EDITOR’S NOTE: This is the second of two posts about how the pitching, reporting and editing of a complex story about crime, assumptions and mental health. Today, Storyboard talks with Atavist editor Seyward Darby about essential story elements and annotates the pitch that led to the assignment. Previously, writer Katia Savhuk answered questions about how she found and reported the story.
It can be hard to find an editor who gives a writer free rein to dig deep, immerse in a single story and convey all the wonders they find on their reporting journey. Complex stories are streamlined for space and to accommodate short attention spans. Along the way, nuance can be lost and fascinating material ends up on the cutting room floor.
The Atavist Magazine offers an oasis in this landscape, where thorny plots of twists and turns are not only tolerated, but welcomed. For editor-in-chief Seyward Darby, working to tease a story out of this thicket is part of the appeal.
After Darby graduated from Duke University — where she oversaw the campus newspaper during the Duke lacrosse case — she began her professional journalism career as an assistant editor at Transitions Online in the Czech Republic. In addition to editing other writers, she did research about media needs in post-Communist countries and reported her own stories, on everything from the economics of coffee in Poland to LGBTQ rights in Croatia. She has since served as the deputy editor of Foreign Policy and assistant managing editor of The New Republic, freelanced for a variety of national publications and written a book about women in the white nationalist movement.
Darby found her way to The Atavist in 2018, where she dove into editing long, cinematic features. “With The Atavist pieces, we are trying to tell the definitive story about something,” she told me.
One such story is “A Crime Beyond Belief,” by Katia Savchuk. It’s an example of what can emerge when a writer has the time, space and passion to dig beneath headlines. The story revisited a bizarre series of home invasions in the San Francisco Bay Area and a kidnapping that was first dismissed as a “Gone Girl” style hoax. A reconsideration of the case provided the scaffolding for a profile of one man’s experience with psychosis. “No stone went unturned, no angle went unexamined,” Darby said. “I like working on stories where it’s possible to do that.”
Storyboard reached out to Darby to ask what piques her interest in pitches and how she helps writers find a narrative spine. Readers can also check out The Atavist’s submission guidelines. Our conversation has been edited for length and clarity, and is followed by an annotation with Darby about the pitch that landed “A Crime Beyond Belief.”
What are some of the key ingredients you consider essential to an Atavist story?
Having a strong sense of the story’s narrative arc is crucial. We are always looking for a plotline. That can be a direct ‘Who done it?’ but it can also be subtler than that. You want to feel like you’re getting from point A all the way to point Z, and that there’s a clear, deliberate story being told along the way. As an example, we ran a beautiful reported essay about the monarch butterfly migration, which at first glance seems like an issue story. The writer and I talked about how we could form this into something with narrative propulsion. The spine of the story is about the migration of a particular butterfly. Essentially, ‘Is he going to make it?’ We used his journey as the anchor.
People pitch us all the time with great ideas, but they’re not narratives. They might have narrative elements, and we do run nut graphs occasionally. But we’re really looking for stories that you keep reading because they keep unfolding and you want to know what’s going to happen next.
We’re also looking for a sense of why a writer who pitches us should be the person to tell this story. Maybe you’ve done the legwork. Maybe you have a personal connection. Maybe you went into your grandmother’s attic and found a whole box full of documents. We like to see that you’re already thinking about things like nuance and character development. The pitch doesn’t necessarily have to be very long or detailed, but we want to feel that a writer has already started to dig beneath the surface to really understand the story.
You mentioned that Atavist stories strive to be “definitive.” What does that mean to you?
I don’t feel like I’m left with questions about the action of the story. Every stone has been turned or the writer has tried to turn it, and I do not feel like things have been left untouched. Much of Katia’s story was in the earlier news headlines, but if you wanted to understand the entire story — the definitive story — you had to piece all of those things together. And even then, you probably wouldn’t have gotten the full picture. One of the things that I found really striking was that after Katia’s piece was published several people said to me, ‘All I remember (about the original case) is that it was a hoax.’ There are so many people who never even heard that it was not a hoax, but that it was connected to these other crimes.
