As a reporter for The San Diego Union-Tribune from 1993 to 2006, Caitlin Rother drew some of the toughest assignments.
“I would be the one to get the stories about people who committed suicide,” Rother said. “I interviewed mentally ill people and their families. I interviewed troubled people.”
Even before tackling the emotion-charged Chelsea King-Amber Dubois murder case that became the book Lost Girls, she had gotten the reputation of being a very sensitive person.
“I’ve always been that way,” said the 1980 graduate of La Jolla High School.
But her ability to connect with families of victims matured after she became one herself.
In April 1999, Rother’s husband of 2½ years hanged himself in a hotel room south of Ensenada.
Former San Diego County pension fund manager Richard N. Rose, 43, committed suicide 17 months after being arrested on suspicion of stealing $900 in goods from a hotel gift shop in Scottsdale, AZ. (The shoplifting charge was dismissed after Rose completed a remediation course.)
Living through such an ordeal, she said, took her empathy and skill in dealing with victims' relatives “to another level.”
“And it also makes them see me in a different way—once I tell them [about the suicide],” she said. “I don’t tell everybody, but it helps.”
She learned firsthand how even the people closest to you can hide deep secrets.
“I found some papers, some medical reports, that he had hidden from me in a locked briefcase,” she said. Rose apparently worried that had Rother seen them, she wouldn’t have stayed with him. (They were together four years.)
“I asked him questions,” she said. “He just lied to me.”
Despite her own tragic story, Rother failed to win cooperation from the King and Dubois families for the book published in July 2012.
“Of course, I reached out to both families—twice at least,” she said in an interview last month. “And to Amber’s mom multiple times, and to Amber’s grandmother multiple times—trying to help them understand why I was trying to do what I was doing, being as sensitive as I could.”
But Rother was able to connect with other sources on the book, especially killer John Gardner’s mother, who lived in Rancho Bernardo, and many other acquaintances of the sexual predator now serving a life sentence.
How did Rother come to be a Pulitzer Prize-nominated journalist and bestselling true-crime author?
The story begins with her educated family and her father’s love of books.
Caitlin Lisane Rother was born in Montreal to a Canadian father and English mother, who moved to Santa Barbara to earn their doctorates in literature.
Her dad landed an assistant professor’s position at San Diego State and her mom joined the school as a part-time lecturer. Her father eventually was promoted to full professor and her mother rose through the administration to become dean of undergraduate affairs. Rother became a U.S. citizen in 2004, specifically to vote in her first presidential election.
Rother, 50, recalls “books on every wall in the house” when she was growing up, and always liked to write (and was considered good at it).
Her first book was a school project at age 6—about a family of mice—illustrated with colored pencils and “sandwiched between pieces of cardboard covered with an orange paisley swatch of fabric my mother had given me,” she wrote on her website.
The summer before seventh grade, Rother’s family moved to La Jolla. She attended what was then called Muirlands Junior High School and later spent three years at La Jolla High.
She excelled academically and athletically, graduating with a 3.86 grade-point average and playing badminton—where her team won a San Diego CIF title and she played on the No. 2 doubles team.
Outside of school, she also played tennis, soccer (halfback and goalie) and softball (third base).
In her sophomore or junior years, she wrote several stories for the school paper.
“I wrote about a guy who was really funny. … He wanted to be a comedian,” she recalls. “And I wrote about this girl who won some award.”
During her senior year, her teacher in Honors English suggested that Rother might like journalism as a career, and gave her a book on the craft.
Her final year wasn’t too difficult.
She “roamed around taking pictures outside” for an art class, her Advanced Placement political science class met only twice a week, and her honors english teacher did not require students to do their work in a classroom setting, she said.
“I felt like I was not challenged enough,” she said. “In 11th grade I was, but our senior year I spent most of it outside in the sun. … They pretty much let us do what we wanted.”
A group of alumni on the school’s 85th Celebration Committee did what it wanted, too—voting Rother a Distinguished Alumna of the school.
“We had a celebration day during the 2006-2007 school year,” said Alicia Snook, administrator of the LJHS Alumni Association.
Rother went to UC Berkeley, writing 14 stories for the college paper, the Daily Californian—the only daily paper covering the city of Berkeley at the time. She took a journalism class her senior year.
But it was at talk station KGO in the Bay Area where she really cut her teeth professionally.
“That’s actually where I was really introduced to journalism [in the real world],” she said, recalling an internship her senior year with consumer reporter Chris Bjorklund. “She kind of took me under her wing.”
Not wanting to take a first newspaper job “in the middle of nowhere,” she started out in public relations—corporate communications for a cruise line.
“I didn’t find that fulfilling, so that’s when I went to … school at Medill”—the prestigious Medill School of Journalism at Northwestern University in Evanston, a suburb of Chicago.
Over the years, though, she retained her ambitions of being a book writer.
But the first was a novel—Naked Addiction—which she calls “a thriller about sex, drugs and police detective Ken Goode’s investigation into the murder of young beauty school students near the beach in San Diego”—published in November 2007 after 17 years of revisions and rejections.
“It’s very difficult to get a first novel published,” she said. But the success of her true-crime work helped pave the way.
Naked Addiction grew out of a writing workshop she took in Northampton, 100 miles west of Boston.
“I started writing that when I was in Massachusetts, and I was homesick,” she said. The novel included settings from her La Jolla childhood—and where she still swims.
Her biggest success came with Poisoned Love, a revelatory account of the Kristin Rossum murder case in San Diego—which Rother had covered as a reporter from arrest to sentencing.
The ninth printing of the book was released in December 2011, with 20 new pages of information.
Rother and her agent have been contacted about options and film rights to several of her books, but nothing has come to fruition. She still hopes for a movie deal someday.
Lost Girls was an unlikely project, however.
Rother never expected to do it, writing in the epilogue of her 372-page book about her standing rule: “I cannot and will not write stories about young murdered children. I just can’t stomach it.”
But after accepting an assignment from the online site The Daily Beast to cover the case, she told of sharing the emotional fallout that the community had felt—and “I was hooked. ... I felt that this story warranted a book-length telling.”
Blogging in the Huffington Post in late July 2012, she added: “When I set out to write Lost Girls, I tried to assure John Gardner’s mother, Cathy Osborn, that she would stop being the target of blame once the book was released. I would be the one to take the hits. And as most people in San Diego who watched or read the news have witnessed over the past month, I was right.”
In her Patch interview of late January, Rother noted: “It was clear that this was going to be a very difficult story for a lot of people. … That’s part of the reason I wrote this book—because I see how emotional it was for everybody, just as it’s happening.”
In her Huffington Post blog titled Why I Write About Tragedy, Rother said:
I will say it again. I am sorry for the loss of Chelsea’s and Amber’s parents and I am sorry that they feel “deeply hurt” by this book, because that was not my intention. My intention was to honor their daughters’ memory by working to prevent future victims from falling to the same fate.
Three years ago Monday, Poway High School senior Chelsea King went missing during a park run in Rancho Bernardo.
Now, Caitlin Rother expresses pride in how she handled one of the greatest crime stories in San Diego County history.
Of Lost Girls, Rother told Patch: “I feel like it’s one of the most important books I’ve written—because of some of the revelations I discovered and because I just feel like it is. I was really trying to do something with this book—and I really feel like I did it.
“I hope that it really makes a difference.”
Monday: The Firestorm That Fizzled: ‘Lost Girls’ Author Defused Mother of Victim
Wednesday: Rother’s jailhouse interview with John Gardner and other revelations.