Following the paper trail in writing A STRANGER KILLED KATY
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