Every story is infinite in its own way. You can tell a story in any direction and just keep going. But I like Atavist stories to feel like the writer gave me a very clear sense of what the story is, what the frame is and that they have filled it out.
I’ve often wondered how to pitch a story that’s plot-driven but isn’t in past tense. Are the stories you green-light often about past events, when the writer knows where the plot begins and ends? Or is that something you and the writer figure out as they report?
If you pitch a story but say ‘I don’t know what’s going to happen,’ we’re almost certain not to assign it because of the very specific nature of what we do. That piece would make a ton of sense for a place that runs more traditional magazine features — which I love — where you go see what happens and a story comes out of that. But for The Atavist, a portion of the story needs to be known. It can be recent past; it can be distant past.
That doesn’t mean there aren’t elements where things are yet to be seen or understood. With Katia’s case, based on the initial news headlines about the the kidnapping, she could say, ‘I can tell you the story: This is what happened, this is how it got unraveled, here are the people who made errors.’ But what was to be determined was the fleshing out of Matt Muller as a character and trying to understand what drove him to commit the crimes he did. It was also about trying to understand the ways in which a lot of people lost grasp of reality. These were all things that Katia wanted to dig into, but it wasn’t like digging into them would make or break the narrative itself.
Can you walk me through the questions you ask when you read a pitch that piques your interest?
Sometimes we think we see a narrative but need a writer to push aside some of crazy details they’ve found and take us through how this story unfolds. Another question we come back with a lot is, ‘Tell us about your access. Tell us about what your reporting strategy has been or will be.’ And increasingly, we ask, ‘Do you have exclusive access to the subject?’ A person can always talk to whoever they want to talk to, but we really want to get a sense of whether the writer feels like they have this source’s trust and there aren’t other reporters sniffing around.
Sometimes we say, ‘You know what, there’s a narrative here, but I don’t necessarily think it’s the one the writer put at the forefront.’ We might read a sentence and see an interesting narrative thread. But then the question for the writer is: ‘Can you pull it?’ We’ll run our reaction by them: ‘Have you thought about this? Would you feel comfortable with that? Is this the kind of story you would want to tell?’ We feel out how willing they would be to shift gears on their approach. I never want people to write stories that they don’t want to write. So if it’s a square-peg-in-a-round-hole situation for them, that’s no problem. No harm, no foul, and please pitch us again.
The Atavist’s stories are long. How do you decide whether a fascinating story idea can sustain 3,000 words vs. 5,000 vs. 15,000?
Running minimum 8,000-word stories is arbitrary, but it’s also our brand. It’s not because we think stories of a certain length are better; it’s literally just that this is what we do. I feel very lucky to be in a job where our rejection may be of an idea I’d love to read as a person who consumes magazines, but doesn’t quite fit our niche. We’re always thinking not just about whether it can get up to a certain length but, at key moments over the course of that length, does it feel like readers are still going to be getting something new? If we see that there’s going to be a plateau, we don’t need those extra 5,000 words. Belaboring a story just because you can is not worth it to us.
One thing writers ask all the time is, ‘I’ve never written anything longer than 3,000 words. Is that a problem?’ As far as I’m concerned, no. If there’s an extraordinary story that somebody wants to tell and they really want to sink their teeth into it and spend time on it and put all these words into it, that’s what we as editors love to help figure out. It’s much more about, ‘Do you have the goods? Are you committed?’ I rarely Google a writer to see if they’ve written a piece of a certain length. That’s not interesting to me.
Part of this also is recognizing what the freelance landscape looks like. Often people want to take a big swing but institutions can’t support it. One of the really lovely things about our small-scale model is that we don’t spread our resources out so wide that they’re thin. We can take time with people who want to take a big swing. Having the goods and access is so much more important to us than if you’ve written for The New Yorker four times before.
How important is the chemistry between editor and writer when considering a pitch?
