TCF: Obsessed

By M. William Phelps

The crime:

Sheila Davalloo had a crush on her co-worker Nelson Sessler so she killed Sessler’s girlfriend Anna Lisa Raymundo. This meant she now had Nelson all to herself, but she hadn’t told him that she was already married. So Davalloo then tried to kill her husband, Paul Christos, but he managed to survive her attack, which led to Davalloo finally being connected to the Raymundo murder, for which she was convicted a decade later.

The book:

A great read, and very well paced given how long it is and the fact that not much actually happens. But Phelps’s description of Davalloo’s attempt at killing Christos offers up a master class on how to use point of view to slow down the subjective experience of time. It’s a scene that goes on for nearly fifty pages, and feels like it could have been written by Stephen King.

Another pacing problem that a lot of true crime books fall into and that Phelps avoids is expanding the trial to the point where it become tedious. I think this is just because trials throw up so much material it’s too easy to just transcribe the transcripts. But here the fact that Davalloo represented herself (rarely a good idea) made it more entertaining, and let Phelps give free play to a lot of judgmental asides. Phelps walks a fine line with getting too chatty on occasion (“Oh, how the guy should have listened to his inner voice!” “That, my friends, is the description of a desperate woman . . .”), and during the trial this is something he really indulges, sometimes overdoing the sarcastic play-by-play. But overall I think the tone he adopts works.

The pitfall that Phelps doesn’t avoid is that of larding praise on the police. Again, the reason this happens so often is pretty obvious: the police are the good guys and in most cases have been generous in providing access and interviews to the author. But this sort of guff too often turns into hero-cop boilerplate. For example:

Richard Conklin . . . is a top-notch cop. There’s nothing Hollywood about Conklin. He’s sharp and does things by the book. If Anna Lisa could have chosen the cop she wanted to manage the investigation of her murder, she could have never chosen a better investigator than Conklin to lead the task . . .

. . . there was no mistaking the tenacity and drive or compassion that motivated [Greg Holt] to solve crimes perpetrated against the people of the town he worked in. Hold was a doer. He believed in working cases the old-fashioned way: Hit the bricks. Track down sources. Bang on doors. Ask questions repeatedly. Allow his gut to guide him. And when he thought he’d exhausted every possible lead, every palpable clue a case had to give up, he would dig even deeper, go over it all again, and find that missing link –that one needle sending him running toward an entirely new haystack. For Holt, a cop didn’t stop because the answers were hidden. He persevered and made them emerge.

Alison Carpentier is one of those no-nonsense cops. She hardly took any crap from anyone. . . . Carpentier is one of those officers never satisfied with a case until it is looked at closely and all the questions answered. She doesn’t accept what is generally the norm: Most cases are what they seem, and are nothing else. Carpentier is one of those hungry cops, motivated by her instincts. During her ten years on patrol, Carpentier had done two years of undercover drug work, where she learned how to rely on her gut.

How could any perp hope to beat this team of all-stars? Holt is even presented as a human lie-detector: “Hold had interviewed countless suspects and witnesses. When a professional does that for years and years, he develops a sixth sense about people in general. He’s able to read human beings fairly accurately.” You’d think this would be true, but apparently it’s only a common misconception. Even experienced police interrogators apparently do no better than anyone else in being able to tell when someone is being truthful or not.

Well, I can certainly tell you who wasn’t going to beat these supercops, and that’s the blockheads in this case. I’ve read true crime books with stupider villains, but rarely one with so many outright dummies. You have to just shake your head at how dense Paul was in not picking up all the red flags and air-raid warning sirens that Sheila was sending out. What Nelson thought he was doing in playing games with the police is anybody’s guess. And Sheila herself was just a trainwreck, though she did almost get away with Anna’s murder. It was her attempted murder of Paul that undid her, leading the detectives to conclude that “as much education as she’d had, she was not at all intelligent.”

I don’t think this final point is fair though. I think it just goes to show that nobody is smart, or dumb, all of the time. We all have our areas of expertise, and other areas where we can’t function at all.

Noted in passing:

At one point Phelps refers to Davalloo as Sessler’s “mistress.” This is not how I use that word. I would have said “girlfriend” or “lover.” Isn’t mistress reserved for a lover outside of marriage? Yes, Davalloo was married, but Sessler’s relationship with Raymundo at the time was on the backburner so I don’t think his girlfriend would count as a mistress.

Something that never ceases to surprise me, no matter how many fresh instances of it I’m exposed to, is the inability of people younger than me to write (or even read) cursive. I realize it hasn’t been taught in school for a while, but I guess I’ve always figured that kids were still picking it up somewhere, somehow.

They aren’t.

Sheila Davalloo was a highly-educated woman – private school, university, post-graduate work at a medical centre – and was “a manager of medical coding and thesaurus administration, a select group within Biostatics and Clinical Data Management” at Purdue Pharmaceuticals. (I should say here that “thesaurus” in this case doesn’t refer to the helpful reference book I have on my desk, but rather “a form of controlled vocabulary that seeks to dictate semantic manifestations of metadata in the indexing of content objects.” I looked it up.) So when Phelps describes her handwriting as he does I was expecting something pretty special:

Sheila’s handwriting is something to take note of. It is nothing short of perfect. Not good, but flawless. It’s like staring at a specific font a computer has generated. She could write letters after letters, without any margins or lines on the page, straight and methodical, in this highly stylized penmanship of hers, which is so clear and precise that any recipient is inclined to think she had used a computer. Beyond the perfection of the letters, what emerges is how calm the hand is writing out the words. One would have to have a perfectly steady hand, along with an abundance of composure within, to achieve the precision Sheila does in these letters.

Whew! I was thinking to myself this must be some pretty fancy handwriting! Like expert-level calligraphy with its “highly stylized penmanship.” At the end of the book Phelps will get a letter directly from Davalloo and remind us of how he’s “incredibly fascinated by her penmanship. I have never seen anything like it.” Wanting us to feel as impressed as he was, Phelps even includes a sample of it in the photos section.

It is very neat and meticulous.

It is also all block caps. Back in the day (my day) that wasn’t even considered to be “writing.” We called it “printing.”

On top of that, of the nine words shown in the sample, one of them has a howler of a spelling error, with Davalloo writing “solider” for “soldier.” Which is the sort of mistake you make all the time when typing but rarely when you’re holding a pen.


Sessler was one very lucky young man. Even given strong exculpatory evidence, like the fact that he was known to be at work at the time of the murder, being Raymundo’s boyfriend made him a prime suspect (or “person of interest”). The availability heuristic is powerful in criminal investigations, and he was all the police initially had. And if you only have one suspect then you get tunnel vision.

Then you can add to this the fact that he rubbed everybody the wrong way. And if you don’t trust someone you start looking for evidence that implicates them. The lead detective thought he was hiding something right from the start and took an instant dislike to him. And one of the jurors at Davalloo’s trial said that all of the jury members “hated him” and “thought he was a scumbag and a dirty liar.”

If the police only have one suspect then they get tunnel vision. If they don’t like him, and don’t trust him, they start looking for evidence that implicates him. Yes, things could have gone south for Mr. Sessler very quickly.

True Crime Files


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