By BILL ACKERBAUER
Johnstown native George Pawlaczyk has made a good career of writing about people who do bad things.
“Murder on a Lonely Road” was released this week by Berkley True Crime, an imprint of Penguin Books. Co-author George Pawlaczyk is a Johnstown native who has earned a reputation as an investigative
reporter for an Illinois newspaper.
In this 1962 yearbook photo, George Pawlaczyk, center, is shown with classmates in his homeroom at Johnstown High School. Pawlaczyk went on to become an award-winning investigative reporter and is the co-author of a new book.
A longtime investigative reporter for the Belleville News-Democrat, he has been called "the Pit Bull of Belleville" for his tenacity in exposing corruption and injustice in Southwestern Illinois.
Along with his reporting partner Beth Hundsdorfer, Pawlaczyk won the George Polk Award for Local Reporting in 2009 and the John Jay Excellence in Criminal Justice Reporting Award in 2010.
For their next trick, the pair set to work on a book about the prosecution of a suspected serial killer. The result of that project, "Murder on a Lonely Road," was released this week by Berkley True Crime, an imprint of Penguin Books, and is available online and in bookstores throughout North America, Europe and parts of Asia.
"Their strategy is to send a title to bookstores everywhere that English is likely to be spoken," Pawlaczyk says of the publisher.
The author graduated in 1963 from Johnstown High School and spent two years in the Army after being drafted in 1966. He served one year in Vietnam, starting in the infantry and later working as a reporter and photographer for the 1st Infantry Division newspaper The American Traveler and occasionally for Stars & Stripes.
"I actually began my civilian reporting career at the Leader, and worked four days for editor Ed Lapos," Pawlaczyk wrote in a recent letter to The Leader-Herald. "But before my first week at the Leader ended, I got a call from Leighton O'Brien, then city editor of the Knickerbocker-News [of Albany], who wanted to hire me based on a story I had sold to him a few weeks earlier about a Vietnam patrol. They paid me $100 for that story and several photos, big money in 1968."
Pawlaczyk said he spent seven years at The Knick, then left reporting before returning to the business in 1991, working at The Record of Troy. He went to work for the Belleville News-Democrat in 1994, then briefly went to the Tampa Tribune in 1999.
"However, my editors at the BND, as we are now called, lured me back after six months," he said.
As a young writer, he said, his greatest influence was JHS English teacher Harriet Lorence, who used to read his work aloud in class.
Pawlaczyk said when he and Hundsdorfer got ready to write "Murder on a Lonely Road," he re-read "In Cold Blood," Truman Capote's 1965 classic, a landmark work of the true-crime novel genre.
The initial reporting for "Murder" - their first book - took three months and included a half-dozen interviews with Dwight McNiel, the former sheriff of Christian County, Mo., the book's main character, who spent decades pursuing justice in the case of a young woman murdered in 1985 and other women whose later deaths were all linked to the same suspected killer.
"We interviewed all the major players, including police investigators and the prosecutor," Pawlaczyk told The Leader-Herald. They also paid for 1,300 pages of photocopies of the Springfield, Mo., Police Department's file on the case, which included more than 150 interviews signed by witnesses. "These were invaluable," he said. "We made at least a dozen round trips of 550 miles each to the Springfield, Mo., area, more than enough mileage to convince us that a 350 Nissan Z (my car at the time) was exceedingly uncomfortable. I have since traded it for a Mustang."
Pawlaczyk said he and Hundsdorfer met and got advice from Michael Cuneo, a sociology professor at Fordham University who has written true-crime books. (His latest, "One Last Kiss," was released this summer by St. Martin's Press.) The advice he offered, Pawlaczyk said, was "Just imagine scenes and develop your story that way."
The co-authors received editing help on their book from Rosemary Armao, a journalism professor at the University at Albany, with whom Pawlaczyk worked at the Knickerbocker News in the 1970s.
"I needed a lot of editing," he said. "Rosemary really helped. I learned not to get teed off when it seemed that every sentence needed a rewrite. Like most good editors, Rosemary pointed out the flaws and let me do the repairs."
Armao, who was executive director of the non-profit organization Investigative Reporters and Editors in the 1990s, said she became aware then that Pawlaczyk and Hundsdorfer were doing "really great investigations."
"The Belleville News-Democrat does amazing investigations for a small paper, so I know the editors there very well," Armao told The Leader-Herald this week.
She said Hundsdorfer helped Pawlaczyk to "make the first victim come alive and seem sympathetic," in the book - "more than a silly girl who ended up a victim."
"It is a good read," she said.
The crime-writing duo is working on proposals for two new true-crime books and hopes to submit them to publishers through a literary agent. If "Murder on a Lonely Road" takes off with readers, publishers might soon come knocking on their door.
"Of course, we hope to make the New York Times bestseller list," he said. "But that is an extreme long shot."
Meanwhile, Pawlaczyk says, they are still hard at work at their day jobs.
To read examples of Pawlaczyk and Hundsdorfer's news reporting, see the Belleville News-Democrat website, www.bnd.com.
Features editor Bill Ackerbauer can be reached by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.