(The following Tom French profile by Bob Andelman appeared in Tampa Bay Life in 1991.)
Are you a good neighbor?
If a loud, agonizing cry from the house next door woke you from a sound sleep tonight, would you call the police or shrug it off?
That’s the challenge Tom French first put to readers of the St. Petersburg Times in a four-part series called “A Cry in the Night” in September 1986 and again in ten more parts in June 1988. The reporter’s compelling tale of the 1984 murder of 36-year-old Karen Gregory at the hands of Gulfport firefighter George Lewis made every neighbor in every neighborhood of Tampa Bay wonder if THEIR neighbors would call ‘911’ if they ever cried out for help.
No one called for help or came to the door the night Karen Gregory died, although any number of her neighbors admitted later they had heard her cry.
French, 33 years old and a 10-year veteran of the Times, has collected the eleven installments of his two award-winning series and expanded them into a new book called Unanswered Cries (St. Martin’s Press, $19.95). It is the product of French’s five-year obsession with the murder of a woman he never knew.
“The story is what real grief, what real loss is,” says French. “There were times people told me things so sad I wanted to push my chair back and walk away. I never knew Karen Gregory. But a lot of people did. I only know her through her friends. But she must have been an incredible person.”
TOM FRENCH interview excerpt: “Florida is a sign of things to come. This is more likely to happen when people don’t know each other. If you associate a name with that face across the street, you’re more likely to call 911. The book is about that act – or lack of act – of not picking up the phone. I wanted to show people what happens if you don’t pick up the phone.”
The first “A Cry in the Night” newspaper series was printed shortly before the trial of George Lewis and caused French himself to be drawn into it. The story was so widely read and discussed, the judge in the case moved the proceedings from Clearwater to Bartow to ensure a fair trial. Amidst plaudits for his reporting, French and his editors were roundly condemned for the timing of the story and its affect on the trial. But French – who covered police beats and courts for years – still believes the decision to run “Cry” in advance of the Lewis trial was correct.
“We need to run stories when we think they should run,” he says emphatically. “Lawyers make it sound like the courtroom is a pristine place, that if there was no media everything would be perfect. (But) lawyers do everything they can to rig the process, to sway the court and the jury. Frankly, it’s not my problem, giving (Lewis) a fair trial. The system is in place to give that guy a fair trial no matter what we write. The system works. A change of venue is one of the costs of democracy.”
He says if the press waited until after trials to report on criminal cases, “You’d only now be reading word one about Ted Bundy.”
Unanswered Cries is a “natural extension” of the two newspaper series, according to French, nearly double the length of what already appeared in the Times.
“I felt I had to re-write a lot of stuff from the first series,” says French. “I was able to include a lot of material in detail that I’d written for the series but couldn’t introduce because of a lack of space. I learned all kinds of things, especially about the police investigation. I felt I was able to better get across that if George Lewis was the one, that there was a context of behavior. You could see a pattern developing.”
TOM FRENCH: “There were times people told me things so sad I wanted to push my chair back and walk away. I never knew Karen Gregory. But a lot of people did. I only know her through her friends. But she must have been an incredible person.”
The original “A Cry in the Night” series grew out of the author’s interest in the concept and role of neighbors. He had just written a feature about the phenomena of neighbors who ignore pleas for help from neighbors they don’t know when the Karen Gregory case got his attention.
“I always felt like this was a real universal story,” says French. “Not Gulfport or Florida. Florida is a sign of things to come. This is more likely to happen when people don’t know each other. If you associate a name with that face across the street, you’re more likely to call 911. The book is about that act – or lack of act – of not picking up the phone. I wanted to show people what happens if you don’t pick up the phone.”
Being the author of a book is one thing. Being the author of a successful book is another, as French is learning.
For starters, his editors at St. Martin’s Press gave French a much freer reign than he anticipated. “I expected all kinds of guidance from my editor. He gave me just a little. He told me he didn’t want it to read like a newspaper story. The other thing he said was to make sure the readers saw what people in the book saw, smelled what they smelled.”
When it was published, Unanswered Cries appeared with a remarkable list of endorsements from the authors of eight best-selling true crime books. Among these is Stephen Michaud, author of Ted Bundy: Conversations with a Killer. Michaud writes that French ” … searches for the heart of darkness, and finds it next door.”
Still, it takes more than collegial praise to sell books in today’s crowded market, as French is discovering. In the first weeks following the release of Unanswered Cries, the book was buried among other new releases even in Tampa Bay area bookstores. It received little if any special attention despite its local significance. On the other hand, it was a main selection for Reader’s Digest.
Regular readers of true crime literature will find this book does not fit easily into traditional notions of the genre. It is not a celebrity murder; the characters are not glamorous. In fact, when Karen Gregory died, the story was only a small blip in the St. Petersburg Times.
“It’s not the kind of case that gets written about,” says French. “One of the early reviews was that, ‘This isn’t the kind of story we usually read about. It isn’t spectacular.’ I said good. There’s no such thing as an unimportant murder or a small human life.”