The most important thing for me is somebody who is going to be communicative and collaborative, and who believes the magazine has the best interests of their story at heart. Those things are pretty easy to pick up on in the pitch or a phone call or longer correspondence.
There are some writers who just want to send you something and get an edit, which is totally fine. We’ve had a few instances where people are like, ‘Whoa! This editing is really deep and hands-on, and almost too much for me.’ I definitely want people who are willing to strip a story down to its basics and figure out how to build it back up.
I don’t think I’m smarter than anybody. If anything, I have an inferiority complex. What I do believe is that for this kind of storytelling, two brains are better than one. It’s great when writers are willing to bounce ideas around and take direction but also challenge me — people who are willing to get into it with an editor. That vibe is important.
What struck you as most exciting about the story that Katia pitched?
It’s like a Russian nesting doll, right? It’s like, ‘There’s this one thing. But then oh my god, there’s this other thing! And then another thing!’ It all kind of compounds into this big mess. So many screw-ups at every turn. But another thing that really drew me to it was the meta aspect — about assumptions that people have about how crime happens, who commits crimes, what a crime looks like.
This story really was about people’s assumptions and expectations, how they’ve been shaped, what has shaped them and how bad assumptions can have profound real-world impacts. There was so much to unpack. There was an incredible story to tell here — scenes, twists, cliffhangers, plot points — but also all of these fascinating thematic pieces. It was clear that Katia saw all of those.
A messy, complicated, dense situation can make a story narratively interesting. But are there times where you read something and think it’s just too messy or there’s no real through-line?
I can’t think of an example where I’ve read something and thought I can’t find the through-line or see what the plot is. It’s more the case that sometimes those things don’t exist.’ That’s not because a writer has failed; it’s just because the story just did not lend itself in the way that we had hoped for.
I’m going to regret saying this because people are going to start sending me big messes, but I actually really enjoy big messes sometimes. Because I’m like, alright, crack my knuckles, let’s go. Let’s put this puzzle together.
Annotation: Katia Savchuk’s pitch for the story that became “A Crime Beyond Belief” is used with her permission. Storyboard’s questions to Seyward Darby are in red; Darby’s responses in blue. To read the pitch without the annotations, click the HIDE ANNOTATIONS button on the side menu of your monitor or at the top of your mobile screen.
Nice to meet you! (Name omitted) mentioned that you might be interested in the story I’ve been reporting on the so-called “Gone Girl” kidnapping that took place in Vallejo, California, a couple of years ago.
I’m including a pitch below…
A bit more about me: I’m a freelance magazine writer based in Oakland and a former reporter at Forbes. I’ve also written for Mother Jones, Pacific Standard, The Washington Post, The Guardian, San Francisco Magazine, and other publications. You can see some of my clips on my website.
Thanks for taking a look!
An Unbelievable Crime
How did a former Marine and Harvard-trained lawyer become a convicted kidnapper? And why wouldn’t anyone believe his victims?
Around three o’clock in the morning on March 23, 2015, Denise Huskins and Aaron Quinn were awakened by a blinding flash. A man wearing a black wetsuit stood at the foot of their bed. He held an assault pistol that beamed light into their eyes and tracked a red dot across their foreheads. In the dark, they couldn’t tell the weapon was actually a Nerf Super Soaker painted black, with a flashlight and laser pointer tacked on with duct tape. What were your initial impressions after reading this opening paragraph? The first thing I thought was that I hadn’t heard mention of Nerf Super Soakers since I was a kid. They still make those things!? That thought was followed by: What on earth is happening here? I needed to know.
The young couple, both physical therapists, had been dating for seven months. That night, Huskins was staying over at Quinn’s eggshell yellow house on Mare Island, a placid bedroom community carved out of the city of Vallejo, an hour north of San Francisco. They’d spent Sunday evening watching television and sipping beer and whiskey before going to bed. What effect did these details have? Katia was demonstrating her ability to incorporate colorful details into storytelling and bring readers close to the characters and their interactions. There’s also a hint of how she would approach pacing: She would take her time, build scenes. Pacing matters a lot in Atavist stories, since we’re so narrative-forward. A writer flexing their muscles in a pitch to show their ability to build tension is never a bad thing.
