Master of true crime

B Y - A L E X - C R E V A R
I L L U S T R A T I O N S - B Y - B E N - W E S T

Don Davis made a name for himself by churning out paperback exposés on O.J. and Jeffery Dahmer. But his forthcoming book on the JonBenet Ramsey murder case should be a blockbuster in hardback.

As the sun cracked the North Vietnamese horizon in Pleiku, Don Davis—young, wiry, and bushy-mustached—walked across a landing pad dressed in camouflage fatigues and wearing a helmet with UPI stenciled across the front. The year was 1971, and "Joy to the World" was playing over the military base's P.A. system, the lyrics mingling with the sounds of the Huey helicopter Davis was about to board.

Jeremiah was a bullfrog,
He was a good friend of mine,
Never understood a single word he said,
but he always had mighty fine wine.

Acting on a tip that the North Vietnamese were on the offensive in the area, Davis caught a ride with the Air Cavalry, whose characteristic garb included black Stetsons (think Robert Duvall in "Apocalypse Now"). The Air Cav had adopted Davis, a correspondent for United Press International, bestowing on him a Stetson and the nickname "Gunslinger." He rode to the front lines with these macho men; on the way back, he often perched atop body bags.

"Gunslinger" Davis, Air Cavalry adoptee and UPI correspondent, Vietnam.

"I would stay at the front for days at a time," says Davis (ABJ '62), who is a bit thicker around the middle and thinner on top these days, but still built like a bull. "I was hardened to the sight of body parts and misery. If you had any qualms about getting shot or being around death, you had no business being there. And you had to be in Vietnam at the time—any journalist worth his salt was there."

For over 35 years, danger and death have been recurring themes in Davis' work. Early in his UPI career, he covered the Civil Rights Movement in the Deep South. Vietnam was next. He has since moved on to writing true crime, and doing it so well that his books on the likes of O.J. and Jeffrey Dahmer have become bestsellers.

Davis' next book—on the JonBenet Ramsey murder case—promises to be his biggest seller yet. Davis' collaborator is ex-detective Steve Thomas, who resigned from the Boulder, Colo., police force because he was outraged at how the murder case was being handled. The book will be a detective's journey through the mystery of who killed the child beauty pageant star, and Davis contends it will be the definitive word on a case which has made headlines since the body of the six-year-old was found in the basement of her home on Dec. 26, 1996.

"Working with Steve has given me a whole new insight on what really happened throughout that investigation," says Davis. "Anyone who thinks they have followed the case closely will be astonished at how much they didn't know."

Davis' most recent book, The Last Man on the Moon, was written in collaboration with Apollo astronaut Gene Cernan. The book gets its heart from Cernan and its poetry from Davis, and the combination produces a compelling non-technical account of what it's like to ride a rocket to the moon, get off and walk the lunar surface, then get back on and ride home to earth.

"With the moon book, we have created a piece of historical reference," says Davis, who depends on his wife Robin to help him research and edit every book he does. "And one thing's for certain, writing is not nearly as challenging as getting a tough-as-nails astronaut to open up."

More than a year after the book's release, Davis and Cernan were recently invited to a book-signing at the Air and Space Museum in Washington.

"We sat below The Spirit of St. Louis and signed copies for a line of people who waited for one and a half hours," says Davis, noting that people forget astronauts continued to make moon landings for years after Neil Armstrong's historic "one step for mankind" in 1969.

"The missions Gene made, especially with Challenger in 1972, were the most extensive in every aspect of exploration, including time spent on the moon and sheer amount of scientific discovery," says Davis. "According to Cernan, on the moon he was just like anyone else—every morning he would wake up in his space apartment and drive to work in his lunar buggy."

"If you had any qualms about getting shot or being around death, you had no business being there. And you had to be in Vietnam at the time—any journalist worth his salt was there."

And it is this everyday feel from "an ordinary guy who achieved some extraordinary things," which drove Gene Cernan to document the exhilaration of space travel.

"People have been after me to write a book for years," says Cernan from his Houston office. "And the reason is because they have the same questions for me that folks might ask Columbus if he were alive: 'What was it like? Were you scared? Did you worry about falling off the flat earth?' That kind of thing needs to be put down in a nontechnical form so those answers can be heard.

