The first time, the stay-at-home mother of two watched the serial killer – at that point just a stranger who gave off a bad vibe – drive around her neighborhood, stop in front of her as she planted marigolds in her front yard and watch her children playing behind her. The encounter was brief, silent and all too memorable, Patterson writes in her book, Hunted in the Heartland: A Memoir of Murder, which was released last year by Strategic Publishing.
“My heart is racing and he continues staring at me. So I stare back, with my children behind me, my garden tools in my hands,” Patterson writes. “Finally, he looks beyond me, and looks hard at Sarah, then at Jeffy (her children), and then back to me. He wants to see if I am paying attention. Then he glances at each of the upper three bedroom windows, nodding, as if he is counting, one, two, three. He once again looks back down at me, then each child. Was he somehow threatening me?”
The man, later identified as Timothy Krajcir, then moved on, stopping at the corner before rolling his new, silver Chevy out of sight. Patterson scooped her children into her arms, ran inside and locked all the doors, then set to work convincing herself that she had overreacted. A few days later, however, Patterson would recall Krajcir’s face and car as the police told her that her neighbor, recently retired Virginia Witte, had been tortured, strangled and stabbed to death in the short time frame that her husband was out to lunch.
From her home, Patterson saw Krajcir again just a few days later, his car stalled on a nearby road. Thirty years later, Patterson would discover that police never followed up on her phone call about her second sighting, nor would they continue an initial investigation into Krajcir, who then lived in Carbondale, as a possible suspect. “With a prison record, but still virtually unchecked, Krajcir freely spread mayhem, degradation and murder for years,” Patterson writes.
Krajcir, who is now 67 years old and housed in Illinois’ Stateville Correctional Center near Joliet, would go on to murder several more women, bringing his total to nine, before being arrested for a parole violation (he had been to prison before for sexual assault and attempted murder but released after showing signs of rehabilitation) in 1983 for carrying a loaded gun, according to Patterson’s book. Krajcir remained in prison until in 2007 DNA testing linked him to the 1982 murder of a 23-year-old Southern Illinois University Carbondale student. Bargaining with prosecutors to remove the threat of the death penalty, Krajcir confessed to the murder of Witte – his only daytime homicide – along with numerous other burglaries, assaults and murders that took place in Mt. Vernon and Carbondale, as well as Cape Girardeau, Mo.
Having answered question after question from police in the days following her neighbor’s murder, Patterson began seeking answers to her own questions, a journey she details in Hunted in the Heartland. Armed with the Freedom of Information Act, Patterson delved into case files, followed the progress of the newly openend cases and met the families of victims long-ago buried, a journey she shares in her book.
Patterson writes in her conclusions that writing Hunted in the Heartland served as a sort of catharsis, adding that she hopes the publication of her journey has “helped shine the spotlight on this individual’s horrific crimes. People will know what he is truly capable of, and who he really is. This is justice to me.”
Patterson’s storytelling is not the most refined – conversation transcripts and seemingly uncensored police reports at times stand in for artfully selected dialogue and more reader-friendly descriptions – but Patterson certainly accomplishes her goal, and her perspective as a then-young mother and new neighbor provides accessibility to a gruesome story fraught with missed opportunity, regret and unending grief. Much as Krajcir’s face became imprinted in Patterson’s mind after just one short encounter, the details of Hunted in the Heartland will linger in readers’ imaginations. It’s a story worth reading, if you have the stomach for it.
Contact Rachel Wells at firstname.lastname@example.org.