The intruder told Quinn to turn over, calling him by his first name. He ordered Huskins to bind her boyfriend’s hands and feet behind his back with zip ties, like a trussed chicken. It conjures a haunting image, but the phrase “trussed chicken” is so vivid and evocative. He tied up Huskins himself, then told the pair to hop to the bedroom closet, where he covered their eyes with blacked-out swim goggles and placed headphones over their ears. Soothing music gave way to a pre-recorded male voice: Please remain calm. The recording instructed the couple to drink a dose of Nyquil laced with diazepam, a sedative, and they felt the man take their blood pressure. We’re a professional group here to collect debts, the voice said. If you don’t cooperate, your partner will be hurt. Why was including this dialogue effective as part of the pitch? The dialogue helped establish what the tone of the story would be — chilling! — while also hinting at some of the piece’s central questions, including what the perpetrator was trying to achieve with the crime, and whether or not he acted alone.
When Quinn came to, he was on his living room couch, and his girlfriend was gone. He cut himself free with scissors the intruder had left out. When he checked his phone, he found an email demanding two payments of $8,500 for Huskins’ safe return. He stood behind a thin strip of red tape the kidnapper had stuck on the floor and eyed a camera mounted on the ceiling to monitor his movements. If Quinn crossed the line or called the cops, the man had threatened to kill Huskins and harm his family. For more than eight hours, Quinn agonized over what to do. Finally, he called the police.
Vallejo authorities corralled nearly 150 officers from local and federal agencies to mount an around-the-clock search for Huskins. But her boyfriend soon realized the cops weren’t also hunting for a kidnapper. Instead, they made Quinn, who is doe-eyed with boy-band good looks, change into a prison jumpsuit and interrogated him for 18 hours in a room without windows or clocks. They drew blood and DNA samples, asked him to take a polygraph and wouldn’t let him see his family for hours. “We know you’re lying and that you killed Denise,” he remembers detectives telling him. “If you continue telling us this crazy story, we’re going to paint you as a cold, calculating monster.”
Two days after the home invasion, around 10 in the morning, Huskins turned up near her mother’s home in Huntington Beach, a seven-hour drive south of Vallejo. She told police that an intruder had thrown her in the trunk of a car, with her overnight bag and purse, and driven her to a quiet house with blacked-out windows. The man bound her to a bed with zip ties and a bike lock, she recalled, and raped her twice on tape, claiming his boss was forcing him to for blackmail. He let her bathe and brush her teeth and offered her pizza and wine. “I admire your strength and wish we’d met under different circumstances,” he told her. Eventually, the kidnapper drove her to her hometown in Southern California.
Vallejo police didn’t buy her story, either. They thought it was strange that a kidnapper would drop Huskins off at her mother’s doorstep with sunglasses and a backpack. The ransom had been paltry, and it hadn’t been paid. Officers noted that she had no visible injuries, aside from “darker impression circles” around her eyes, and she wasn’t crying or shaking. Are you ok with seeing direct quotes without the source attributed in a pitch? Do you want to know where these details came from? I am OK with it, so long as when I follow up with the question — “Where did this quote come from” — the writer has the answer. Tales of a wetsuit-clad visitor wielding lights and lasers sounded straight out of science fiction. In a press conference 10 hours after Huskins’ reappearance, Vallejo Police Lt. Kenny Park, called the incident “an orchestrated event.” He claimed the couple had “plundered valuable resources away from our community” and vowed to explore grounds for criminal charges. The press nicknamed Huskins the “Gone Girl,” after the heroine in Gillian Flynn’s bestselling thriller who faked her own disappearance to frame her husband. “Gone Girl” is what first made headlines after this crime was committed, but Katia waits until several paragraphs into the pitch to mention it. How did you think about where this reference was placed in the pitch, and why did or didn’t this choice work for you? I’m not sure I even thought about the placement, to be honest. The information stood out in the way I think Katia intended — it’s grabby, the kind of thing that would almost certainly be in the elevator pitch of the story, and possibly even in the dek. In retrospect, though, the fact that it comes deeper in the pitch I think also signals that Katia knew the story was bigger than the “Gone Girl” framing so many media outlets had latched onto. It’s one wild fact in a story full of them. It’s not even the wildest! The film version had come out five months earlier, and Huskins, with her long blonde hair, strongly resembled the lead actress, Rosamund Pike.
