Insights into True Crime
Contributing writer Laura Brackin recently had the opportunity to ask SHSU instructor and author of Seed of Villainy Tannie Shannon about his book and get some insight into his experience writing a nonfiction work about a true crime case so close to home.
On the evening of September 12, 1995, twelve-year-old McKay Everett was kidnapped from his Montgomery County home in Texas and driven to Louisiana where he was shot and left in a swamp. Ex-Sheriff Captain Hilton Crawford was not an investigator on this case, rather he was the perpetrator of a ransom situation gone wrong.
Tannie Shannon’s book, Seed of Villainy, goes into detail about Crawford’s life, allowing the reader to get into his head and see how decisions he made led him, and young McKay, to this fateful night.
Q: When did you first hear about the McKay Everett/Hilton Crawford case, and what interested you such that you decided to write about it?
A: Like most residents of Montgomery County, I read the daily headlines as the case
unfolded, yet it remained just another brutal crime, likely committed by a psychopath or pedophile or junkie or some other social misfit. Even as Crawford was arrested and McKay’s body recovered, I gave the crime little thought. It wasn’t until almost a year later that I learned any of the details about Crawford and his coming trial. They came by accident as my wife and I enjoyed an evening on our deck with a pitcher of margaritas. Our next-door neighbor, Attorney Lynn Martin, pulled into her driveway after an extra-long day and we waved her over for a drink. She told us what a stressful day she had helping prepare a defense for her new client—Hilton Crawford. She had been appointed to the defense one month before the trial was to begin. Over margaritas, she told us how overwhelmed she felt and what a nice person Crawford seemed to be; she did not believe he could have done it. She also told us that she didn’t feel qualified to defend a capital murder case, but that the judge disagreed and insisted that she take the case. Everything she told us about the case and about Crawford made me want to know more. My curiosity began that night, with the complex life-death irony described by Crawford’s newly-appointed lawyer.
Q: What were some of the more difficult aspects of researching and writing Seed of Villainy?
A: After the initial hurdles of obtaining Crawford’s permission to tell his story and being granted special permission by the Warden to bring in a recording device and note-taking materials, I found that telling the story honestly as I interpreted it was much harder than I expected. I had copies of the trial transcripts and all the newspaper accounts, but I wanted more. I wanted to know how someone makes the extremely unlikely transition from outstanding, popular high school athlete and highly-respected law enforcement officer to death row inmate. I had to try to understand his motivation, to try to feel what he felt, and to accomplish this, I imagined I was him. I made the same trip Crawford made with McKay in his trunk. Using a map Crawford drew during one of my interviews, I found the murder scene and the spot where McKay’s body was dumped. I stood in those spots at 2:00 am, the estimated time of death. I listened to the night sounds of the swamp and tried to imagine myself desperate enough to do what Crawford had done. It was an experience that I immediately regretted. I don’t know if it helped me tell the story, but it certainly convinced me that I never want to feel the weight of that much guilt.
Q: What did you find in your research that surprised you?
A: My most surprising revelation was about myself. When I began the project, I saw Crawford only as a character I was trying to understand and document; I could not imagine ever calling him a friend. Yet, through the years I interviewed him, six all together, we began to bond. I suppose sharing the intimate details of another’s life might logically lead to friendship, but it was a friendship I neither expected nor wanted. My awareness came as Crawford received his death date in January 2003, and for the better part of that year, I lost the ability to think. We had both known that his execution was imminent, but having the exact date and time changed that knowledge from an abstract notion to a concrete reality. The matter-of-fact text that announced the date and time his life would be taken affected me greatly. It transcended the issue of just punishment under the law, for there was no question of his guilt. Before this experience, I thought of the death penalty only in terms of guilt or innocence, sort of an eye-for-an-eye philosophy. However, after witnessing the execution of the man who had become my friend, at the appointed day and time, in an effective and prescribed manner, by efficient state employees, I realized that something is wrong—with us or our system—or with my concept of humanity.
Q: Although it is nonfiction, much of Seed of Villainy reads like a novel with a smooth, narrative quality. Can you tell us about your creative writing background?
A: Thank you for your kind words. As to my creative writing background, both my undergraduate and graduate degrees are from Sam Houston and focus on creative writing. At Sam, I was lucky enough to have excellent teachers who influenced and supported my work. Seed of Villainy was my Master’s Thesis and remains my only book-length work. My primary genres are poetry, short story, and essay, although I have also written a short play.
Q: Do you have plans for other books in the future?
A: Plans? I have hope and desire and a handful of unfinished projects, but I’m not sure I have anything I would call a plan. There is, however, a reasonable likelihood that I will eventually finish one of my projects and submit it for publication.
LAURA BRACKIN is a student at Sam Houston State University where she studies in the MFA program for Creative Writing, Editing, and Publishing. She works part time with the Texas Review Press and desires to work as an editor upon graduation, while also building a career as a prose writer. She lives in The Woodlands with her husband, two teenaged kids, and her English pointer.