In 1987, two women were pulled from a wrecked car in Los Angeles. The older passenger was dead; the younger, barely clinging to life. Investigators soon became suspicious: Why didn’t their injuries appear to be related to the wreck? And why did their clothes smell so strongly of gasoline?
The true-crime tale detailed in Anthony Flacco’s A Checklist for Murder: The True Story of Robert John Peernock takes some incredible turns, and the staged car accident is just the beginning. After Robert Peernock was arrested for murdering his long-estranged wife, Claire, and attempting to murder his 18-year-old daughter, Natasha, he allegedly tried to take out a hit on Natasha and Natasha’s attorney, Victoria Doom.
Despite all of Peernock’s scheming as described in the book, he only managed one fatality: Claire, who died as a result of head trauma she’d experienced before her assailant loaded her and her daughter into a car that he’d rigged to crash and burst into flames. (As you can see from the images, the “burst into flames” part never happened, and Natasha was able to pull through.) Once he was convicted, Peernock—who’d been nursing a persecution complex for years, accusing a former employer of targeting him for being a whistle-blower, among other claims—set up a website accusing various other parties of his crimes.
Author Flacco is unconvinced of Peernock’s insistence that he was framed, and anyone who reads the carefully researched A Checklist for Murder will likely agree. We spoke with him to learn more about the Peernock case, as well as Flacco’s experiences writing about true crime.
io9: How did you learn about the Peernock case, and what made you want to turn it into a book?
Anthony Flacco: The case was brought to me by an attorney who was acquainted with Victoria Doom’s legal assistant, and therefore lived through the entire saga. After reading a novel that I had not yet published, she said “You should write this story.” I said, “Why?” And they sat down and told it to me. I thought it was astounding, and through them I was able to get to Natasha and get her story right. Without that, there would have been no purpose.
That’s the thing about the case. Any time there’s a murder, it’s a tragic fact. But I wouldn’t expect anybody to waste any of their time reading about it, simply because somebody killed somebody else. I believe what makes this a captivating case is when you juxtapose a monster like Robert Peernock—who may have started out as a decent guy, many years earlier, but had slowly morphed into this completely toxic personality—with his daughter, who I found to be intelligent, sensitive, and very good-hearted. I thought, “I have to know more about this dynamic. Where does this girl even come from, [after growing up] in a house like that?”
You were able to interview Natasha Peernock. But Robert Peernock, who has a website dedicated to his claims of innocence, refused to speak to you. Why wouldn’t he share his side of the story with you?
He’s just afraid to confront the very simple questions that I have for him. He prefers to rattle on about his conspiracy theories. Since he filed his own lawsuit, he can produce dozens of very official-looking legal documents which say absolutely nothing about his innocence or guilt in regards to the murder. It’s just sideshow.
You’ve done tons of research on this case; your book is written with great attention to detail. Was it easy to debunk his conspiracy theories?
For a supposed conspiracy, the authorities were totally open with me. I was able to look at the police files. I was allowed to look at the “murder book,” which is the cumulative total of police reports, photographs, and autopsy reports. I was given the medical examiner’s report. For an entire week, I sat and read the entire case, top to bottom. Coming away, there was absolutely no doubt about this terrible crime and this guy’s guilt.
This is the truth: Peernock has got this website where he claims that I wrote the book because I was hired by the conspirators, and all this other crap. But if his story had been true, there are no police in the world who could have stopped me from telling it. It would be the great American story: the little guy against the system. All he wants to do is protect the beleaguered taxpayers, but now “they’ve” gone after his family and framed him for murder. Are you kidding? If that was true, I would write that in a heartbeat, and I’d get a movie deal the following day. But it’s just not true. It’s just not.
A Checklist for Murder was originally published in 1995. What’s different about the new version that’s out this week?
The new version of the book includes the complete version of the original publication, plus a new afterword that I’ve written, bringing readers up to date on what’s gone on since the book was first put out—both with Robert Peernock and with his daughter, Natasha. She remains in hiding to this day; she did a brief appearance for a television program called Epic Mystery on Discovery ID, and even there she had to be shot in silhouette. [Note: Flacco and Natasha Peernock appear on the show’s December 12 episode.] They don’t want any current photos of her on the record. Imagine 20 years later, this woman still has to live in hiding from her father as if he were a Mafia kingpin and she had stolen dope from him, or something. And all she did was try to stay alive.
You’re also the author of several novels. How does your approach to writing change depending on what kind of book—fiction or non-fiction—that you’re working on?
I can honestly tell you I feel blessed to do either one. I can’t say I prefer one over the other. But they’re two different forms. If you speak two different languages, you can understand what I mean. It’s just different ways of approaching stories. The problems are always the same—the problems of human nature. You have to analyze the personalities involved, and then render them in such a way that the reader will buy into it. Drawing the reader in really becomes, in my opinion, your whole job; whether it’s fiction or non-fiction is a secondary choice.
Novels, to me, are a great luxury. When I don’t have a non-fiction book that I have to work on, novels are what I go to, because you can control all of the story. Usually when I get a non-fiction book, I’ve had people assign me their story rights, and I have to get moving. Everything else goes off the table, and I have to get that book done.
One of your other true crime books is The Road Out of Hell: Sanford Clark and the True Story of the Wineville Murders, about the infamous Wineville Chicken Coop Murders. These crimes happened in the 1920s, but came back into the public eye with the release of The Changeling, and were mentioned again on American Horror Story last week. Why has the fascination with that case endured?
I hate to say, but it’s the fact that [Gordon Northcott] killed so many young boys. It’s the raw sensationalism of it. But the great part of that story is Sanford Clark, the surviving boy. That’s the part of the story that I emphasized, that I wanted people to know about. But unfortunately ... murder sells. It just does. If you have a crime that involves at least 20 victims, maybe twice that, people all of a sudden sit up and take notice.
Between Natasha Peernock and Sanford Clark, these books share a theme of people who have survived terrible ordeals. What draws you to those kinds of stories?
It’s the only thing that makes me want to write this kind of stuff. That’s the truth. Otherwise I think you’re just repackaging misery and selling it to people. There’s an implied assurance when you tell a true story like this. In the case of a novel, you can say, “Well, that’s just Anthony making up [a story].” But when the story’s true and really thoroughly documented and photographed, and it’s right there for you, there’s a great sense of assurance that an ordinary human being, like you or me or anybody else, suddenly falls into this horror show, this ordinary creature has the strength to recover and go on, and lead a good an meaningful life. That’s huge.
Parts of The Road Out of Hell are hard to read, when I talk about the murders of the boys and the ways that Northcott worked. But I also feel that if you don’t look down into those burial pits, how can you read the whole resolution of the story? The thrust of my book is the way Sanford managed to recover. His recovery doesn’t mean much if we don’t understand what he was recovering from. But I also say, if you’ll just stick with me to the end of that book, it’s a beautiful ending. And I didn’t make it up—this man lived that ending.
Photos from the Peernock case courtesy of Diversion Books