A strange source came to the couple’s defense. The day after Vallejo police called the kidnapping a hoax, Henry Lee, a reporter at the San Francisco Chronicle, got an email from “email@example.com.” The writer claimed to speak for a group of “professional thieves…a sort of Ocean’s Eleven, gentleman criminals” who had stolen cars before a foray into abduction for ransom. “Ms. Huskins was absolutely kidnapped. We did it,” the letter said. The writer said he deeply regretted his actions and had developed a case of “reverse Stockholm syndrome” after spending time with Huskins. This is a fascinating line — intriguing, and also confusing — about the kidnapper’s mindset. As proof, the sender attached a photo of the fake gun he said was used in the crime. Two days later, Lee received another email describing more details of the kidnapping and expressing a desire to defend “two good people thrown under the bus by the police and media.” Vallejo police didn’t budge. At this point in the pitch, what did you think this story was about? And who did you think would be the main characters? I thought it was about a crime that didn’t make much sense to anyone who experienced it or observed it — and it was possible that even the perpetrator didn’t understand what they were doing or why. I also thought the story was likely in part about people making bad, short-sighted assumptions, and why they did so.
Two months after Huskins’ return, 37-year-old Misty Carausu got a call from her boss. “Pack a bag,” he told her. So far, we’ve been introduced to a handful of different subjects in this pitch. How many people do you like to see in a pitch, and how many is too much? At any point did you find it difficult to keep track of how these subjects related to different plot points? It really depends on the story, but introducing characters for the sake of saying “hey look, there are lots of characters here” isn’t a great idea. In any pitch, information should be included for a reason, because it serves a purpose. In this case, I think Katia was signaling that this wasn’t a story with a clear protagonist, or even a single person whose trajectory would guide the project. It was necessarily about a cast of characters. She did a nice job demonstrating that she (1) knew this and (2) was going to be able to make each character/subject come alive on the page. It was her first day on the job as a police detective in Dublin, a city 40 miles south of Vallejo. Petite and bubbly, with highlighted, blown-out hair and gray-green eyes, Carausu had been a single mother working at Safeway when a sheriff recruited her to the force, after he investigated the sexual assault of her coworker. What did details like this demonstrate to you about Katia’s ability to write? How important are reporting chops vs. writing prowess to you in a pitch? There was no question Katia could write and report. She’d already gathered so much information, and she was able to present it in a compelling way. At the end of the day, the thing that matters most to us at The Atavist is narrative. A pitch can be gorgeously written, but if it lacks a clear sense of plot, we’re going to come back and say “No thanks” or, if we detect a hint of a narrative, “What’s the story here?” Writing ability matters, sure, but it never supersedes the strength of a story idea. The previous night, her colleagues had responded to a call about a home invasion in an upscale community. Around 3:30 in the morning, a couple awoke to find a man in dark clothing pointing a green laser at them. He tried to restrain them with zip ties, but the husband fought back, and his wife ran to the bathroom and called the police. The intruder fled but dropped his cell phone. Police traced it to a Matthew Muller, a 38-year-old man living in his family’s cabin in South Lake Tahoe, a tranquil vacation community about 150 miles from Vallejo. It’s interesting to me that Muller is such a core subject to this story but we aren’t introduced to him until the latter third of this pitch. What were your initial thoughts or impressions on this? What purpose do you think this delayed introduction, or reveal, served? If I recall correctly, Muller’s role in the story became clearer in my follow-ups with Katia, starting with a phone call shortly after I got the pitch. We talked a lot about what new information and nuance she could bring to a story that had already been reported pretty widely. In short, in telling the definitive story about the Vallejo case, what could she add? Her access to Muller and her interest in showing how his own biography was crucial to the tapestry of the story elevated the pitch even further. But it’s important to say here that a pitch doesn’t have to be a rock-solid roadmap for how a story is going to unfold; it’s a suggestion of a path. Part of the writer-editor relationship is figuring out whether that path is the right one, the most scenic one. Almost always we realize there are ways to enhance it or redirect it.
