15 May 2023

True Crime Confessions

Note: Jan is anything but a mystery guest but we had a little trouble setting up this column so her name doesn't appear in the usual spot.  Our apologies.  — Robert Lopresti 



by Jan Grape

 As a crime writer have you ever committed a crime? You don't have to admit to any of these  minor...surely misdemeanor things.

Stealing as a kid? Candy, gum, baseball card? Lipstick. Prizes from a Cracker Jacks box. Yes, kids, there used to be prizes. Even money, up to a quarter, I think. I don't remember ever getting more than a nickel and maybe only two of those. I never pryed open a box but I shook at least fifty or so. Trying to guess if any box rattled like a quarter. 

As a teen-ager did you ever steal a car? Tires, money? Ever get caught? I didn't really steal a deputy's car, one evening about twilight time, but he left it running with the keys in it. I think I drove it around the courthouse square. Around the block in case you've never seen a small county courthouse square. What was I doing at the courthouse on an early spring evening? I have no memory of that.

As an adult? Have you ever swiped ashtrays, towels, blankets, pillows or one of those soft, fluffy robes  from a hotel? Or silverware? Or shot glasses from a bar or restaurant?

Have you done any crimes more serious?? Like maybe a DUI? You don't have to answer that either.

Did you ever write about or fictionalize your experience as a Juvenile? Or committing a felony? 

I know most if us have never committed a serious crime but we write about it often. Especially murder. Was it a joke that the heroine of Murder She Wrote was really a murderer because she always stumbled over a body?

If you've never done a crime then how do you research so confidently to write about a kidnapping, a bank heist, or a car bombing?  Do you talk to Police officers? FBI or CIA agents?
This looks huge and it's not.
See next photo for reference.

I once called the Security Chief at Dallas/Fort Worth Airport to ask if an idea I had for a story  was feasible. After I explained that I was a mystery writer he listened to my idea. 

Which was: Could a person flying from Los Angeles, eat dinner and slip the metal knife in the chair back pocket and the hostess who picked up trays didn't notice the missing knife. The bad guy retrieves the knife, goes to lavatory & sharpens the knife point and puts it in his pocket. The plane lands at Dallas/Fort Worth airport for say 30 minutes, half the passengers including our bad guy, stay on as it's a continuing flight to Miami. The passengers who stay onboard are not rescreened and it takes off again. So before the plane gets to Miami, the bad guy stabs another guy to death in the lavatory. The Security guy told me it was feasible but not very likely.

But I had already slipped a steel plated knife into my purse on such a flight. I got away with it. I think I wrote a story like that which was published but I don't remember what anthology where it was published. Have no memory of which one. I'm fairly sure the statue of limitations on both of my crimes have run out. I'll plead not-guilty if ever questioned. 

 Airline knife next to
kitchen knife & scissors.

This was back when security was fairly lax & you got meals on long flights and nice metal forks & knives.

If I'm not mistaken I heard recently some guy used a plastic knife which he'd broken & made a shiv which he used to stab a flight attendant. Hope he didn't read my story 40 years ago to get the idea.

The Austin police dept used to have a Citizen's Police Academy program and as a student you attended a 4 hour class one night a week for 10 weeks. Ours were held at the actual police academy location.  I took the training in 1991. Each week a department head would give an hour talk on their department . The training began for citizens interested in becoming a neighborhood watch captain. But I applied as a mystery writer wanting to be as accurate as possible when writing about police work and I was accepted. Programs covered: White Collar Crime, Robbery/Homocide, Burglary, Firearms, Drugs Victim Services.  Firearms Specialist gave a demo of different weapons & Canine dogs went through their routines, both outside. Fingerprinting got us on a school bus & driven downtown to APD headquarters where we were printed and shown  how they read and reported on fingerprints. We were photographed  and saw how ballistics were done. And shown insider views departments at HQ, including homicide & the Top Floor bosses offices. 

Our two final classes were special.  For one each person was shown a scenario on a big screen, where you had to pretend you were an officer who'd received a call out to a crime scene. You also held a computerized gun which you pointed at the screen, not knowing what you might find. You were then to decide if the scene was a "shoot or don't shoot" situation. You had only 3 seconds or so to decide. Mine was a "shoot" at first, but by the time I pulled the trigger I shot the bad guy in the butt, because he stopped pistol whipping a guy,  then turned and was running away, which then made it, a "don't shoot" situation. It had became a pursue, catch and arrest. It had changed before I could see, understand, then decide, to shoot or not. You just how slim the time margin can be as the deciding factor for an officer.