"When I started working with Don I knew I had a guy who could help get those answers down—he is a great researcher and writer," continues Cernan. "He and Robin know my feelings as much as anybody."

Of their work with Cernan—one of nine surviving astronauts to walk on the moon—Davis and his wife say they were enthralled by the accounts of his life and grateful that he was willing to explore his inner feelings about space travel.

"Gene opened up to us, and in doing so we learned a new vocabulary," says Robin. "I mean this is one of The Right Stuff guys. When someone like that tells you about fear and thrill, you understand what those concepts really mean. "

Subjects from Davis' true-crime gallery: Oba Chandler, rapist and killer of three, O.J., Jon-Benet Ramsey.

Before he was befriended by astronauts and Air Cav jocks, Don Davis' world was a Depression-era dirt farm near Jesup, Ga. His parents worked barren land as generations before them had, barely making enough to eat. They moved to Savannah to raise Davis and his older sister, and it was his parents' hard-times experience that pushed him to take full advantage of his education.

"I was a book nut as a kid," says Davis. "I would spend all my time at the library either working the film projectors at my after-school job or reading books. My parents worked real hard and encouraged us to read."

Davis became a writer by default. A better-than-average second baseman, he might have ended up an athlete—had he not been asthma-stricken and sickly.

"I found my escape through books, and I devoured the master storytellers," says Davis, who earned an associate's degree in math from Armstrong College in Savannah, then decided to pursue his true passion—journalism—at UGA. By doing so, he ignored his parents' advice: become an engineer and guarantee financial stability.

"In Savannah, I took a career placement test that said to either be a reporter or a cop," he recalls, "but there were already too many Irish cops in my family. So, the first day I was in Athens, I went to The Red and Black. I still remember the smell of lead and ink; it was my elixir. With that elixir came the only true stability—sanity."

Shortly thereafter, Davis was hired as a reporter for the Athens Banner-Herald. Covering back-road stories and drinking moonshine with county deputies taught him valuable lessons about real-world journalism. The only problem was he cared more about the stories than he did about school.

"I always wanted to be in the action," says Davis. "I would go cover the police court in the morning and then sit through a class about covering the police beat. Working seemed like the real education."

Charles Kopp, a professor of law and journalism, became a source of inspiration.

"Kopp was a man of quiet confidence—something the other journalism profs did not seem to possess," says Davis. "Once he gave me a D, which seemed to me completely undeserved. When I asked why, he said I was the one person in the class who actually needed to understand the material. I was forced to take the class again."

In 1973, Davis was ordered out of Vietnam by the CIA and the South Vietnamese for knowing too much.

According to Davis, the best lesson he ever received was from the city editor at the Savannah Morning News.

"I was a hot-shot reporter and the city editor resented it," says Davis. "He brought me in his office and fired me. He told me that I would never be a reporter. I could feel the hot tears swelling and I was shattered . . . it was the best thing that ever happened to me!"

Three days later, UPI called and offered Davis a job in Atlanta covering the civil rights struggle. From there, he moved to Montgomery and the front lines of the movement. When an editing job came open at the St. Petersburg Times, he took it—but soon discovered that desk work wasn't for him.

"I found myself sitting around organizing stories instead of going after them," says Davis. "It was killing me and I felt like I was getting left behind. When UPI called and offered me a spot in Miami, I jumped at the chance. I was happy to be earning my keep again."

After stops in Richmond and New York with UPI, Davis set his sights on Vietnam, where he felt more at home amidst mortar fire and the day-to-day fight for life. For two years, he brought front-page news into people's living rooms all over the English-speaking world, but there were those who thought he knew too much. In 1973, he was ordered to leave the country by the South Vietnamese government and the CIA.

"I asked too many questions," says Davis. "I would go to the front lines in the morning and be back in Saigon by evening to report on the press conferences given by American brass. They were telling bold-faced lies about the fighting, and I would call them on it. They rewarded me with a CIA-South Vietnamese escort out of the country and into Bangkok."

From Bangkok, Davis moved to Hong Kong, then Boston, then the White House beat, which he shared with UPI's legendary Helen Thomas. "I thought I knew everything there was to know about reporting until I met Helen," says Davis. "She was fun, intelligent, antagonistic—and damn good!"