Carausu, wearing tactical gear, was fourth in line when the cops rammed down the door. Muller, who resembled Charlie Sheen, said nothing as officers escorted him out. The cabin was crammed with cardboard boxes, and inward-facing mirrors blocked the windows. As Carausu packed laptops, a ski mask and a stun gun into brown paper bags, she sensed they were onto something more than a single failed home invasion. These details paint a really clear picture and are quite chilling. A few hours later, Carausu and her colleagues searched a stolen white Mustang parked nearby. Muller’s ID had been found on the front seat. In the trunk, Carausu found zip ties and a cache of swim goggles, some coated with black duct tape. Carausu picked one up. A lone blonde hair hung from the strap.
As Carausu dug into Muller’s past, he turned out to be an unlikely suspect. The son of a teacher and school administrator, he grew up in a well-off suburb of Sacramento, got straight A’s and played trumpet in his high-school band. He was an ex-Marine who graduated summa cum laude from Pomona College and then from Harvard Law School, where he was reportedly among the youngest ever to join the school’s faculty. But Muller struggled to keep his career as an immigration attorney afloat amid a diagnosis of bipolar disorder with psychotic features, convinced his bosses were spying on him. In 2011, the San Francisco firm where he’d worked filed a restraining order against him, accusing him of stealing confidential files and trying to cover his tracks. In 2014, he filed for bankruptcy, and the following year he was disbarred. There are a lot of twists to follow and keep track of — and this paragraph, in particular, is rich with details, contextual information and dates. How do you think about what level of detail you want to see in a pitch for a narrative story? Do you pay close attention to how a writer structures a pitch, particularly a long one like this? We do pay close attention to how a writer structures a pitch because it offers a window into their storytelling chops. Are they thinking about narrative propulsion? Are they thinking about tension? Are they thinking about twists and surprises? They don’t have to have the whole project figured out — the editing process exists in no small part to organize a piece’s constituent parts to achieve the best possible narrative — but they do need to show a dedication to plot-driven storytelling.
Detective Carausu’s footwork eventually put Muller on the radar of Vallejo police and the FBI. Authorities also started investigating whether he was behind two similar home invasions in Palo Alto and Mountain View in 2009; he’d been a suspect in the Palo Alto case, but police didn’t have enough evidence to arrest him. In September 2016, Muller pleaded guilty to one count of kidnapping, and the following March he was sentenced to 40 years in prison. In January 2018, the Solano County district attorney filed rape charges against him in state court; a trial date has not yet been set. In March 2018, Huskins and Quinn won a $2.5 million settlement after suing the city of Vallejo and two of its police officers for defamation.
