Why I Wrote A STRANGER KILLED KATY
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