Davis covered the White House for UPI from 1980 to 1982.

Davis met his future wife on a trip to Santa Barbara, Calif. He was with the Reagan press corps, and Robin, an actress-model turned P.R. firm vice president, was doing publicity for the president. After a St. Patrick's day wedding, the couple settled in San Diego, where Davis took a job as a political writer and columnist for the San Diego Union-Tribune.

Nine years later, the couple began to look for a place to start a book-writing enterprise. They settled on Boulder, Colo., and with Robin as his chief editor, Davis began work on his first book in 1991.

The Milwaukee Murders was an immediate bestseller with more than 500,000 copies sold. Written in 30 days, the key to its appeal, says Davis, was its combination of speed, accuracy, and quality—plus a subject, the Dahmer murders, that was the No. 1 story in America.

"There was no doubt I could do the work," says Davis, "but we were lucky to have timed things well enough to be on the cusp of a trend with more and more folks reading true crime." Davis completed seven true-crime books in the next six years, including the O.J. Simpson bestseller, Fallen Hero, which he completed in a week. Writing more than 10,000 words a day is no way to write a masterpiece, he concedes, but the O.J. book gave him notoriety and sales clout. It also convinced him he'd had enough of true crime.

"Writing about cases that were always gruesome took its toll," says Davis. "Also, the entire genre became flooded with poor books written by anyone who could type. I felt as if I had been there, done that. "

The Cernan book pointed Davis in a new direction, but midway through the project he was devastated by the news that Robin had congenital kidney failure. Three options presented themselves: dialysis every day for the rest of her life, a kidney transplant, or certain death. Cernan offered to donate one of his kidneys if Davis' wasn't a match. Fortunately, it was, and the surgery a success, although Robin's future would include everyday monitoring. It was Davis who flirted with death.

During surgery, he had an allergic reaction to anesthesia and had to be put down deeper so his body could withstand the operation. Following the procedure, complications continued and he lay motionless, with a raging fever, for three days. He was given only a 50 percent chance of survival. During his delirium, Davis dreamed of Southeast Asia. The scene—journalists bellying up to a bar in Bangkok—was a real one. But in his dream, when Davis walked into the bar all the friends who turned to greet him were dead.

"I decided right then that I wanted to live," Davis recalls. "That image became one of my happiest and most horrifying moments. Immediately after the dream faded, just like a movie ending, I awoke and started to heal."

Of his upcoming book on the JonBenet Ramsey murder case, Davis says, "I knew right away we could create something that will be the definitive piece of work on the case."

Davis' current project, the JonBenet Ramsey book, is one he turned down several times. He wanted something more substantial than a quick, true-crime treatment, but when he was contacted by Steve Thomas—who had been the lead investigator on the case before resigning from the Boulder police force in August 1998—Davis jumped at the chance.

"I felt the same about Steve as I had with Cernan—you get the impression that these are guys with integrity and honor," says Davis. "I knew right away we could create something that will be the definitive piece of work on the case."

The Boulder Daily Camera has reported that in his letter of resignation, Thomas "carefully masked his apparent belief that the six-year-old died at the hands of her parents."

"My feelings are not important," Thomas said in a telephone interview with Georgia Magazine. "What matters is that Don and I tell it like it is—and come with no agendas but truth. The book's merit is rooted in the public's right to know what the government is doing."

The book will be on the shelves "whenever I finish it," says Davis in his old-school, cavalier style—a latitude earned from his track record with St. Martin's Press. He is sure of the book's merit to entertain and educate. "The behind-closed-doors stuff is fascinating. If I lost a child, I would want a detective like Steve Thomas on the investigation. And he is as relentless in telling the story as he was hunting for a killer."

Davis is unsure of his next project following the Ramsey book, but it's obvious he and Robin feel a sense of renewal for having survived their respective kidney operations.

Through the large bay windows of the couple's living room, the Rocky Mountains tower like abrupt landlords. The two sit on a couch beneath wall-length Cambodian temple-pressings while Davis pets one of their Hungarian Vizsla hounds. "The worst thing someone can do," he says, "is wait until retirement to live—and then die."

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