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How ‘Lost Girls’ Author Dealt With Challenge By Mother of Murder Victim

First in a series: Author Caitlin Rother on the reaction of families in Chelsea King-Amber Dubois killings.

Afraid for her safety, Caitlin Rother contacted police and filed a report.

“I was scared,” Rother said. A strange woman visiting a stop at a local Barnes & Noble had made a chilling remark.

It was mid-July 2012, and Rother was there on a book tour promoting Lost Girls, her exhaustively researched account of the Amber Dubois and Chelsea King rape-murders and the tortured life of their killer, John Gardner.

“Every time [the woman] asked a question, it was challenging, antagonistic,” Rother said. “And finally I just said to her: Did you come here to fight me?”

Later, the woman—who wore a search-and-rescue badge and had a big German shepherd—approached the table where Rother, a La Jolla High School graduate and former Union-Tribune reporter, was signing books.

“The dog came on the table in my face,” Rother recalled recently. And the owner “was saying really weird things to me.”

But the most alarming was a comment overheard by a former U-T colleague.

The woman with the dog said: “You know, if she wrote about my kid, they’d be out looking for her.”

“In other words,” Rother said, “I would be disappeared.”

Seven months after the debut of Lost Girls, only the tensions have vanished.

The book is doing well—in print as well as the more popular digital downloads. An online reader poll rated Lost Girls the No. 4 true-crime book of 2012.  Rother was reviewed in the Los Angeles Times for the first time, and was invited to the prestigious L.A. Times Festival of Books.

And despite an attempt by Amber’s mother, Carrie McGonigle, and others to fan social-media flames against Rother and get people to trash the book on Amazon and other book sites, Lost Girls has won wide praise from critics and readers.

“I really felt that the support completely outweighed the antagonism,” Rother said in a late-January interview at her work haunt, a bagel shop not far from her Kensington home.

The Barnes & Noble incident was a rarity.

“I don’t usually get hecklers, but this was probably the worst heckler I’ve ever had,” Rother said. “And [the woman] says: ‘You think I’m being out of line?’ And everybody in the audience said: Yes!”

Rother, 50, said she later would learn that the heckler had been blacklisted by a search-and-rescue group, was considered mentally unstable and “doesn’t even know Amber’s mom.”

Kensington/Pinnacle—the publisher—told Rother that it had never seen this kind of reaction to a book they’ve done—“but that [anger] went away within a couple weeks,” she said.

Still, those early times troubled Rother, a Pulitzer Prize nominee when she was at the U-T.

“To be honest, I feel like the media did not do me any justice,” she said.

Among the headlines of early July: Firestorm erupts over book about girls' murderer and Amber Dubois' mom confronts author of new John Gardner book.

Rother was appalled.

“I really feel like they completely took the parents’ side,” she said. “There were even some U-T stories where my response was at the bottom of the story. It’s a criticism against me, and basic Journalism 101 is: The person getting attacked gets to defend themselves at the top of story.”

Rother faulted one TV station for not challenging McGonigle’s contention that the book was full of errors, saying the station should “call her on it.” 

“Ask her to be specific,” Rother advised in hindsight, “and give me a chance to respond. … It wasn’t balanced, it wasn’t fair—but it helped me sell the book.”

She also chafed at a station reporting McGonigle’s vow to sue the author of eight books with about 310,000 in print. Rother, who has not been sued, thought the station reported that unprofessionally as well.

So what really happened at the Lost Girls launch at the Mira Mesa Barnes & Noble on July 5, 2012?

“I gave her a chance to ask me questions,” she said. “I stopped my entire presentation when she came to my book-signing. I was nice to her.”

In fact, she said, witnesses to the exchange told her she was gracious to McGonigle.

Rother insists no confrontation occurred, but that McGonigle went outside “and talked to the news cameras and said some bad stuff about me.”

Although McGonigle may have come to the bookstore to confront Rother, the author says: “I basically disarmed her by anticipating she would come and being nice to her—and telling her that I was sorry that she was upset.

“You know—it was awkward. It was weird. But I just tried to be nice about it.”

Later via email, Rother added: “I stopped my presentation, acknowledged Carrie’s presence to everyone. [I] told her I was sorry that she was upset by the book and then gave her a chance to ask me questions.”

The mother of the slain Escondido 14-year-old at one time admitted to a reporter that she “did not read much of the book,” Rother said.

And claims that the 372-page paperback was “full of errors”?

“Let’s put it this way: If people [appearing in the book] had a problem with it, I’d hear about it. And I didn’t,” she said.

But Rother grew deadly serious while discussing other fallout.

“The families have basically asked law enforcement not to talk to any more media about the case, which I think is crazy,” she said, later stressing that she meant the rebuke for police agencies, not the family.

One Investigation Discovery show really wanted to do an episode on Lost Girls, Rother said.

Producers, she said, “told me that the Sheriff’s Department basically just said no ‘because we’ve been asked by the family not to talk about it anymore.’”

Rother’s reaction: “So we can’t have any [more] information out there? We can’t learn about sex offenders? Why are we keeping people from getting information?”

Debbie Gottschalk, publicity manager for Maryland-based Discovery Communications, confirmed that producers of a show “were turned down when they requested interviews with the S.D. Sheriff’s office.”

Sheriff’s spokeswoman Melissa Aquino on Thursday said she had forwarded Patch inquiries to the department’s Homicide Division. 

“The unit handles all media inquiries regarding its cases,” Aquino wrote. But Patch has received no response.

Rother said the TV show’s producers dropped plans for a Lost Girls episode.

“They don’t want to alienate their sources—that’s what they told me,” said Rother, who has appeared on several episodes as a case expert.

So despite the massive attention given the search for the long-lost Escondido girl and the Poway High School senior—who went missing during a Rancho Bernardo run three years ago today—“there won’t be any more media coverage of this case,” Rother said.

The Sheriff’s Department “basically blocked any future TV coverage,” she said. “I understand [the families are] upset, but it’s not their story that they can … control.

“It’s all of ours.”

Tuesday: Caitlin Rother’s roots in the regionand route to journalism.

Editor’s note: An earlier version of this story misstated Rother's sales numbers for all her books.

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