In the 1920s, a serial killer named Gordon Stewart Northcott kidnapped and slaughtered children in a chicken farm in California, USA. This is an interview with Anthony Flacco, whose book The Road Out of Hell I consider the definitive account of the events.
Who are you? Tell us a bit about yourself!
I am a guy who loves the written word. I’ve been a voracious reader all my life, and still am. As a boy, I loved the authors who could transport me into their realms, and it seemed like magic to me. As an adult, I still love them, though I now have an understanding of how the magic works.
How did you end up writing about the chicken farm murders?
I convinced Sanford Clark’s grown son Jerry Clark to work with me, since Sanford had already passed on. Jerry reached out to me because he read my book A Checklist For Murder, but I had to convince him I would handle his father’s story with proper care. Jerry Clark’s input was invaluable to the story.
Who was Gordon Stewart Northcott?
A piano-playing serial killer in his early 20s who became addicted to the process of kidnapping, raping, and murdering little boys. He focused on migrant children to help hide his crimes and to frustrate investigation.
Who was Sanford Clark?
Sanford Clark was 12 years old when he was taken from his family home in Canada by his uncle, Gordon Stewart Northcott, with his family’s blessing. They allowed it because Northcott convinced them he was going to Southern California to start a chicken ranch and needed help with the labor from his nephew, Sanford.
Without giving away the story of your excellent book, what happened
on the Wineville chicken farm during the years of 1926-1928?
An estimated twenty little boys were kidnapped and killed, one at a time, over a period of those two years. Sanford was held captive and incommunicado on that isolated desert farm, and forced to help bury the bodies after Gordon Stewart Northcott was done with them. Sanford was repeatedly raped with foreign objects as well as by Northcott himself, frequently took beatings and suffered through periods of many hours spent in an isolation pit inside one of the chicken coops.
Is the farm still there? Did you visit it during the process of writing the book?
Please visit this page of my website to view the video on the book. The video is located at the bottom of the page.
You can also find it on YouTube and Amazon. Much of my filming was done in front of the house that stood on the murder farm, and at the courthouse where Northcott was tried and convicted.
Sanford went on to live a life of dedication to other people, and
seemed to have suffered from guilt for his part in Northcott’s macabre
play for the rest of his life. What was his path like after the events
on the farm?
It was nothing short of the most astounding recovery from personal trauma that I have ever come across. He went on to enter a marriage that lasted for 56 years, had a full career as a postal carrier, and he and his wife adopted two boys from the local orphanage. One of them was his son, Jerry, who gave me all the unique personal information, photographs, and personal contacts necessary to write the book.
Your book does an excellent job of putting the reader right there, in
Hell on Earth, as Sanford suffered through it: you almost don’t want to
turn the page because you’re afraid of what will happen next… How did
you go about accomplishing this kind of immersive perspective in the
Well, for me the trick to it is to take my mind off of myself and enter the mind of a given character, then see and feel and think as that character would do in any given situation regardless of what I personally might do or say. My background in the theater is essential to my approach to character analysis, which I take on in the same fashion as if I were going to play that person onstage or in a film, regardless of age, race, or gender. I consider empathy to be a writer’s most powerful tool.
One interesting observation in your book is that Northcott appeared
to go into a kind of “kill mode,” as Sanford Clark described it, when
he was plotting someone’s murder. Sanford even described Northcott as
having a specific smell when he was in this mode. What do you think
caused this smell?
I believe his psychopathy had such control over him that when he became sexually excited, his perspiration rate went into overdrive. He was said to be extremely hairy and he lived in the desert, on a chicken ranch, so…
In your opinion, what made Northcott the sadist he was? His mother
was horrible as well, but do you think that is enough to explain it?
I believe we can explain this story as a demonstration of the human capacity for evil. I believe that is ALL we need in order to explain it. We can talk about his mother’s influence and his father’s lack of it, but whatever seeds they planted in him fell onto willing soil. He took whatever evil they had inside themselves and ran it many miles farther down the road.
What did you think about the 2008 film Changeling? (Deals in part with the Wineville murders, focusing on a victim named Walter Collins and his mother’s quest to find him)
Very good but incomplete. The writers missed a real bet by not researching Sanford more deeply and reaching out to his surviving son. They fell for Hollywood’s fascination with murder and neglected the HEART of the story.
You’ve written about other incidents related to what we call “dark
history”, including the Boston Marathon bombing and the Robert Peernock
case. Are you planning on writing more in the true crime/dark history
It will have to be the right story, such as my NYT Bestseller Impossible Odds, about an American woman kidnapped by Somali pirates and held in the desert for 93 days before she was rescued by Seal Team 6.
Without an uplifting element to the story, these books are too difficult to write. The very empathy you must employ to write well becomes the beast that bites you when you try to sleep.
Where can people keep up with your work?
The website is www.AnthonyFlacco.com , and of course I invite people to join me on Facebook.
Anything you would like to add that I didn’t ask about?
Yes. One of Sanford’ survival tricks was to escape into the tall stack of pulp novels he brought with him to the chicken ranch. His love of those books, and their power to transport him, was something I heavily identified with in writing out that part of the story. The passages on “Young Wild West” were among my favorites to write.
And, finally, my usual question to all my interviewees: what are your favorite books, films and albums?
Top three authors instead? I have loved the work of John Steinbeck for many years, also the prose fiction of Dean Koontz. In nonfiction, I love the writing and the attitude of Camille Paglia.
Among my favorite movies are, “Little Shop of Horrors,” which I think is the best musical ever filmed, “The Princess Bride,” a perfect romantic comedy, and most recently, the film “1917,” which is not only a great combat film but shows some of the best cinematography in any film.
Reading books has definitely made me a better person, and I don’t doubt this is also true with everyone in your audience who reads.