A Tangled We - Leslie Rule


I will never forget the first time I felt a killer’s eyes burning into me. Yes, the first time. It happened more than once, because it was my job to photograph murderers on trial, and they were not always pleased when I walked up to them and boldly aimed my camera. I was true crime author Ann Rule’s photographer and research assistant. I’m also her daughter.

I was seventeen when my mom started bringing me to trials to take photos for the articles she published in the pulpy-paged detective magazines sold in supermarkets. Throughout the 1960s and 1970s, she saw over a thousand of her articles appear in True Detective and its sister publications—articles she typed on an old-style typewriter in the middle of the rec room with the TV blaring and four noisy kids playing around her. She wrote under male pen names because her editor told her, “No one will believe a woman knows anything about crime.” When I started working with her, I was studying photography at a vocational school where I spent half of my high school day, and my teachers tried to discourage me from pursuing a career in a male dominated field. Female professional photographers were rare at the time.

There may not have been many women working as crime reporters and photographers, but, unfortunately, there were plenty of murderesses. While the majority of killers are male, cases of females who kill go back as far as history can reach. Cynthia Marler was the first murderess I met. She looked more like a movie star than the hit woman she was. The twenty-eight-year-old Hayward, California, mother of three stood 5′0″, weighed ninety-five pounds, and her thick waves of dark hair spilled past her shoulders.

On August 10, 1980, Marler boarded a Seattle-bound plane under an assumed name and prepared to earn the $3,000 and the 1976 Chevy pickup truck she’d been promised for putting an end to an ugly divorce dispute.

The petite killer disguised herself in a blonde wig and stalked Wanda Touchstone, following the thirty-four-year-old University of Washington student to a parking lot where she fatally shot her in the neck and head.

Witnesses saw Marler fleeing the scene and later picked her out of a police lineup. Testifying in court, one witness remarked that she “was very, very small and had a hard stare.” I found myself the recipient of that hard stare soon after I approached her during a trial break in a stuffy Seattle courtroom and asked if I could photograph her. “Yes,” Marler replied, “but don’t take a picture of me when I’m smoking.” I took a few shots and was so nervous I forgot her stipulation. I snapped a photo just as she held a Camel cigarette near her face after exhaling a cloud of smoke. Marler reprimanded me, her voice chilled and unforgiving. “I told you not to take a picture of me smoking!” Her dark eyes bore into me, and I squirmed as I felt the uncomfortable prickle of a killer’s wrath.

Ann wrote Cynthia Marler’s story twice, once for a magazine and then years later as a case included in her book, A Rose for Her Grave—Ann Rule’s Crime Files: Volume One. The photo I shot of the petite killer with cigarette in hand appeared in the book. She’s smiling brightly in the image, but an instant later, she was angry. I wish I had captured that on film!

It might seem odd that my mother exposed her teenage daughter to killers, but she herself met a murderess when she was only nine years old. In fact, the woman taught her to crotchet! Viola was a prisoner in the “Mom and Pop jail” run by my mother’s grandparents in Stanton, Michigan. My great-grandfather, Chris Hansen, was the sheriff, and Anna, my great-grandmother, cooked for the residents. When little Ann spent her summers there, it was her job to carry trays of food to the female prisoners.

In addition to the crochet lessons, Viola gave her advice, warning, “never trust those women who pluck their eyebrows into itty-bitty lines.”

Young Ann wondered why such a nice lady was behind bars awaiting trial for murder. It was “justifiable homicide” the prisoner explained. Yes, she had shot and killed her husband, but she’d caught him in the arms of her best friend in the truck she’d bought for him with tips she made waitressing.

The explanation didn’t satisfy Ann’s curiosity. How could someone take the life of another? The question intrigued her, and she’d one day explore it