This stranger-than-fiction tale has never been chronicled beyond local news articles, a 20/20 interview with the victims and a brief WIRED story in 2015 that focused on Muller’s technical prowess. I’d like to recount the narrative of this bizarre crime, including the untold story of Muller’s psychological decline and the delusions that drove him to violence. I think the story will illuminate the extent to which pop culture and the modern fictions we’re deluged with mediate our experience of the world, sometimes becoming more real than reality itself. To me, this previous sentence is really at the heart of what the story is truly about and unites all of the different threads that run through it. In your mind, what was the benefit of building up the pitch and then waiting until the end to express this core theme, rather than putting it high up and shaping the way that the reader filtered subsequent paragraphs? I could already sense by the time I got to this sentence that this was likely the heart of the project — a meditation on how fiction influences reality, particularly when it comes to the true-crime genre. That Katia then articulated it so clearly was perfect. Atavist stories have a lot of buildup, so it’s absolutely fine when a pitch does too. We’re also interested in letting stories speak for themselves, rather than banging readers over the head with whatever “the point” is. Katia showed that she could do that, while also being very clear about her grasp of the point. These delusions found their extreme in Muller, who variously saw himself as Batman, part of an Ocean’s Eleven-style posse, a black market “startup” with a Robin Hood ethos, and (as a Harvard alum writing a manifesto holed up in a cabin) a foil to the Unabomber. But we also see it in Vallejo police detective Mathew Mustard, who couldn’t help viewing Huskins through the “Gone Girl” lens, and the cops who had trouble seeing a handsome former Marine and Harvard alum as a criminal when he was questioned in connection with earlier home invasions. Carausu, the detective who cracked the case, talks about feeling like she’s acting out the detective shows she watches on TV. Muller’s wife, who married him right after he was sentenced, is following her own script, with Muller as underdog, victim and advocate for the innocent. The media and legal narratives largely paint Muller as a calculating monster, either downplaying the role of his mental illness or feeding into cultural tropes of the congenitally evil maniac portrayed in films like Psycho or American Psycho. We live in a kind of surreality, seeing the real in terms of the manufactured, and those delusions can take us astray. What a lovely and powerful sentence.
I have access to many of the people involved. I interviewed Muller’s mother, Joyce Zarback, who shared previously unreported details about his life and a series of mental breakdowns leading up to his criminal convictions, as well as psychological evaluations, letters, and family photos. I’ve begun interviewing Muller himself in Solano County Jail via video conference. He has not spoken to the press in depth and has agreed not to talk with other magazine writers. He is comfortable discussing anything other than the crimes he is accused of on the record at this point; he has agreed to talk about the crimes given a written agreement that the story will not be published before his trial is over.
Muller’s third wife, Diana Dai, will likely speak with me. Muller’s father, half-sister, and most recent ex-wife are also considering talking. I’ve interviewed Dublin police detective Misty Carausu, and other detectives on the case are also willing to speak. I’ve met with Huskins and Quinn, who are now married, and had several, brief conversations. They aren’t willing to talk because they’re working on a book, but may participate in fact checking.At the preliminary hearing, the victims testified in greater detail than they ever have about their experience, providing ample fodder for a narrative of the crime. Quinn’s brother is also considering speaking with me. I’m struck by how much legwork Katia had already accomplished and the clarity of her path forward. Is the depth of reporting that Katia had already pursued typical of Atavist pitches you read? I would say Katia had done a bit more legwork than the average writer who pitches us. Freelancing is hard, and I don’t expect people pitching us to have done a ton of uncompensated reporting. But we do need writers to show some degree of legwork.When we’re evaluating a pitch, we are looking for whether a writer has a clear sense of the narrative and to be convinced that they’re the right person to tell the story because of how they’ve positioned themselves vis a vis the subject matter. Anyone can read a news brief or a couple of articles about, say, a criminal case or compelling adventure story and craft a good pitch about it. But do they have the access (to sources, to documents, to on-the-ground events) that they need? If they don’t, can they get it, and how? If it’s a buzzy/newsy topic, have they secured exclusivity? I have reviewed court records related to Muller’s failed Dublin home invasion and will reach out to the couple involved (they testified in court, but I haven’t seen them quoted in the press). I will also reach out to Muller’s classmates and teachers, former colleagues, neighbors, Quinn’s ex-fiancée (Muller’s intended victim), the victims’ lawyers, and other law enforcement officers involved in the investigations. I have access to detailed court records from Muller’s criminal cases and the victims’ suit against the city of Vallejo, and I will attend Muller’s trial in Solano County.
Would you be interested in this story for The Atavist?
Carly Stern is a freelance reporter based in San Francisco who covers housing, disability policy, urban life and economic inequality.