into your front yard not knowing what is going to come racing past you.

What are your favorite neighborhood spots?
I like anything in the Preston Royal section, because part of my aging process is not wanting to drive anywhere longer than five minutes. So Preston Royal is sort of this glamorous destination for me in life. I don’t really go to an office, so it’s nice to go to a restaurant, even if it is only five minutes away.

If you could hide a body anywhere in Preston Hollow, where would it be?
I would hide it in the alley behind Amegy Bank on Northwest Highway, because there’s a lot of traffic there. There’s probably no security cameras. No one would notice what you’re doing. Or you could dump it off as you drive by Edgemere Park at sunset.

Have you thought about this before?

Are you sure?
I’m positive.

Interview edited for clarity and brevity.

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