top of page

ABOVE: A page from Brian McCarthy's prison file.

In the summer of 2018, I sat at a desk inside the village police station in Potsdam, New York, and thumbed my way, page by page, through a department case file that was more than 30 years old. By reading that 2-inch-thick folder – which I was permitted to see after filing a Freedom of Information Law request – I was transported back to 1986, back to that horrific morning of August 29 when officers got the call about a brutal attack on sophomore Katy Hawelka on the campus of Clarkson University in Potsdam.

To reconstruct these events for my new true crime book A STRANGER KILLED KATY, I would turn to these documents over and over. The file included the police dispatcher’s statement detailing the frantic phone call he received at 3:41 a.m. from a Clarkson security guard. There were statements, too, by several police officers, who offered almost minute-by-minute recollections of what they said and did after they arrived at the Walker Arena crime scene. The file also included a one-page report by the crew from the Potsdam Volunteer Rescue Squad that catalogued Katy’s weak vital signs, visible injuries, and how they had to begin CPR at the scene after she “coded.”

I read with particular interest the police statements by two Clarkson security guards and several other witnesses, some of whom described bizarre interactions with murder suspect Brian M. McCarthy in the hours before the attack. The file also included transcripts of McCarthy’s two interviews with police, detailed reports on the items Katy and McCarthy were wearing, and even floor plans of the police station and emergency room marked up to show where events occurred that morning. The file included dozens of photos taken at the crime scene and at Canton-Potsdam Hospital, where Katy was revived and where McCarthy was transported complaining he had been attacked. One of the photos taken in the emergency room showed McCarthy stretched out on a bed while raising a middle finger at a police investigator.

As I reviewed all this material, I became certain of one thing: The Potsdam police dotted all the I’s and crossed all the T’s to make sure Katy’s killer would not escape justice on some technical flaw by authorities. I was especially impressed with the transcripts revealing careful questioning of McCarthy by Police Chief Clinton Matott, who kept the suspect talking long enough that he hanged himself with his own words. (Former St. Lawrence County District Attorney Charles Gardner, during my interview with him for this book, made a point to praise the Potsdam police, especially Matott, for the way it handled the investigation.)

Obviously, I’m deeply grateful to the Potsdam Police Department not only for giving me access the file, but also to have the foresight to preserve it for three decades, including when it made a move to a new police station a few years ago.

In writing A STRANGER KILLED KATY, I also drew on thousands of other documents obtained from criminal court files in St. Lawrence County; from files in civil court proceedings after Katy’s family sued McCarthy and Clarkson University in Onondaga County; from McCarthy’s prison records kept by New York state’s Department of Correction and Community Supervision; from transcripts for each of his parole hearings since he first became eligible in 2009; and from other records that Katy’s mom, Terry Taber, had preserved, including correspondence with her attorney, Joseph Fahey.

I also spent many hours reading the hundreds of newspaper stories about the case, which even The New York Times covered. I found many other details after WSYR-TV in Syracuse dug through its archives to provide me with a 25-minute video file of its coverage of the case from 1986-1988 and from 2009. Many of the two-dozen or so photos in the book are video screen grabs used with permission from Channel 9.

In my research, I discovered additional aspects overlooked in initial news coverage, including how McCarthy ended up in a Virginia prison in 1985, how in the 1990s he wrote to the St. Lawrence County clerk seeking to keep others from looking at his criminal court file, and how he filed a lawsuit in 2000 to try to wipe off his prison record a violation at Auburn Correctional Facility. The book also draws heavily on parole hearing transcripts, which reveal how McCarthy often spun a version of events far different from what he admitted in his confession to police in 1986 and in his guilty plea in 1987 to second-degree murder, for which he was sentenced to 23 years to life in prison. The transcripts were also valuable for a deep dive into McCarthy’s current mental state as well as the careful way the parole commissioners hold these hearings.

