Mr. Phelps surgically dissects crime. Then, fiber-by-fiber, reconstructs the lives of everyone involved, disclosing not only the facts of the case, but the emotional paths that collided, and the devastation left behind. To do this requires not just a curious and dedicated mind, it requires a heart capable of connecting to the tragedy and sorrow of the families, on both sides, who will never fully comprehend the answer to the most elusive question known to man – Why?
The pursuit of his passions have led him to become an award-winning, bestselling author, past consultant for the TV series "Dexter," to dozens of TV appearances on Montel Williams, Learning, History, and Biography channels, Geraldo At Large (to name a few), and he has his own TV series DARK MINDS debuting on Investigation Discovery channel (ID) in early 2012. Add to this his latest release "Love Her to Death," a book about the Michael Roseboro case out of Denver, Pennsylvania, and the upcoming "Too Young to Kill," the story of the Sarah Kolb/Cory Gregory case in East Moline, Illinois, and we begin to clearly see a man who shouldn't have so much as a moment to himself. Yet Mr. Phelps readily connects with fans on Facebook and public appearances, and invites readers to send him their books so he may sign them with a personal note.
Q) What first inspired you to investigate a crime, and when did you realize that decision would become a lifelong career?
A) I met a James Bond-type investigator (who had worked freelance for the CIA, FBI, NYPD, DEA, Customs, Army’s CID) in NYC back in the mid-1990s and, shadowing him, started writing about his life. This man, a Columbian, taught me how to investigate people, places, and things—and, more importantly, to care about and understand minorities in this country, who are largely marginalized to a disgusting degree. He gave me the tools I needed to begin an investigative journalism career. I wrote PERFECT POISON years later, my first published book, and fell in love with writing about people facing tragedy, how they respond to it, and how law enforcement works to solve complicated murder cases. A few years before I met my James Bond, my brother’s wife had been brutally murdered (we thought then by a serial killer). She was five months pregnant. My brother subsequently died. We had to raise their kids. What I call the ripple effect of murder was suddenly part of my personal life. I understood what tragedy on this scale could do to a family (and I still see those effects within my family today).
Q) I have to ask. When do you find time to yourself, and what relaxes you when you need to step away from your frenetic life?
A) Most people have a hard time managing the hours in a day. I make time for these important moments in my life. I read lots of religious (Catholic) history. I cook gourmet dinners. And lift weights. To stay grounded, I also attend Mass on a regular, semi-daily basis in the early mornings. It keeps me focused on the good in the world, while bringing some peace into my life. I see so much evil (darkness) throughout the course of my working day, I need to keep the focus on the light. It may not work for everyone, and not all may agree, but the Catholic Mass and the Church sacraments are incredibly humbling and rewarding to me.
Q) It is your unique outlook and ability to connect with viewers and readers that made the "Deadly Women" TV crime series and your books so successful. How do you believe you were able to find that thread of connection when so many others haven't?
A) I try to be myself on camera and out in the world. This person you see on TV, that is who I am. I have always said what I wanted to about certain subjects and never tried to play to one group or be politically correct in any way. I tell it like it is, I guess you could say. I’m no different than that person reading the book or watching television, so we have a common bond, and most people pick up on that energy. I don’t come from an elitist background, or silver spoon upbringing; I grew up in the city in a small home with six people; we lived near the projects. We did not have a lot. I never even went to college. I can relate to the everyday, working-class person punching a clock because I was there. I also remind myself every day that I am lucky to be doing what I love. I am grateful every day of my life for what I have. I try to practice absolute humility. As someone said to me recently, which I took as a great compliment, “You know what I like about you, Phelps … you don’t walk around with your head stuck up your ass!”
Q) Have you encountered a case where something about it stopped you in your tracks, and you just had to walk away for your own peace of mind?
A) No. But I never want to write about children being raped and murdered. That subject tears me apart. I worked a case like this on my Investigation Discovery (ID) TV series and it nearly broke me. I should note that there were a few instances throughout filming the series, mostly involving women being victimized by men, that weighed heavily on my emotions. I was literally brought to tears a few times by the stories of female crime victims. I learned a tremendous amount about life and our role in the world as a so-called caring society … we need to do more for victims of crime. We need to do more for women in general. In some cases, we treat the perpetrators of a vicious crime a hell of a lot better than we do the victims. That fires me up. I am appalled by some of what I have seen.
Q) What you do isn't easy, and I don't think most people can fully appreciate the range of emotions you must deal with not just within the people you speak with during an investigation, but in yourself. How do you put an investigation behind you in order to move on to the next one?
A) Thank you for this observation—because it is very true. Just coming off some nine weeks on the road filming my ID series, I can say that emotion plays a major role in what I do and it is a balancing act to keep track of who you are and how you view the world. You can become cynical and jaded very easily doing what I do. I don’t kid myself and say it doesn’t bother me. It definitely does. But I do things, as I said earlier, to keep my soul centered and grounded on the light. I don’t want to get philosophical here, but we all need to have a space to enter where there is peace; we need to think about our place in the world and how great life is and what a gift we have been given. I also like to do things for other people who are less fortunate than me. This helps me stay grounded in, well, reality. We can all do more for our neighbors. The emotional toll this job takes on me is easily manageable if I do the right things. I can move on to another investigation quite naturally after I know in my heart I have done everything I can for the case before it. I also stay connected with crime victims and their families from the cases as much as I can. We share a bond. I like to let them know that I am always there if they need to vent their frustrations.
Q) Crime never ends. But one day M. William Phelps will have to say "enough." When will you know that day has arrived …
A) I cannot answer this. Crime is my life. My goal is to open up the minds of my viewers and readers and help them understand the “why” question … Why do people kill? Why does evil exist? I am also a proponent of women’s rights and tend to write about female victims of crime and their courageous stories of overcoming adversity.
Thanks for this opportunity to answer some interesting (and important) questions.