Dade City author Mary Brett spent four years researching and writing her latest book, “Out Of The Mouths Of Serial Killers’’ (WildBlue Press, 362 pages).
It clinically examines 75 psychopathic killers — chapter by chapter — and provides chilling insight. Her work revolves around a basic question.
Why did you kill?
When Brett, a retired medical recruiter, moved to Dade City in 2016, she remembered watching a television documentary about Gary Ray Bowles. He was on Death Row in Starke after being convicted of murdering five gay men in a pattern of winning their trust, then beating and strangling them. Brett got hooked into the story, but left unsatisfied.
“It was a good interview, but I kept waiting for the woman (interviewer) to ask, ‘Why?’” Brett said. “I knew the story and why he was on Death Row. But she never asked, ‘Why?’
“For me, that’s where this all started.’’
Brett wrote to Bowles in prison and asked that same question: Why?
She also sent a flurry of letters to other serial killers with this premise: She was planning a book. Responses would be used in their entirety with nothing changed or redacted.
Brett’s son was skeptical, saying there was no way Bowles would participate.
“What else does he have to do?’’ Brett said.
Bowles responded almost immediately.
“He was a charmer and knew what to say,’’ Brett said. “He wrote, ‘You’re writing your fourth book? Congratulations. You’re so smart.’ And on and on.
“He wanted me to come up and see him. While I thought that might be an interesting life experience, I was not going to do that. I was not looking for friendship with these people. They are psychopaths. They don’t form friendships. So I thought maybe this book isn’t going anywhere.’’
A few weeks passed and Brett got a second letter from Bowles. This one was more raw, more honest, although it still didn’t completely answer that basic question: Why?
“It was a light-bulb moment, though, so I kept writing the letters and kept seeking responses,’’ Brett said.
In all, Brett said she wrote to about 100 serial killers. She received 30 responses. Some were vulgar. One included an order form for her to purchase a television and VCR for the prison. Others delved into their childhoods and backgrounds. Many clung to their innocence.
“I wasn’t looking to sensationalize the crime,’’ Brett said. “I just presented them and used their exact quotes. Bowles said he had been a victim of sexual abuse as a child. He had a horrible life. He saw himself ridding society of evil (through his murders).
“I tried to take the letters and tie it in to their background and the crime. I went through media accounts, interrogations and parole hearings to find the direct quotes, anything that might give some insight into why these serial killers did these things.’’
Brett also included accounts of the high-profile serial killers — the “rock stars,’’ as she called them — because “you can’t do a book about serial killers without them,’’ referring to the likes of Ted Bundy and Jeffrey Dahmer.
Trying to tie it all together, Brett interviewed psychiatrists and psychologists about potential motivations.
“I don’t know if all the questions get completely answered,’’ Brett said. “You look at nature/nurture and such. There are so many variables and you can boil it down to one commonality. It’s just a piece of humanity that is not normal … and thank goodness for that.
“But the psychologists suggested that these people will never stop killing until they are caught. And the reason is because they liked to do it.’’
Brett said she was “changed’’ by the researching and writing process. Before, she didn’t have a strong opinion about the death penalty. Now she’s a strong proponent.
“These people don’t stop killing,’’ Brett said. “Bundy escaped jail twice and the second time, his last victim was a 12 year old. When they kill multiple people just for the sheer joy of it, I don’t see any reason they should have anything but the death penalty.’’
Asked why she chose to wrote about a macabre subject, Brett said she was always fascinated by the popularity of serial killers as a storyline for books and documentaries.
“You might pick up a novel in the bookstore and have no idea what it’s about,’’ Brett said. “It’s obvious what this book is about. It’s targeted to a market. Nobody is going to pick this up when they’d rather be reading a gardening book.
“This genre and the true crime genre, it just flies off the shelf. You can hardly find a Netflix documentary that’s not about serial killers. People just have a curiosity and fascination with the subject. I did, too, and that led me to pursue this book. There are many things I’m curious about.’’
Brett is nothing but an eclectic author. She has written books about vintage toys, the lives of sideshow freaks, and Victorian mourning customs. She’s currently working on a book about religious cults.
In her hometown of Portsmouth, Virginia, Brett worked on her high school’s newspaper, magazine and yearbook. In passing, her senior English teacher told her she was a good writer. Brett never forgot that. In time, after having some articles about antiques and collectibles published in national magazines, she began pursuing books.
She has been a teacher and a medical recruiter, while also spending time learning how to flip houses for profit. Writing is more of a hobby. But it’s also a passion.
So is the Florida lifestyle.
During a particularly bleak 2016 winter in Virginia, Brett was reading “Bloody Mary,’’ a fiction novel about a female detective. There was a reference about her mother living in Dade City, Florida, a place that “had so many antique stores, you could throw a rock and hit one.’’
That’s how Brett decided to move to Dade City, a place that has fulfilled all her expectations and now serves as the backdrop for her writing. Brett, the mother of two adult sons, lives with her partner, Steve, and their three cats, a dog and a bird.
“I’ve never regretted it, not one day,’’ Brett said. “I love it here.’’
By Joey Johnston
Published September 15, 2021