Organizing all this material was one of my biggest challenges. I ended up digitizing every document, sorting them by topic, and putting them into order chronologically. Doing this not only made it easier for me to trace events such as McCarthy’s scattered criminal history. It also allowed me to better see connections between separate events, such as statements by Clarkson officials and the family’s decision to sue the university.

Of course, documents alone could not tell the complete story. In an upcoming blog post, I will discuss the interviews I conducted for the book and the role they played in what I would write.

Related blog post: Why I wrote A STRANGER KILLED KATY

  • William D. LaRue

I first met Terry Taber in spring 2018 at Riley’s restaurant in Syracuse, New York, where I picked at my salad of ribeye steak over mixed greens as I explained how I wanted to write a book about the 1986 murder of her daughter Katy Hawelka. Terry’s attorney and close friend, retired Onondaga County Court Judge Joseph Fahey, joined us for our lunch, where he and Terry spent a lot more time listening than asking questions.

Besides describing to them the book I wanted to write, I thought it was important to explain some of my personal reasons why I was interested in doing so.

When I was a teenager in the 1970s, the man who would be convicted of killing Katy was one of my rural neighbors in Parishville, New York, a town just outside of Potsdam. Brian Milton McCarthy was five years younger than me, and we weren’t close friends. But we attended the same rural district school, where his grandmother was one of my sixth-grade teachers. His family joined our Catholic church, where I was an altar boy. I even visited his house one evening when his parents needed a substitute babysitter. McCarthy was in high school when I left northern New York in 1979 to pursue a journalism career.

On August 29, 1986, while I worked as a news reporter for The (Syracuse) Post-Standard, my father called to tell me that McCarthy had been arrested for a brutal attack on a 19-year-old female student on the Clarkson University campus in the village of Potsdam. Just before 3:30 a.m., this man who was a complete stranger to Katy ambushed her as she was walking past the ice-hockey arena on her way back to her campus residence. McCarthy emerged from the darkness to shove her face into the arena’s exterior wall before beating, kicking, sexually assaulting, and strangling her with his bare hands. She died three days later without ever regaining consciousness. She was buried three days after that in a cemetery not far from her home in Syracuse.

As a reporter, I had covered numerous stories involving violent crimes, including murders, sex-related attacks and other assaults. But I had never heard of this kind of random violence in Potsdam, where many residents felt so safe that they never bothered to lock their doors at night. I also found it bewildering that a former neighbor, raised by such a wonderful family whom I thought I knew pretty well, could have committed such a heinous act. In the news coverage at the time, I found few answers.

I heard little more about McCarthy or Katy's family until 2009, when he first became eligible for parole, and Katy’s mother and other relatives stepped back into the spotlight to oppose it. They launched an online petition and a letter-writing campaign. In media interviews, they explained why they thought that McCarthy did nothing to deserve parole and why he remained a threat if released. They also talked movingly of Katy, a bubbly teenager with an infectious laugh and a bright mind who went off to Clarkson to pursue a career in business management. They shared heart-breaking memories of Katy on life support at the hospital, her face so bruised and swollen that her father initially didn’t recognize her. They talked about her gut-wrenching funeral, about the discovery of security lapses at Clarkson, and a judge’s refusal to allow the family to speak at sentencing. They noted with bitterness how Katy’s killer – who pleaded guilty and was sentenced to 23 years to life – left for prison without ever apologizing for what he did.

For Katy’s family, murder not only stole a loved one and upended their lives. In a cruel irony, it also forever linked Katy to a person they so despised. It was nearly impossible for them to talk about their daughter and sister without also thinking about the man who murdered her. Their one compensation was that, as Katy's next of kin, they had the right to present impact statements to the parole board opposing McCarthy’s release.

Reading about this, I was intrigued by Katy’s promising life cut short, and by her family’s willingness, more than two decades after she was killed, to tear open their old wounds to keep McCarthy from being released.