We had a real graduation ceremony with invited guest & the APD Chief gave us diplomas (certificate) and could join the Alumni Association , which I did.

The other final item was to go in a ride-along in patrol car with an officer for a full 8 hour shift if you wanted to and I wanted to. You could chose a busy or  reasonably quieter sector of town which I did. I was paired with a gruff sounding but very nice officer. We only had two or three potentially dangerous calls. Only one was scary but turned nothing happened he had had me stay in the car.
I enjoyed the whole program. My late husband, Elmer Grape attended CPA and graduated in 1992 and it ran for several more years that I'm aware of, just not sure if APD does the program anymore. I do know you can no longer go on patrol car ride alongs because of insurance, privacy and such nowadays. Next time I'll clue you in on my exciting days & nights as an APD alumni member and getting to be a bad guy. 

In view of mother's day and to honor my mother, aka PeeWee Pierce, I must mention, my adventure at the corner grocery store when I was about 8 years old. We lived about one block from the corner, think maybe 4 houses in the same sjde of the street. I was given a dollar and also permission to walk to store and buy a candy bar. But I could only buy that one chocolate bar and bring home all my change. Mom emphasized only that one candy bar. But while there & looking at all the goodies I decided I absolutely had to have a package of dentyne gum. Naturally I finally slipped the gum in my pocket. Naturally Mom knew by the way I was acting that I'd done something. And am sure she could see the bulge in my pocket. I didn't get a spanking but I got a "talking to" which was worse than a spanking any day. Then I had to walk back to the store and tell Mr Parish what I had done, return the gum and tell him that I was sorry and that I'd never steal from him again. Boy, did that ever hurt my soul. 

Thank you, Mom for keeping from a life of crime. However, she was always proud of my fictitious lies. She read  enjoyed several of my published short stories and thrilled when I won an Anthony Award in 1998. She passed away only 4 days later and my first book wasn't published until 2000. She had read the almost final draft.  I love and miss you, Mom.


  1. Elizabeth Dearborn15 May, 2023 13:11

    Jan, I love your "True Crime Confessions"! My daughter went on a ride-along with a cop one time & said she learned a lot. I don't know if they do them any more, especially around here. But if they do, I would like to do that & really should since I very rarely have the police appear in my stories at all, mainly from lack of knowledge. I guess I've had more contact with actual criminals than with the police.

  2. Thanks Elizabeth. I doubt you can do a ride along any more because of privacy & insurance issues as I mentioned. People are so ready to sue cities police for the least things. They all hope to get a big settlement. But if you go to police HQS and talk to the information officer or even the Assistant Chief and say you are a mystery writer and can you talk to the head of say robbery/ homocide and just ask about their typical day. Ask if they would be willing to read a scene you've written & check it for accurcacy. Oh and give them a book signed to them.

  3. Oh, Jan, I think 99.9% of the population has committed crimes of some level at some age, and the 0.1% who say they never have are lying! Or amnesiac...

  4. Eve, I believe you're correct. And probaly a very high percent of mystery writers draw from their own or freind or relative when writing their fiction.

  5. The Academy sounds like a lot of fun, Jan. I'm envious.

    Your mention of tableware theft made me think of a friend in college. Every few weeks he'd steal a salt shaker from the cafeteria. It struck this casual observer as odd. As it turned out, he was borrowing the shaker, not stealing it… he was stealing the salt. He made popcorn in his dorm and 'borrowed' the salt for it.

    Happy Mother's Day, Jan.

  6. Leigh, that's funny about the borrowed salt shakers. He must have used a lot of salt.
    Yes the Citizen's Police Academy was great fun & I wound up with great contacts for checking police "stuff" for writing as accurately as possible. I even had a very nice homicide detective read a page long scene to verify that I didn't mess it up too much. The officer who coordinated the classes became a good friend for several years. We lost touch after E & I moved into our RV and were traveling out West. The woman who was the first female in APD as a homicide detective, later became head of Robbery/Homicide and after that became the head of the APD Academy was a friend but was killed riding on back of a motorcycle with her police officer husband. Both were killed. Absolutely heartbreaking. They had only been married a few years. She had been a single parent during those hard years. I think about her every time I drive into Austin & take that bad downhill curve.
    Thanks for the Mother's Day wishes. I had a lovely one.


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