Here is where I make some disclaimers. I tend to, absent facts to the contrary, default to believing the police, prosecutors, etc. in matters of criminal law and so forth. So, when presented with a book whose very premise is that those same individuals not only broke the law, but did so for no material gain, only to salvage a reputation after some errors of stupidity, well, it takes some doing to win me over. This book does that, but not without some serious problems along the way.
Some background. This is tagged on the publisher’s site as both ‘Biographical’ and ‘Literary Fiction’. The cover lists ‘Based on a True Story’. This is all correct. It is indeed based on a true story. Specifically, I use that term because the first listed author is in fact the man convicted of, then found not guilty of, “matricide…also found guilty on twenty eight counts of mail and wire fraud based on insurance claims arising from Elizabeth Veltmann’s death and fire damage to the family home.”16 F.3d 1483 – 38 Fed. R. Evid. Serv. 377 – UNITED STATES of America, Plaintiff-Appellee, v. Carl VELTMANN and Christopher Veltmann, Defendants-Appellants. – No. 92-2762. http://openjurist.org/6/f3d/1483 This is his memoir and story of exoneration.
The basic facts are: in 1990 a fire damaged the author’s parent’s home, and as a result, his mother, Elizabeth, was killed. The father and son defendants were convicted in that, and wire fraud, and sentenced to life without parole in a federal penitentiary (United States Penitentiary, Lewisburg to be specific).
That seems to be where the simple part ends. According to the book, the Veltmanns were convicted of arson and mail/wire fraud, and sentenced to life without parole. Despite his claims in the book and blurb, the appeal document states that Christopher & Carl Veltmann were convicted of murder as well (Defendants Chris Veltmann and Carl Veltmann were convicted of matricide and uxoricide respectively.26 F.3d 1483 – 38 Fed. R. Evid. Serv. 377 – UNITED STATES of America, Plaintiff-Appellee, v. Carl VELTMANN and Christopher Veltmann, Defendants-Appellants. – No. 92-2762. http://openjurist.org/6/f3d/1483). The Bureau of Prisons lists no inmates since 1982 by those names. There is nothing on the internet that I could find in a week of infrequent but intense searches about the trial – only the appeal. Nothing about the second trial. Nothing, in fact, but the appeal, a dismissed lawsuit, and an article about an SEC action against their company in 1997.
Do you see what I did there? I called the truth of the whole thing into question by listing facts that suggest a conclusion, without drawing the lines myself. ‘Dysfunctional Conspiracy’ does a lot of that. It presents events as fact, and then other events as fact, and lets the reader draw a line that may not be real, but leads you to the desired conclusion.
BOP not listing the names – well, that can be explained with the outcome of the book. Although the BOP site does state clearly that the inmate database may have people released before trial, material witnesses, and so on listed – that listing does not mean conviction, only that they were housed in a BOP facility3Bureau of Prisons website https://www.bop.gov/inmateloc/about_records.jsp.
The internet having nothing…it may seem odd to the younger reader, but getting news articles off the general internet from 1992 can be harder than getting articles from 1045. The internet existed then, but was mainly AOL, Prodigy, and Compuserv…with some bulletin board sites hosted on people’s home systems. So no news outside something like a Lexis-Nexus subscription isn’t a shock – and ditto for the legal documents. Hell, I would have moved to have them sealed were I the Veltmanns.
So, back to the book as a book. As you may suspect, I have some issues with the whole thing. Among those issues is not how it is written – that is excellent. Matthew Cox takes the story from Chris Veltmann and makes it coherent, readable, and much more linear that I suspect it was handed to him (knowing how I tell stories to people and all). As a novel, this would be a fine job, if too far-fetched to be believed.
And there is the rub. I have encountered so many things in my life that are ‘too far-fetched to be believed’ to easily dismiss someone else’s, but I just keep running into that with this book. I find the story believable – petty motivations often do lead to actions that are inexplicable to the observer. And yes, I can believe that a local official wanted to cover up dropping the ball on, in that area and time, a huge case. Where I kept loosing it was in the number of people we need to believe were rank incompetents in close proximity. And blisteringly stupid to boot. And that a US Attorney with no skin in the local game would assist in this. And that not one of the people involved ever experienced enough guilt or remorse to recant or apologize.
That is just too much in one place. Further, Veltmann makes it clear he sees this as some kind of conspiracy against him and his father. I don’t see anything put forth as motive beyond covering one’s own errors. Certainly nothing that suggests a conspiracy to ‘get them’. Extraordinary claims require extraordinary proof, and I don’t see it.
I do see a lot of whitewashing in the Veltmann camp. And some outright…untruths. I believe a lie requires intent, and I am not willing to go there with this. But the book repeatedly makes the point that if Elizabeth Veltmann were to be killed via arson for money, why not just take the $1.3 million offer on the house, since the insurance payout was only $600,000(ish). Well…yes but also no. The homeowner’s policy was about $600,000 (and huh? who insures their home for half the value?), but there were also four life insurance policies on her, bringing the total up to about $1.2 million. Making this a far more likely motive than just the home’s insurance value. The suicide note is also not mentioned. Wait, what? Yes, a note. Carl Veltmann found a note behind a picture frame in his study some 18 months after the fire4The note reads: “I so loved you, and I know you loved me. It has been so very hard the last years for both you and me. Life I have enjoyed with you. I am so–I am so sorry we didn’t quite make it all the way. Take good care of the rest of our family, Patricia and Christopher, and please don’t hate me for this. If God ever blessed someone, it was you. As your mom has always said to you, she was so right. You, my loved one, have always been right. Be strong. Don’t let the world tell the Veltmanns they were not the very best. See you again in heaven or hell, more like heaven, my love, Your Elizabeth.” –http://openjurist.org/6/f3d/1483#fn9. The note was a problem, as Carl added a date on the note. But still, it would help the story about suicide make more sense from the outset.
So what did I think? I think this was a decent story, if too much from the ‘every man the hero of his own story’ perspective. Some interjections from a third person view, providing more than just the Veltmann viewpoint, would have been very welcomed. Give the reader some context. Make it easier to relate to the story, and make it less of a personal middle finger to those who wronged the author.
There is a lot here – and a lot I didn’t cover. I would strongly suggest this as a read, just take with a fairly healthy dose of skepticism and remember that this is not intended to be even-handed or objective. And in that, it succeeds.