I thought someone should write a book about this. With my journalism background and personal connection to the case, and with a son newly graduated from Clarkson, I couldn’t think of anyone else better positioned to tell this story with fairness and with the kind of depth only a book could provide.

At Riley’s, I promised Terry and Joe that I didn’t want to write anything that would worsen the considerable pain the family already had endured, but I also wanted to write this as truthfully and completely as possible.

As we finished up the conversation, Terry said her main concern was that the book not make this a biography of McCarthy that glossed over the violent nature of his actions and his bad conduct before and since then. I told her that this was not the kind of book I wanted to write. We parted with Terry saying she needed to talk about my proposal with Katy’s siblings and let me know in a few days if they would participate. If they didn’t approve of the book, I knew it was over, since I would never pursue this knowing I didn’t have the blessings of Katy’s family.

However, not long afterward, I heard from Joe that Terry had agreed to the book. She and her adult children, Betsy, Carey and Joe, would go on to grant me interviews, share documents and photos, and assist me in any way they could in telling this important story about the criminal justice system.

Thus began a writing project that would consume the next two and a half years of my life. The result in the upcoming publication of A Stranger Killed Katy: The True Story of Katherine Hawelka, Her Murder on a New York Campus, and How Her Family Fought Back. It will go on sale January 18, 2021, as a hardback and an ebook just weeks before McCarthy is scheduled to go before the parole board for the seventh time.

In my next blog post, I will share more about my research for the book and a few of the surprises discovered along the way.

Related blog post: Following the paper trail in writing A STRANGER KILLED KATY

Almost a year ago, in April 2017, I had the pleasure of taking a cruise on the Disney Wonder during a 14-day trip that took the ship through the newly expanded locks of the Panama Canal. One of my favorite parts of the cruise was attending lectures by retired canal pilot Kenneth P. Puckett, who kept passengers enthralled with his in-depth knowledge of the canal, including its history and operations, and of the maritime industry. And he kept the lectures lively by sharing "sea stories" about his own personal experiences, from childhood to his military service to his days as a Panama Canal pilot. (Who can forget his tale of piloting a ship with a "pooping" monkey running around the bridge?)

After the cruise ended, of course, I wanted more stories from Captain Puckett. But, alas, I discovered the captain had yet to author a book that would expand upon his fabulous lectures.

I decided I would try to do something about that.

After briefly introducing myself to Captain Puckett before one of his lectures, I got in touch with him by mail and offered to help write his memoirs. Fortunately, he agreed. And for the next several months we spoke by telephone on a regular basis as he spun for me tale after tale from his life, many of which he had never discussed publicly before. I quickly found out that some of his best "sea stories" and personal tales were ones no cruise audience had ever heard.

Working with him over the past 10 months, with Captain Puckett a phone call or email away, I helped to assemble all these stories into a memoir with the same breezy style he brings to his lectures. I think the book will please both those already familiar with his lectures and those who will be introduced to him for the first time by this book.

The book is called, naturally enough, "Captain Puckett: Sea stories of a former Panama Canal pilot." And it's just gone on sale on Amazon as both a 224-page paperback and as a Kindle ebook. We hope to expand distribution to other spots over the next few days.

You can go to Amazon and download a sample of the ebook -- which has the same content as the print version -- and read for yourself a bit from the beginning and check out the table of contents. You can also order the print version. You can ask your local bookstore to order a copy for you, too. Better yet, ask them to stock a bunch of copies, and then tell your friends about it.

Oh, yes, and if you get a chance, book a Disney cruise on the Panama Canal. Since he's lectured on every one of Disney's Panama cruises over the past dozen years or so, there's a good chance you will get to hear the amazing Captain Puckett in person -- and, of course, have him sign a copy of "Captain Puckett."

Bill LaRue

Follow Us
  • Facebook Basic Square
  • Twitter Basic Square
  • Google+ Basic Square
bottom of page