Fifteen-year-old Tony Ciaglia had everything a teenager could want until he suffered a horrific head injury at summer camp. When he emerged from a coma, his right side was paralyzed, he had to relearn how to walk and talk, and he needed countless pills to control his emotions.
Abandoned and shunned by his friends, he began writing to serial killers on a whim and discovered that the same traumatic brain injury that made him an outcast to his peers now enabled him to connect emotionally with notorious murderers. Soon many of America’s most dangerous psychopaths were revealing to him heinous details about their crimes—even those they’d never been convicted of.
Tony despaired as he found himself inescapably drawn into their violent worlds of murder, rape, and torture—until he found a way to use his gift. Asked by investigators from the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children to aid in solving a murder, Tony launched his own searches for forgotten victims with clues provided by the killers themselves.
The Serial Killer Whisperer takes readers into the minds of murderers like never before, but it also tells the inspiring tale of a struggling American family and a tormented young man who found healing and closure in the most unlikely way—by connecting with monsters.
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July 23, 1992
A half-dozen boys running barefoot down an embankment into a cove at Possum Kingdom Lake. It was shortly after four o’clock. The afternoon temperature had just peaked at 93.9 degrees. Unlike most man-made reservoirs in Texas, which were muddy, the water in this twenty-thousand-acre playground was clear blue. It was home to Camp Grady Spruce, a popular YMCA getaway about a hundred miles west of Dallas.
Tony Ciaglia, Andy Page, and Grant Cooper were among the first to reach the Yamaha WaveRunner jet-ski there. The boys had met three years ago when they were assigned to bunks in the same tent. They had been inseparable ever since. Best buds forever.
This was the first summer the camp had owned WaveRunners, and anything fast and exciting was a welcome respite at the conservative religious outpost, which traced its roots to 1992. Only in the last nine years had girls been permitted to attend the camp’s two-week sessions. The boys formed a line behind the WaveRunner and with a twist of the throttle, the WaveRunner’s powerful 650-cc engine roared to life. The first rider burst from the cove, sending a rooster spray rocketing from the tail of the red and white machine.
“Tony’s counselor had the day off,” Chris would later recall, “but it was hot and the boys wanted to take a WaveRunner out onto the lake, so they asked another counselor. He gave them the key and then disappeared, leaving them unsupervised.”
WaveRunners were supposed to be ridden only as far as a red buoy bobbing about two hundred yards offshore. After reaching the buoy, the rider returned to shore to let someone else take a turn. Andy was next in line with Tony and Grant behind him. But as the WaveRunner was returning to the cove, Andy yelled to a younger camper named David standing on the dock close to them. He was waiting to go waterskiing. Andy asked David if he wanted to switch places.
David did. He jumped into the lake and got to the head of the line at about the same time as the returning WaveRunner. He climbed aboard the WaveRunner and took off.
As the others waited in the waist-deep water for their turn, Grant splashed Tony and asked, “Have you asked her yet?”
“When we get done here,” Tony replied, smiling.
“You’d better hurry up.”
Tony had a crush on Kelly Christiansen, a fellow fifteen-year-old from Dallas. Blond. Cute. He wanted to take her to the Friday night dance, the last social event before camp ended. Unfortunately, so did Andy. They’d been competing for her affections while Grant played the neutral friend, watching amused from the sidelines.
Tony had first noticed Kelly last summer, but she’d not shown any interest in him or any other boys. Tony had promised himself that this summer would be different. He’d searched for her as soon as his family pulled into the Southern Methodist University parking lot twelve days earlier. It was where campers boarded commercial buses hired to transport kids in Dallas to the camp. Seats in the buses were assigned alphabetically. Because “Ciaglia” followed “Christiansen,” Tony had known Kelly would be sitting near him. He’d get an uninterrupted, two-hour head start over Andy.
Tony had been so eager to talk to Kelly that he’d scooped up his gear from the back of the family’s Plymouth minivan and started running across the SMU parking lot without saying goodbye to his parents or Joey, his kid brother, three years younger. Joey also was going to camp—but at a different site.
Once inside the bus, Tony slipped into his assigned seat and immediately leaned forward to speak to Kelly. That’s when he heard someone rapping on the bus window. Everyone did. It was Al, signaling Tony to come outside.
Tony trudged down the aisle, and when he got outside, his parents—both Al and Chris—hugged and kissed him. Tony was totally humiliated. He could feel all of the kids inside the bus watching him. He wanted to yell, “My dad’s Italian, okay? That’s what Italian families do! They kiss and hug whenever they say hello or goodbye.” Just like in The Godfather.
He’d returned to his seat red-faced, without saying a word.
Despite that rocky start, this summer had been Tony’s best. He, Andy, and Grant were CITs, counselors in training. The younger kids looked up to them. It was their year to be the cool, older kids who taught the newbies the camp’s traditions.
Waiting for his turn on the WaveRunner, Tony appeared to be a teenager who had, as Texans liked to put it, “life by the horns.” He’d won more gold medals that week than anyone else in a camp Olympics. Even better, he’d sat next to Kelly several nights during dinner.
Molly Ray, another camper swimming in the lake, noticed Tony and Grant waiting in line for the WaveRunner to return. She thought it was odd because campers were supposed to sign their names on a clipboard the night before if they wanted to ride a WaveRunner. She began swimming toward the boys to claim a turn.
Because Tony was facing Grant in the water, he had his back to the lake and didn’t see the WaveRunner as it rounded the red buoy and began racing back toward the cove. But other kids did. The WaveRunner’s young driver was not slowing down. David apparently planned to make a sharp turn at the last possible second and splash the older boys with the wake.
But the young driver had overestimated his skills. He couldn’t accomplish the maneuver as planned.
Grant Cooper looked up from the water just as the WaveRunner smacked into the back of Tony’s skull.
“It whacked him hard,” Cooper said later. “He took the brunt of it. I tried to duck and turn, but it hit me on the side of my head and I went under.”
Molly Ray would still remember the scene years later. “I saw this flash—this huge thing—suddenly shoot by me as I was swimming. The next thing I noticed was bright red in the water and, I thought, ‘Oh my God! That’s blood. That’s blood in the water. Oh my God! That’s from the WaveRunner and it almost hit me.’”
Grazed on the side of his head, Grant Cooper next remembered waking up on the shore. “I don’t remember getting out of the water or how I got to the shoreline, but when I came to, I was walking around in circles and people were yelling at me because my head was bleeding. I had a gash on the side of my head and a concussion.”
Grant looked for Tony. “He was floating facedown in the water where we’d been standing. People were rushing to drag him out. I remember thinking, ‘Oh shit! Tony’s not moving. I think he’s dead!’”
© 2012 Pete Earley, Inc.
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