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‘Son’ author ‘documented humanity of his victims,’ friend says

UPDATED: Sat., Oct. 10, 2015

From 1978 to 1981, more than 40 women were brutally assaulted on Spokane’s South Hill. Eventually, Kevin Coe (then known as Fred Coe) was convicted of some of the assaults. He served 25 years in prison and remains confined to the Special Commitment Center on McNeil Island. He has always maintained his innocence.

The story was already national news. After all, Coe was the son of a prominent Spokane family − his mother, Ruth, was a noted socialite, and his father, Gordon, was managing editor of The Spokane Daily Chronicle. The case took a bizarre twist when his mother, Ruth, was arrested and convicted for trying to take out a hit on the judge and prosecutor in her son’s case.

In 1983, journalist Jack Olsen published “Son: A Psychopath and His Victims,” which became a national best-seller and won an Edgar Award for nonfiction.

Now, Scribner has re-released “Son” in print and for the first time as an e-book. Olsen, a longtime resident of Bainbridge Island, died in 2002. His friend Gregg Olsen, a best-selling true-crime writer and no relation to Jack Olsen, was tasked with writing a new forward for the book. In an email interview, we talked with Gregg Olsen about the lesson that can be learned from reading “Son” today and the impact Jack Olsen’s work had on his own life.

Q. You write in the new forward that “Son” inspired you to become a true-crime writer. What was it about “Son” that you found so fascinating?

A. While the crime spree was horrific and disturbing enough, one of the things that made “Son” such a compelling book was the way Jack Olsen dug into the history and psychology of both sides of the crime. He wrote about Fred, Ruth and Gordon with a kind of immersive narrative that put you, the reader, right there with them. Reading that book is like lifting up the curtain and finding out that the people next door were not as they seemed at all – and once you got to know them, you wanted to put up a For Sale sign and get out of the neighborhood.

As great as Jack Olsen’s research and writing could be, it was the way he documented the humanity of his victims that also resonated with me – and still does. I always considered Jack’s books to be about people first. Not a crime. They were people who were touched by something very dark and evil. For the victims in Jack’s books (he wrote 30 others, many dealing with true stories of rape or serial killers), the evil didn’t define them at all. For the perpetrators, he made us see the trajectory of life events, circumstances, sometimes even biology that led them to do the unthinkable.

Q. Since the Coe case, Spokane has seen its share of high-profile crime and intrigue. The serial killer Robert Yates, ousted mayor Jim West, Ruby Ridge just up the road from here, even the recent Rachel Dolezal controversy all come to mind. Why re-release “Son” now?

A. “Son” is an American classic in a genre that doesn’t get a whole lot of respect. It has been out of print for many years and there’s a renewed interest in the kind of thoughtful reporting on crime that “Son” exemplifies.

Q. Did you ever interview Coe?

A. No. The closest I got was talking to a woman who was in love with him, wanted to marry him and was trying to help win his release. She was sure that he was not the monster the world – and this book in particular – had made him out to be. He’d convinced her that he’d been wrongly convicted.

Q. What can we learn from revisiting this story now?

A. So much time has passed that the Coe story has now drifted into the realm of Spokane history, but like other notorious crimes they linger in the memories of those who lived through it. What can be learned? I’m still inspired by the victims who stood up and faced their attacker when rape was something that was barely talked about in polite company.

Rape still exists, of course. But I think “Son” is a great reminder that evil can be extinguished when we rally around each other with compassion and vigilance. Guys like Coe are out there and when they do their evil deeds, we know that no one asked for it. We know that no one should live with shame because of it. But there was a time, not long ago, when all of that wasn’t true.

Jack Olsen’s book reminds all of us that no matter how beautiful the place, no matter how pretty it’s surface, bad things lurk there. And we’re just not going to stand for it.

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