Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods

Larry and Danny Ranes: Serial Killers in the Same Family

Interview with the Author

Luke Karamazov, by Dr. Hilberry
Luke Karamazov, by Dr. Hilberry

When asked what it was like to write the book, Luke Karamazov, Dr. Hilberry said, "My life had been academic and this seemed like a chance to get in touch with a part of life I hadn't known before and might not know in the future. I think I welcomed it with some trepidation." In an interview for Tamaqua, he stated, "I probably thought my life had been pretty sheltered and this would be a chance to try something rawer than I was used to."

Dr. Conrad Hilberry
Dr. Conrad Hilberry

Since Hilberry was an English professor and a poet, not a criminologist or psychologist, a natural question is whether he was truly prepared.  "I had done some work as a journalist," he stated, "but this goes way beyond that. I tried to find out enough psychology so that I could distinguish clearly the characteristics of the two brothers. My friend Bob Grossman in the Psychology Department was a big help."

Admittedly, he had never been in a prison before.  "I was a little nervous going in, but it didn't seem scary. Prisons must be lonely places.  I think each of the brothers got a lift from having some professor come and listen to them for hours at a time, with a tape recorder running. I felt welcome, actually."

For him, Monk proved to be a good interview.  "He answered my questions directly and in detail. He said he had told those stories often, so he had a way of telling them; they seemed rehearsed, more or less."

But after Hilberry had sent Monk part of the manuscript, he found out that it's not that easy to please people who have their own agenda for a book about their lives.  "After I had sent him a draft of the first 100 pages of the book, he was furious or pretended to be.  I had called him 'manipulative' in the draft and that word made him angry.  [Apparently in prison, this adjective was anathema.] More than that, since I had listened to him attentively for hours, nodding at what he said, he probably thought he had convinced me of the 'rightness' of what he had done.  In the draft, I had quoted him at length, letting him have his say, but I didn't necessarily subscribe to it myself.  I think he felt somewhat betrayed."

Hilberry's friend, Bob Grossman, had accompanied him to the interview.  "When they put the three of us in an isolated room in the prison and Monk began telling me how angry he was, Bob stepped between us, alert to what could happen there. He'd worked with people like Monk before, [whereas] I was an innocent.  By the end of the interview, Monk had calmed down, and my voice came back almost to normal."

When asked why he had chosen the name, Luke Karamazov, an intellectual character from Fyodor Dostoevsky's novel, The Brothers Karamazov, who rejects God and is highly sensitive to the world's random cruelty, Hilberry responded, "I was just trying to find something that would sound interesting.  I wish I could have used his real name.  I would have liked to speculate about his reasons for choosing Steppenwolf and its implications."

Talking with Kathy Steppenwolf, whom Hilberry named "Julie" in the book, he came away with distinct impressions.  "She seemed like a natural wife and mother, concerned about her children. I found her easy to talk with. She was willing to talk, but she was upset when the book was published, for reasons I can understand. When the book came out, the Gazette's article about it gave the actual names, and she was afraid members of her family might be hurt by the publicity.  I myself had taken pains to change the names of everyone except public figures, judges and lawyers."

In the Tamaqua interview, he adds: "If I had been more energetic or more courageous, I might have interviewed the families of the victims.  As it was, I kept abandoning the project, finding the whole thing disheartening, distasteful and of doubtful value.  But then I would go back to the raw material and see how fascinating some of it was."

Larry Ranes, aka Monk Steppenwolf
Larry Ranes, aka Monk Steppenwolf

What stood out for him about the experience was the complexity of the two brothers.  "Monk fits the pattern of a sociopathic personality," he observes, "but his relations with his wife, with the Deputy Warden at the prison, and with others couldn't be summed up in that label. Danny was quite different, denying that he had done what he was accused of, and talking very fast. Once he was in prison, he was doing all sorts of good things like bringing in Christmas trees, decorating the prison, writing to high school classes. There is more than one way of thinking about each of them."

Danny Ranes
Danny Ranes

It's likely that the Ranes brothers will hold their special place in criminal history as the only two brothers who separately became serial killers in a way that offers no easy explanation of their repetitive crimes.  Cruel fathers and clumsy mothers don't necessarily cause children to become so violent.  It's in intriguing mystery. 

 

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